Creating book covers is a dream design job. Many of us have it on our bucket list. Few of us find ourselves designing book covers full-time.
Janet Hansen is one of those special few who designs book jackets for a living. In almost a decade in the industry, she's designed for a range of clients and publishing houses, including The New Yorker, the New York Times, Penguin Press, Vanity Fair, New Directions and Farrar Straus & Giroux. She currently works as an associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf in Manhattan, while freelancing everything from rebrand projects to New York Times illustrations on the side.
In this interview, Hansen takes us behind the scenes of her work. We learn just how much freedom a cover designer actually has, the standard process and strategy when designing a book cover, and a lot more.
Some of us imagine a jacket designer collaborating closely with the author on the cover, finding a way to capture the essence of the book in one beautiful image – only after reading it and pondering its themes, symbols and characters deeply on their own. I'm sure it’s not (always) quite as romantic as that. How does it typically go for you?
While I do enjoy reading and visually analyzing a manuscript, it’s true that I sometimes am not able to, due to deadlines and abundance of projects. There’s also a surprising number of people involved in the cover approval process: publishers, agents, editors, sales — so it is not likely for me to be in direct contact with the author without many others involved.
It’s also important to remember too that while writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement. My job is to find a balance between capturing the essence of the book while also making it “commercial” enough to entice retailers into marketing it and readers into buying it.
Like any design work, I imagine there are publishers who just “get it” and give you full creative freedom, and others who don’t. Is that accurate, or are you typically given freedom to explore whatever direction you choose?
I’m lucky enough to work with people who allow a good amount of creative freedom. I will admit though, due to years of working with a group, I sometimes habitually steer my design into approaches I know will gain a more mass appeal. It’s important to break out of that habit though, and to test what a book cover could be even if it means more recurring rejection.
There are of course instances where an editor or author requests a very specific approach. I find that in these cases it’s sort of like shooting yourself in the foot.
I am curious how far your final drafts usually are from your first ones. Can you walk us through the journey of a specific jacket design, from concept to final design?
Here's one that I think has changed in an interesting way…
Here was my first sketch for “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” (out in February 2021).
While the feedback was fairly positive, there was pushback on the idea being primarily a playing card. Also was pushback on the script type. I was initially concerned about removing the look of the playing card, but after trying it I realized it still worked well (and maybe even was better?!).
What I found out when I changed the type though, is that it wasn’t really complimenting the illustration in the way that the handwritten script was — it was a much weaker cover.
I begged for permission to hire an illustrator to rework this quite amateur illustration. And with Kelly Blair and John Gall’s blessing I was able to hire the very talented Jon Kutt at High Road Design, who elevated my wonky sketch into a beautiful work.
I presented this one to our Pantheon team and there was concern again about the type (womp womp!). So I went with the more book cover friendly typeface that complimented the subject matter well. Final approved sketch below.
Through experiences like this, have you learned any specific ways to not only pitch your designs, but fight for them? Any tips for designers who also face the possibility of design by committee?
I actually don’t do much of the talking! I tend to just listen. I don’t rule out criticism or suggestions until I have thoughtfully considered them. It’s also important to speak up if you feel strongly about why a design does or does not work — and to back up your opinion with facts and examples.
What are a few of your favorite published covers we can find on bookshelves (or online)?
I’m really excited about Hiroko Oyamada’s new novel ‘The Hole’ that is coming out this October. And an old jacket of mine I never cringe at is ‘Voices in the Night’ by Steven Millhauser.
When it comes to the design I do, we have systems and best practices in place that guide the work. Are there any kind of best practices for designing book covers?
Reading the manuscript is step one for me. If I don’t have the time, I at least read several chapters. I highlight recurring themes or any visuals that I think could represent the book well, then create a grid of these themes and try to think of ways to visually represent them all. I usually will narrow my ideas down to three different concepts, and then focus solely on those.
It seems like a practice in restraint. Any insights you can share with us for narrowing your focus and creating your own restraints with the playing field seems wide open?
While I think of visuals that capture the essence of the book, it also needs to work well with its title. I try to steer clear of imagery that is used often on covers, and instead go with something that is visually interesting to me personally.
I usually find my inspiration outside of book cover design, in fine art or film. If the concept is one I have not seen on a book cover, and it is abstract enough that it could be interpreted in more than one way, I think that is a good thing.
Are there any specific trends you notice happening right now in cover design?
Anything with large and legible type seems to be of trend, because of the concern of how a cover will read online at a thumbnail size. The problem with this trend is it does not necessarily look as nice on its printed counterpart.
"While writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement."
Do you sometimes have to make an effort to design for the book, rather than leaving “your personal mark?” Or do you consider yourself having a recognizable strength or style when it comes to your jacket designs?
I’m less interested in leaving my mark than I am in making something that I think is refreshing to see in a sea of book covers. I don’t always succeed in that goal, but it’s something to aim towards. And of course, I have certain tendencies, like leaning towards simplicity or design that is stripped down and clean!
I’d imagine it’s beneficial that you enjoy and resonate with the story you’re designing – but do you ever struggle with getting TOO close to a story you love, to the point where it clouds your perspective for the design?
There are times I have loved the book so much that it clouded my perspective as a designer to feel the need to market or “commercialize” it. If I don’t enjoy a manuscript, those are the covers I find the most difficult to get approved. A connection is missing.
Has the evolution of the book business – namely, our short attention spans, the rise of short-form, ephemeral content, book sales sadly moving mostly online to behemoths like Amazon, etc. – affected your work in any noticeable way?
My career began around the time Amazon and e-books came to rise, so I have always been working alongside this evolution. I try not to let this change how I design, but it’s sort of inevitable I guess. I still am a strong believer that the quality of the printed book should come first.
Despite everything happening online now, we are still (thanks to Instagram) more visual than ever. And we all know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know we’ve all noticed and purchased books based on the cover alone. Do you think, in this current age, a cover is still a valuable sales tool?
A good cover is a signifier that the process of putting this book out in the world has been thoughtful. It lets you know that the people putting it together care about it. And if a cover is good, people are more likely to share it on their social media. There’s so many more outlets for advertising in that way.
Are there any book covers someone else designed that you wish you’d designed yourself? What are they and why do you love them?
When I saw ‘Notes from a Fog’ by Ben Marcus (designed by Jamie Keenan for Granta Books), I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. It’s like nothing I have seen before. The reversed type, that photograph — just painfully brilliant, unexpected and deadpan hilarious.
Another brilliant design is Na Kim’s jacket for ‘Tegan and Sara’s ‘High School.’ The handwriting in combination with the mirror effect gives off perfect high school vibes while somehow feeling like highbrow book art. I couldn’t imagine a better solution for this jacket.
Most book cover designers I know love reading. Do you? If so, what are a few books you’d recommend to us (either ones you enjoyed recently, or all-time favorites)?
While I love to read, my reading for pleasure has gone out the window since the pandemic! It’s since been replaced with reading for work and reading how to raise a baby properly. Two books I’ve enjoyed thoroughly for work recently are ‘Whereabouts’ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Speak, Okinawa’ by Elizabeth Mika Brina.