At the Crossroads of Writing and Graphic Design

Picture of Brian MihokAuthor: Brian Mihok

How did you first get into doing design work for covers? What was your first experience designing like?

I’ve always been interested in the covers of books. There is something arresting about a great book cover. Superficially, it’s the first thing you see, and it’s the way for the book to invite you over to look at it. More importantly, because I believe the design is an extension of the manuscript itself manifested in visual form, I think the cover has to help translate the manuscript into book form. When a writer writes a manuscript, it’s not a book yet in the sense of a published object. So once it’s a book, it’s more than a manuscript. A cover is an integral part of creating a book.

One day I designed a bunch of covers for classics, like Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson books. None of them were very good, but I was hungry to do it well and it tickled my creative bone. Then, a poet named Jeannie Hoag asked if I would design her chapbook a couple years ago. It was exciting and fun and I believe it came out well. It made me want to do more.

What sort of books do you look at as examples when considering how to design a book? What covers do you find most memorable?

I look at books that make me excited just to look at them, and then excited to see what’s inside. Like it’s a two-step process. When I see a book I should say, hey what’s that? and enjoy the cover. But then, while enjoying the cover, I should say, hey, what’s in here? I look for how other designs use the manuscript as a guide. Specifically, I think Julian Motague’s work is fantastic. Obviously designers like Chip Kidd, but also anything and everything put out by Wave Books. Others: Ugly Duckling, Melville House, Dalkey Archive. Also I’ve learned a lot from being around David McNamara, publisher of sunnyoutside press. David has a lot of useful knowledge.

Tell us a little bit about some of the covers you’ve worked on. What challenges did these present that might not be obvious to someone who writes rather than publishes books?

Some things are not as simple as you might imagine because not everyone, as you implied, has the same knowledge base of how things are done. This makes for interesting interactions. When one publisher knows his/her stuff and then another doesn’t, it can be kind of funny and aggravating at the same time. When you get your book accepted as a writer, hopefully you have either worked with the publisher before or have a sense of the other books that have come out from that publisher, so you can understand the quality of the objects they produce. That said, even if you do, designers interact with publishers in a different way. As a writer myself it’s been interesting to be plugged into the process run by people from, uh, diverse perspectives. Really most people are super nice and want to do a good job and that is enough to see a project through.

Some books come with cover art attached to them. Like Nick Ripatrazone’s This is Not About Birds. I was sent pictures of birdhouses on a wall. So I played with how the title and byline could be placed. For the back I stole one of the birdhouses from the cover art and added a drop shadow so it looked like it was just zoomed in. Blurbs wrap around the birdhouse. That was a fun one.

Other times, though, I’m given free reign to design from scratch. I probably like that the most. I hope to do more designs where I can ditch the blurbs. I hate blurbs.

What’s the hardest part of your job? What’s the most rewarding?

The hardest part is that the entire endeavor is predicated on the fact that you are doing it for someone else. Meaning, if I design a book that I think looks amazing, the writer or publisher might not think so and then I’m either back to square one or else have to change what I think is a complete design. That’s hard but mandatory. The most rewarding part is people really liking a design and saying they feel like it matches the emotion in the manuscript. It’s a tough goal to reach, but when I do, I feel like a success.

How has your work as a designer changed your expectations regarding your own book? Without giving away too much, do you have an image you’d someday really love to see on your own work?

I definitely am now a writer who wants to design everything about his book, the cover, the interior layout. Since I see it as an extension of the manuscript, a reflection of it in some way, it boggles my mind that a writer wouldn’t want to have some say in how a book will look and feel. That must be the biggest downer of getting published at a big house where, as far as I understand, the writer is cut out of such decisions, at least to a degree. It feels like a painter handing over his painting to get shellacked but the shellack is blue and the painter saying, ah well, it’s what’s under the shellack that’s important. No! People’s first point of contact will be the shellack! Not the painting itself! A painter would want the shellack to be invisible obviously, but a book probably shouldn’t have an invisible cover, so it has to have one that matches what’s on the inside in some fundamental way.

As for an image on my own book, not sure. I wouldn’t mind having my book designed by someone I think is outstanding though. That would be something.