Secrets of the Book Designer: Falling in Love With a Book, Taking a Risk
Designing the cover for Steven Millhauser's Voices in the Night
As a book cover designer, my personal goal—aside from expressing, visually, the voice of the author—is to create an eye-catching book jacket. A lot of book covers can be readily categorized within a sub-genre of aesthetics: mystery, chick-lit, sci-fi, etc. Readers’ visual tastes evolve, however, and these genre-specific design trends can quickly become dated—my job as a designer is to avoid that, and I’m lucky enough to work at a publishing house that’s open to experimentation.
The first thing I do before designing a cover is read the manuscript, learn about the author, and research anything I can on the subject of the book. Designing the jacket cover for Steven Millhauser’s Voices in the Night was such an amazing opportunity for me—having fallen in love with the book, I felt an immense pressure to do it justice. I highlighted details unique to the stories and noted recurring themes that tied them together.
A particular theme that runs through Millhauser’s stories is the divide between the mundane rules of logic and a kind of magical realism: the characters all seem to be grasping for the unattainable or for some form of fulfillment for something fantastical. This movement was what I wanted to capture through design—I kept imagining something grasping at the stories, to take them off course. That idea led me to approach this cover in an abstract, almost illusory way.
I researched art from the fables and fairytales that some of the stories are based on and tried to put a unique twist on them. After working through these initial ideas (below), I felt they were too specific and did not represent the stories as a whole:
I then started to play with the typography. I had a die-cut made, and tried shining light through it and photographing the piece. I liked the idea of this, but I think the execution wasn’t 100 percent true to the tone of the stories:
I started doing research on illusions and op art and with this in mind I came across the perfect illusion at the Guggenheim. Black and white illusions execute the most effective trick to the eye, and this stark palette also seemed very appropriate since some of the stories are eerily haunted themselves:
I created and presented many versions, but my art director immediately chose this cover, which was the only one sent to the editor and author for approval:
Millhauser liked it: “Those straight lines represent the rational, logical, intellectual structures of my stories; the ripples are the forces underneath that feed the structures and threaten at every moment to overwhelm them. The struggle between these two kinds of energy is what a story is, and to see it expressed so vividly—even if I’m inventing everything—is astonishing.”