Judging a Book by Its Cover
Colleen AF Venable has the distinction of being the art and design editor for First Second Books (or, as she points out, since she’s the only designer on staff, she’s actually the entire design department). We wanted to talk with her so we could see all of the work and thought that goes into the design of a graphic novel…everything from how the cover catches the reader’s eye to how the packaging suits the needs of the story. Here’s what she had to say. And as a bonus, she gave us a tour through her creative process on three upcoming First Second books!
What does your job entail?
I do interiors, covers, lettering…the normal design stuff, but the “editor” portion of my title means I also orchestrate a small battalion of amazing freelancers, help choose artists, and occasionally acquire books. I’ve been with First Second for two and a half years now.
What’s your background, and what were you doing before you came to First Second?
I graduated from Staten Island’s super tiny Wagner College with a double major of English and Studio Art. (I don’t draw anymore, but I used to think drawing draperies was fun and was decent enough to earn a degree in it. Unfortunately, a graphic novel about a bunch of draperies that have adventures with draperies isn’t all that saleable.) I never used Photoshop, InDesign, or really learned anything about digital art or design. In 2002, through the power of a quite unprofessional cover letter focused mainly on my love of Roald Dahl’s The Twits, I landed an entry-level job as the receptionist/librarian at The Children’s Book Council (CBC), the national nonprofit association of children’s publishers. The library housed copies of all our members’ books that were published that year. Everything that was published passed by my desk. It was probably the best job I could have ever had in terms of learning about cover design. First Second was a member, and their inaugural season was cataloged by my hands and then promptly devoured by my eyes in a reading frenzy. I was in love and wound up part of the cheering half of the crowd of librarians and publishers when American Born Chinese won the Printz Award.
As for my road into comics, I grew up obsessed with newspaper comics. I’m talking un-ironical Garfield wall-calendar obsessed (though in my defense, I loved Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side more). Everyone in my family knew that the comics page was mine first and every day I read it religiously. I never read any mainstream comics, and my knowledge of any superheroes came from my love of animated series. (Cartoon Gambit will always hold a place in my heart and libido.) But in 2004 I found this whole other world of comics. The Webcomics boom: Cat and Girl, Dinosaur Comics, White Ninja, Achewood…my newspaper obsession was transferred over to pixels, and I read everything I could find. It was hard to not fall in love with the passionate D.I.Y. feel of the whole movement. I started attending small-press shows, making my own webcomic, hand-sewing my own minis, selling things that took me four hours to make for $5. I became friends with a lot of indie cartoonists and dove deep into the world of graphic novels, reading at a speed that made up for the 26 years I had been terrified to step into a comic book shop. (Note: My first was New York’s Jim Hanley’s, which not only made my fears of comic book shops disappear but also a good portion of my bank account.) At this point, I had left the CBC and was working as the marketing manager for Roaring Brook Press, First Second’s parent company.
Through fate, or luck, or Eisner-winning dogs, I got my job at First Second. When the wonderful Danica Novgorodoff left as designer to work on her books full-time, they interviewed people for months, but it was when they needed a quick online ad made for Laika winning the Eisner that they asked the Roaring Brook marketing department to step in. I whipped a little animated gif together quickly, which Mark Siegel, our genius leader, saw and became convinced I was this brilliant designer hiding inside of a girl who had never opened InDesign in her life. He offered me the job and Macmillan sent me back to night school to learn how to use the programs that would become 95 percent of my job. Somehow, I survived the learning curve, and despite the fact that I probably broke world records in cursing trying to figure out how to do things those first few months, taking this job was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What are some of your favorite projects, the ones that you are most proud of in the end?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite, since it’s the details that I am truly proud of. Little things like the spot gloss over the eyes of the creepy smiling background kids in Brain Camp. Or the fake battered stickers of Gene Yang’s other books I put on the back cover of Level Up, helping keep the “battery cover” closed. (Because we all know the battery cover on those old game consoles ALWAYS broke.) The tiny foil stars on the cover of Foiled, which were so small it took me weeks to convince the printer to even try them. I’m crazy excited to see people’s response to Anya’s Ghost, which was the first time I was allowed to do embossing/debossing, and when I have a copy in my hands I can’t stop petting the indented phantom in her hair like a kitten. The cover of Resistance makes me smile every time for a million little reasons, including the day at MoCCA I saw a kid pick it up and whisper “Awwwwesome.”
Do you have any guiding philosophies when designing a cover or design look for a book?
It’s really all about collaboration. In the beginning, I’m just a guide, trying to steer artists in the right direction, talking things out until the artist and I have that eureka moment—which can take anywhere from 5-45 back-and-forth discussion sketches. I really think my real talent as a designer doesn’t have all that much to do with design but has to do with the fact I really like people and talking books.
I’m a big believer in starting on paper. If I started directly on the computer, I’d spend forever obsessing over pixel-up-pixel-down and get distracted from the overall picture, not realizing the thing I’d been trying to get “perfect” for four hours was actually a really bad design. I’m not a fan of Photoshop shortcuts. For instance, if I need a pattern, I go out searching for the pattern in the real world, taking pictures of walls, rocks, plants, sidewalks (though I’ve yet to be able to use a New York City sidewalk…and am now very aware how gross the places I put my feet are). Like the missing sock in Highlights magazine, a good number of the covers I’ve done have photographs hidden—hopefully much better than that obvious sock—somewhere inside.
When I’m getting close to done, I always play the eye-game, look quickly and see where my eye goes to first. Do I want it to be the logo? Do I want it to be the eye of my main character? Did I just look at that one tiny block of yellow on some character’s shoe? I think a LOT about age groups, partially because of my marketing background, but also because just because someone is 8 doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also get a kick-ass cover they’ll love for life. Like books, covers for kids and teens shouldn’t talk down to them, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, covers for adults can actually still be playful. I look at all of my designs as small thumbnails, because if they don’t work as 1" thumbs, they’ll never look good across a bookstore, or more commonly as a tiny little image among a whole bunch of tiny little images online. I prefer striking more graphic approaches and designs rather than muddled convoluted scenes and over-processed logos. I want my covers to be the kind that make you walk 100 feet of bookstore carpet to see what it might be…even if you just saw the spine. Also in my fantasy world you’ll notice there are still really big bookstores.
After the cover is completely done and everyone loves it, from the editors to sales to the creators—it’d kill me to send out a cover that the creators themselves don’t like—I then spend six hours doing pixel-up-pixel-down until someone comes to pry the files from my fingers as I scream “WAIT, JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES.”
For fun, we asked Colleen to walk us through the creative process on some recent memorable covers. Here’s what she had to say:
Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill (coming in September 2011)
This was such a tricky book to design, but the result has quickly become one of my favorites. The story of book banning in a small town, where an awkward teenage boy needs to learn to stand up for himself—we wanted to do something symbolic, something that could visually represent a community torn apart. One of the best things about working on this cover is that the creators are both artists, which meant twice as much collaboration! We started out with rough thumbs.
We finally narrowed it down to two designs, which I took to a sales meeting to get a response.
The room overwhelmingly loved the tearing cover, so we pushed further in that direction. One of the problems with this idea was it was reeeeaally hard to do without it looking…um, how should I put this…a bit obscene. It’s crazy how much a piece of paper can look like a pair of pants!
We experimented a whole different variety of ways a book could be torn, including taking a whole bunch of photos to get the hands right. This whole time sending everything back and forth and bouncing off to new ideas.
We finally nailed the composition, including being sure to make “the hands angry!” but the book they were tearing was just as important as the drawing. MK Reed wrote a fictional section of the book-within-a-book that was being banned in the story. I took her section, laid it out to fit in the design (and make sure the most juicy bits were covered by the hands), printed it out, crumpled it up a variety of times, and scanned all of the crumpled pages.
Now we were getting down to the O.C.D. portion of covers I really loved! Jonathan Hill did a whole bunch of color variations and we added small things or removed small things, like the black outlines on the pages and another layer of scanned crumpled paper for more texture.
I tweaked the colors and worked to fade the text back, so the book would pass the eye-game and you’d look at the hands first, and then the title of the book second…and then, and only then, get lost in the awesome mini-story on the front. Here’s the front and the back; I’m really happy with the way this one came out….
…and also love there’s a nice spot for a quote as soon as people read and love this book as much as we do. Always kills me to have a perfect cover design get ruined by a perfect cover quote!
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (coming August 2011)
In every book there’s something I obsess over. With Feynman, it was the cover colors. I loved the simple line art Leland Myrick had sent along. I just needed to color it and be done! Um…yeah. I don’t even want to say how many color variations I have on this computer, but here’s a small glimpse.
As I played with the color, other things started to morph. Background equations got put in, then diagrams, then taglines; the logo was originally Feynman’s signature, but felt so insignificant in weight compared to the strong portrait.
I wanted him to feel like a force of nature, an explosion of ideas. I was convinced everyone would hate this cover when I made it since the colors were so bold and unlike anything we’ve ever done, but strangely enough, it got an overwhelming great response. The button for me was putting that quote from Feynman’s mother on there.
I also want to note this is First Second’s first jacketed hardcover, which meant I got to do a case design as well. I’m obsessed with case designs, as witnessed in this blog post. There is a different case design…but I’m not going to give it away here. Just peek under the jacket. And as a rule, always peek under the jackets. I know I do.
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim (coming December 2011)
As opposed to Feynman, our collector’s redesign of Same Difference was a case of me obsessing over the logo, maybe not so much “obsessing” as “being stuck.” Derek Kirk Kim’s masterpiece was one of the first graphic novels I ever bought, and it was intimidating to have to redesign something that already existed. Sometimes it’s hard to work with people you admire. It can be paralyzing. (Though now I look back at the thought of being terrified of Derek and laugh, since I adore the guy now!) I was actually really unhappy with my first approaches to the cover design. The art came from Derek in an almost-perfect-from-the-start solid state, complete with a gorgeous idea: A hardcover with a clear vinyl jacket. The fish would be on one layer, the main characters in the sink beneath. We nearly fell over from excitement when the idea got approved in the budget.
And then I flailed.
I knew the original type treatment Derek had done was distracting from the fish and didn’t quite blend enough with the overall look. But it took months for me to even come up with something I even half-liked. I kept thinking things like “This is a collector’s edition! It needs to be stunning!” It wasn’t until I stopped worrying about the previous editions that I let myself start to actually have fun with it that it started to come together. One of the big plot points in the book are these letters, and I started to think back to high school and passing notes, notes in both the fun and traumatizing forms. I started to look for fonts that looked like they were made with paper, and while I did find one I loved, it still didn’t feel organic enough to really mesh with the art. So I went and found some notebook paper…the only blue-lined paper in my house: my own half-filled notebook from 8th grade, where I seemed to currently heart “the West Point Tours Bus Driver” (I really did! Though not enough to find out his name.) and was more determined to doodle than to actually take notes. I loved the faded lines, the aged partially see-through paper. All things that would soften it into the design and help give the impression of submerged sheets.
I tore out a page and measured out small rectangles, so my letters would generally be the same height and width. I then cut, making whatever letter shapes my hands wanted to, but keeping them generally sans serif-type blocks for consistency. I didn’t plan what I cut, just watched a movie and worked at the same time, trying to avoid the overthinking I had been doing the whole time. After I had a pile of letters, I scanned them, then crumpled them and scanned them, then got them wet and scanned them (note: This step is not advised for anyone reading this! Apologies to Travis Nichols for almost destroying his scanner…), then waited a day and scanned the now-dry crinkled remains.
Keeping with the notes theme, I hand-wrote Derek’s name and the sales tagline in messy but readable letters. Derek and I went back and forth at this point, moving fish, dotting I’s (or at least moving the dots of I’s), until we were both really happy. And so far every person we’ve shown this cover to has fallen down in excitement. Or at least come close.
Just got the first test proof back from the printer this week and I can’t wait to put this one on my shelf next to my earlier edition. If this were a sitcom, some muzak would start to play here, and I’d talk about the lessons I learned: How you should just relax and sometimes stop worrying about what others are going to think. How if you create a design you truly love, there’s a pretty good chance others will too. But I’m not a big fan of sitcoms and HOLY CRAP, I HAVE TO DESIGN PAUL POPE’S NEW BOOK. If you need me, I’ll be hiding under my desk.
At least I can get some good texture photos of the floor while I’m down there.