Interview with book designer Jonathan Pelham

We love putting a spotlight on the publishing industry. To that end, we spoke to designer Jonathan Pelham. As both a freelancer and a senior designer with 4th Estate, Jonathan has designed covers for books by all sorts of authors, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Molly Antopol.

How did you get into designing book covers?

I started off as a cover art worker, which involved doing things like taking in corrections and preparing artwork for print. I was only supposed to be there four months to help shift a backlog of work but somehow managed to make myself indispensable and ended up staying five years and being promoted to junior designer.

What is the typical process for designing a book cover, and how long does it take?

The book’s editor usually gives the designer a brief consisting mainly of a list of practical information like what size the book will be, the ISBN and so on, as well as a rough outline of the plot and some comparable authors. This is the point at which I start noting down ideas and sketching roughs. I will normally read as much of the book as I feel I need to before working up the sketches and notes that seem most fitting.

Time-wise, it entirely depends. The standard time is about six months. Sometimes we’re briefed a month or two before going to press, which is normally for books that have been dropped into the schedule to capitalise on current events or a hit movie. This kind of hair-trigger publishing seems to be becoming more usual.

Sometimes you get a year or so to work on it. Most of the time a cover is designed before the book has been written, which normally isn’t a huge problem, but if you get an author who takes a long time to complete their book the job might literally drag on for years.

What are the favourite covers you’ve designed?

I’m still very proud of the cover I did for Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. I designed a ridiculously fascistic-looking flag, obviously in reference to the confederate flag (this was happening just as the protests in Fergusson were beginning). I got it made and hung it on my living room wall to photograph it. It was really horrible having this ugly thing I’d made hanging proudly on my wall. But I liked the idea of the confused aggression of the flag against a blank, institutional-looking wall because WtB is essentially a novel about the dynamics of racism. The author response was the best I’ve ever received, just the single word: ‘Badass’.

What do you feel is the key role of the cover designer?

In my view, design should always engage a viewer in some kind of discourse. I’m not interested in literally illustrating the content because that’s what the words are for. Peter Mendelsund has written some good things about how book covers are always a supporting work so only ever exist in relation to a text. This doesn’t necessarily mean the two have to harmonise. Turning the image against the text can sometimes foreground the book’s content more powerfully than having them speak in unison. Generally, though, I think the cover needs to convey the soul of a book. I know this conclusion is hopelessly vague and anodyne, but I honestly can’t think of a better way of encapsulating it.

How much creative freedom do you have when cover designing? Are you quite aware of the commercial appeal of a design, or do you focus on aesthetics first?

I always make a point of experimenting and of designing what I want to design. If the result feels appropriate to the book I will present it and argue for it. Quite often this means arguing against ‘market logic’ and trying to convince people whose job it is to make sure the company doesn’t blow all its money on terrible shit that your bizarre flights of fancy make intellectual and economic sense. Which is very difficult.

How often, if ever, are a designer’s proposals flat-out rejected?

Flat-out rejection is fairly common and can occasionally be dispiriting but I’m a big believer in giving the client what they need not what they want.

What would you say are the current prevailing trends in cover design? Are there are occasional game-changing shifts?

At the moment, David Pearson, Gray318 and Jamie Keenan are generally considered to be the ‘Big Three’. Jon Gray is largely responsible for the resurgence of the hand-drawn type that we’ve seen over the past decade or so. He does it beautifully, but in the hands of others it can often feel a little thin. Basically, I think this tweet by Sam Weber is correct in its analysis, but the same can be said of any visual crutch or trope.

Which other book cover designers do you admire most?

Here are some designers I’m always excited to see new work from:

You know you’re in a safe pair of hands if Peter Mendelsund, Oliver Munday or Jamie Keenan are designing book covers for you

I’m mad keen on Rachel Willey’s book covers lately. [Her website is currently under construction.]

It’s always a beautiful day when Michael Oswell does some new grafikdesign.

Raf Rennie and Hassan Rahim have amazingly dark and arcane work.

Mark Webber’s layouts for The Wire magazine were hugely influential for me.

What kind of impact, if any, has digital publishing had on cover design? Do you approach cover design for an e-book differently to a cover for a print edition?

I can’t speak all that authoritatively on digital publishing’s impact on cover design because every book I’ve worked on has been a physical edition first and foremost. So the e-book cover for me has always just been a JPG of the print edition. Sometimes I’ll boost the colours a little because computer screens have a wider gamut than printed matter, so I can get the reds or blues looking brighter. You also have to be conscious that your design will need to work well at thumbnail sizes. Vexillographers (flag designers) often start their work at very small sizes so they know their design will work well from a hundred feet away flapping in the breeze. A similar principle can be applied to cover thumbnails on Amazon. In the main, though, I don’t tend to consider the e-book design as a separate part of the process.

What are your ambitions for the future? Is there a particular direction you’d like to move in?

No ambitions besides working for myself and only on things I believe in.

To see more of Jonathan’s work, or to contact him, visit his website.

Interview by Max Goodwin Brown

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