TOAST Magazine

Q&A | Creative Director of Vintage Books

BOOK CLUB

We spoke to Suzanne Dean, Creative Director of Vintage Books, about the processes involved in designing a book cover...

Was your journey to your current role a straightforward one?

I was a child who spent hours drawing. It was obvious I was going to study design. When I graduated I worked for a design firm that specialised in food packaging for companies like Safeway and Marks & Spencer. I found it conventional and stifling. I knew it was time to move on when I was told my Gustav Klimt-style design for rich and creamy yoghurts was too exciting.  Luckily, I was asked if I might be interested in applying for a job designing book covers at Penguin. I had always been a reader and I loved it. I had found my niche. I stayed at Penguin for three years, and then moved to Picador Books before being offered an Art Director role at Random House. In 2000 I became Creative Director for Vintage.

Can you tell us about the process ­from the brief through to the finished thing?

I am given a brief and manuscript by the editor eleven months before the book is due to be published. I always read the whole manuscript, and make notes and sketches in the margins. I create a mood board - which can sometimes be so big it covers the wall of my office. I have about six weeks, at this point, to come up with a cover design, which sounds a lot of time, but bear in mind that I am juggling about thirty titles at any one time.  I might commission a suitable illustrator, photographer or calligrapher. Sometimes I create the image myself.  I tend to experiment with visual options. The great thing about working on book covers is that each job is unique.

Do you always work closely with the author?

There are many authors who I have worked closely with over the years, such as Mark Haddon, Ian McEwan and Haruki Murakami. I started designing Julian Barnes’s covers when I was at Picador (my previous job) which means I am in the unusual position of having worked on his books for over twenty years. Receiving the new manuscript is always exciting, and I think we both enjoy discussing the selection of visuals for a new title. Julian has a very good eye for design.

Is it difficult to keep everybody happy?

It certainly can be! I believe that if you are working with a great editor and author, who trust you and like your work, you are half way there to a good cover. I try to reflect the essence of the book in my designs. An important part of my job as a book jacket designer is thinking about the first impression a cover makes. Book covers can be a visual foreword for the book. The cover needs to catch the eye, engage the potential reader and get them to pick the book up. (It is said you only have a couple of seconds to catch a browser’s eye as they move through a bookshop.) The design has to do this in a unique, creative and striking way on a single page. It is partly this format restriction that makes cover design so interesting.

Have you worked on any controversial designs?

Nothing I have worked on has been banned...

Which designers/book covers do you most admire?

Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Saul Bass and Karel Capek are my favourite designers from the last century. They all worked during the fifties and sixties and their work still seems fresh and groundbreaking today. I am hugely inspired by them. With regards to contemporary designers, I also admire the work of Jon Gray, Kelly Blair, Rodrigo Corral, Coralie Bickford-Smith, Peter Mendelsund...I could go on, there are so many fabulous designers out there.

Can you describe your workspace?

My studio is a culmination of many years and many projects. The shelves are crammed full of books punctuated by random objects that have been used on covers; an old typewriter, antique tins and wooden letters. The latest mood board covers the wall. Next to my Mac, I have a collection of paints, inks and brushes. I often paint covers in the office. 

How was the process of designing the new series of Vintage minis?

Everybody in the design studio (eight designers in total) worked together on the Vintage Minis. A group project like this only comes along once a year, and it’s something we all enjoy. 
 A series offers different design opportunities and problems. Each title needs to be treated individually, but at the same time the title needs to unify within the series look. The playfulness of the Minis design allowed a great freedom. I particularly like the way the frame is used with the abstract imagery. We have also had the opportunity to design a Vintage Minis window for Foyles Bookshop in London. 

Have you designed any of the titles in our TOAST Book Club?

I personally worked on The Only Story and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. I spent quite a bit of last year working on them.  I am pleased with the end results. I think the online Book Club is brilliant. I love to have new recommendations and to read interviews with the authors. I am not part of a book club, mostly due to the fact that I am always reading a manuscript…

Vintage publishes writing from around the world, with authors from Virginia Woolf and Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan, as well as new and exciting names including Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kayo Chingonyi and Emma Cline. The Vintage Minis series, launched in 2017, is a collection of 30 short books (and counting) by some of their most celebrated writers on the experiences that make us human – from birth to death and everything in between.

For a chance to win the full set of Vintage Minis, simply comment below telling us which is your favourite. 

A winner will be chosen at random and announced on Friday 29th June 2018.  

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