Interview with the cover designer, Greg Heinimann
As the final installment of our coverage of NB’s Recommendation for January – the brilliant Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – we spoke to the cover designer and Assistant Art Director at Bloomsbury Publishing, Greg Heinimann, about the design process.
Questions by Rob Garraway
- Can you tell us a little about the concept for this book cover and what key decisions lead you to the final design?The concept for the book came about after several other avenues that didn’t quite capture the tone of the book. Then I focused on a scene in an upmarket grocery store where Emira, the nanny, takes her employers toddler. An awkward encounter develops when the security guard accuses Emira (black) of kidnapping the child (white). I thought of the book as a modern social comedy and this outrage is the core of the storyline – so why not illustrate that? By showing all three as characters, and particularly Emira being visibly taken back, and having them repeated as wallpaper, kind of lessens the situation on first sight as vignettes on wallpaper – but up close actually multiplies the outrage of this racist encounter. The sign-painterly title treatment is supposed to echo the supermarket ‘special offer’ type signage you often see in America.
- Can you tell us a little more about the process of designing covers and this cover specifically, how much influence did the author have over the ideas?/ Do you have a great degree of freedom, or is there a strict brief?There is a great deal of freedom designing book covers – and our authors seem to trust the various ‘cooks’ – the editor to position the book in terms of a cover design brief, to the sales and marketing teams input, and most importantly our own design intuition on a project. There is a brief – never necessarily too strict -more an informative rough guide as to the content and where it sits in the market. The editor then trusts us to go and do our thing. After a cover meeting where hopefully ‘the one’ is chosen, that goes to the author, and hopefully we’ve realised their precious and hugely laboured work.
- One of the biggest challenges of designing a book cover must be trying to communicate so many things including the genre and key themes of the narrative into a relatively small space. Can you tell us a little about how this influences the design process? For me, I try not to think in those terms too much otherwise it can really dampen and straightjacket the creative process. I generally try and latch onto harnessing the vibe of the book first and foremost, then what is visually interesting, or has a clever design hook. There is a big toolbox, if you like, of all the little tricks we have that can elevate a jacket, and convey that without being too slavish to genre.
- When hugely successful books like ‘Such a Fun Age’ sell around the globe we get to see how different cover designers interpret the story for different national markets. This book was first published in the US with a different cover design – could you tell us how this affects your job as a cover designer, designing for different audiences?It was really interesting, as in this case the U.S. jacket was shown to us early on in the process. Some in the team really liked it, but I kept on at our own jacket as we wanted more narrative, and to get that social faux-pas across. Sometimes a foreign publisher will take our jacket and vice versa, it can just depend on which design crosses over, but it is very nice to see a UK cover adopted in America too for instance
- What are the greatest, and most challenging aspects of your role?If I illustrate a cover, that can be labour intensive. Particularly when I normally show 6 or 7 unique options at a cover meeting, so quite exhausting. Also, it’s the greatest aspect! I love illustrating. Another challenging aspect is if the brief is too vague – it’s then left to me to wrestle with what it should be and can delay the process.
- Did you always see yourself working in Book Cover Design and illustration? If not – how were you drawn towards developing this career? I didn’t…it wasn’t until working as a bookseller at Waterstones that it occurred to me. I had a eureka moment looking at a table of fiction paperbacks, that I thought ‘Wow. Somebody does this for a living’. It had never occurred to me until that point. I had struggled to find a profession that merged design and illustration together, and book cover design seemed at that moment seemed to blow the doors wide open!
- Besides your work on the design of Such A Fun Age, you have a huge repertoire of work – but which cover designs are you most proud of/ pleased with? Which were the most fun to work on?Thanks, I do try to keep my work as broad as possible, and keep those skills as sharp as I can – purely because the work is so varied and you never know what your next project will be. One of the jackets I’m most proud of is ‘Why I’m…’ by Reni Eddo Lodge. I came up with the concept as the very first thing I did, and to be part of a book where the cover confronts the reader, and then inside have the content change people’s mindsets (or enlightened) is something special. Lincoln in the Bardo too was special -George Saunders work was on that fiction table in Waterstones, and he’s always been a literary hero of mine. To work on his covers has been one of my proudest achievements. It’s my favourite book too, and I spent time with George during his Booker week, and even made it to the big night. He is a wonderful man.
- Which books got you through lockdown / are getting you through lockdown?Actually some upcoming Bloomsbury ones – I seem to have read a lot of our upcoming manuscripts in lockdown. Animal by Lisa Taddeo is a bold brilliant follow-up to Three Women, and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is razor-sharp, hilarious and boundary-pushing
- Finally, the old adage goes ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’. As a cover designer we wanted to know your thoughts on this famous phrase?I think cover designers get asked this one a lot! I disagree…and after all the book buying public do judge a book this way within the four seconds it supposedly takes to decide. If we had ‘no brand’ cigarette type packaging on covers you would have no idea of the brilliance within.