Sunday, November 3, 2013

Cover Story #1: The Luminaries. Designed by Jenny Grigg

There’s a stack of great covers out on the shelves at the moment, October being the month where publishers place their best-sellers and major titles of the year. Jenny Grigg’s design for Eleanor Catton’s ManBooker prize-winning The Luminaries is my personal fave. Jenny kindly agreed to be interviewed about designing The Luminaries.

Here’s the first in an ongoing series of cover stories with specific designers about specific books.

SC: Firstly, huge and hearty congratulations. It’s a most stunning cover, truly iconic. Can you give me a an idea of the timeline for designing The Luminaries. Did you work on the text?
JG: I knew from fairly early on book was a hardcover edition with a very wide spine so I planned to take advantage of what was going to be a solid object - a wide spine is a third surface to work with, great structural element. There was a fair amount of time in the early stages as Granta knew this was their big  book of the year. They place alot of importance on their covers and organise plenty of time to develop and tune ideas. I wasn't involved with the internal design at all. 

SC: Can you tell us a bit about the brief?
JG: The brief was very well considered and quite detailed but not in a restrictive way. The frame was setby describing what was going to work from a publishing point of view, but no attempt was made to find content for the frame. I had a clear idea of who the market was and that the cover must look like both historical and experimental fiction. It was an excellent brief. The publishing team knew what they wanted and were great at articulating that, great at setting the stage for visuals.

SC: Did you present more than one concept originally?
JG: I worked on many concepts to get my own head around the options; there are always so many possible directions that a design can take. At the beginning I was going around in circles, I had many nice elements but not a particular concept to make sense of anything. Once I thought of the idea of using phases of the moon as a graphic hook, I began forwarding designs to Granta. I knew it was a concept that could survive various incarnations. I knew that the grid of moon shapes communicated the novel was experimental, and would provide a vehicle for historical imagery.

SC: Set in the mid 19th century, I love, but am intrigued by the use of Futura for the type. Did you explore serif options and what was it that made you choose Futura?
JG: Yes, we explored many type options. In fact the moons in various iterations remained present all the way through the design process; it was the type that was thoroughly tested. Serifs gave a softer, historical, predictable feel; sans serif a more modern, small type positioned vertically more idiosyncratic ....  In the end , the large, confident, sans serif (in combination with four moons) communicated a modern, confident book. We found a good balance between historical and contemporary.

SC: In the US, the book is published by Little Brown with 12 crescents, smaller type and the ‘author of’ line, whilst the UK has opted for the more mysterious and cleaner 4 crescents. Can you talk a little about the differences working with overseas publishers?  
JG: The US picked up an earlier version of the design, apparently they preferred it because it looked more historical; I guess it felt more suitable for their market, they also chose to print it with a very reduced spine width by managing the internal paper stock.

SC: Clearly there would have been a huge amount of expectation around The Luminaries? Does this hamper or enhance the design potential?
JG: There was an enormous amount of expectation around the book and there's a responsibility to deliver a jacket everyone wants to work with. There was alot of hope for the book before it was time to think about the cover so it was important to get the design 'right'. The cover introduces the book to the market place and people's instinctive reactions are worth tapping into, or attempting to second guess.

Speaking generally as a cover designer though, it is frustrating when choices are being made that go against your design instincts. This wasn't the case with The Luminaries as there was an in-house art director who could weigh in if conversations were getting off track. With any kind of design it helps to put forward concepts that can survive editing here and there. Design is very subjective, it is never a straight line from A to B. And yes, I always feel pressure, a responsibility to produce something a publisher is excited about. If there is a level of excitement in the production stages, you hope this will translate to customers which is the whole point.

SC: Can you talk a little about the aftermath of The Luminaries being short-listed for and
then winning the ManBooker? I know you heard about the win on the ManBooker Twitterfeed but what sort of contact have you had from the publisher or from the author?

JG: Sarah Wasley the production manager sent me a bottle of French champagne, so lovely. Earlier on Max Porter the editor sent an email to say the cover made him happy every time he looked at it. Philip Gwynn Jones the publisher emailed me after the Booker announcement, insisting I get the cover up on my website so he could tweet it. It was a social media minor scrum that closed the gap between London and Melbourne, an exciting couple of days. This week I am participating in a New York Times online slideshow edited by John Williams. Some books get a whole lot of attention and you can ride the wave.

SC: There are lots of good covers out there but only a few iconic ones. Creative talent aside, what is the most important element that you most want as a designer to be able to create an iconic cover?
JG: A good relationship and shared sensibility with the publishing team. The briefs that probably work best are when a publisher has a good understanding of what they need, the market is understood and it is agreed how the market should be approached and as a designer you are able to offer solutions using your personal instincts. After the creative stage, ideally there's an open dialogue to hone aspects of a design. And to not miss the point: visually communicating something of the author's work to those who will want to read the author's work.A production budget that allows for some particulars usually helps nuance a result. A hard cover format is always going to look more handsome than a paperback.

SC: Do you have a favourite cover of all time?
JG: I still love Vanessa Bell's covers. They have a spirit to them that invite you in, give you some space as a reader.

Vanessa Bell designed many covers for her sister, Virginia Wolf.

You can find Jenny at:

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