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Industry Insights with Micaela Alcaino: Dissection of Cover Design

Tell us about your journey into book design.

I fell into it actually! When I first moved to the UK, I applied to every job I could find in relation to Graphic Design, and by chance, got an interview with Transworld (Penguin Random House). Until that interview, I didn’t even know I could design books as a job; I call that fate!

How do you come up with an idea for a cover design? Does it begin with yours or the publisher’s vision?

Normally, I get a brief from either the editor, art director, or in self-publishing cases, the author. A big part of my own art practice is that I love reading - or at least dipping into the manuscript. I think that aside from the brief it’s the best way to get a feel of the tone of voice and also find elements I think might work that may not have appeared in the brief. After that, I spend about a day researching the themes on Pinterest, in reference books, and sometimes exhibitions and museums. Recently, I designed and illustrated a book for Headline called Ariadne and spent a whole day in the Greek culture section of the British Museum. I try to avoid looking at other book covers for inspiration, as it keeps me from doing anything similar to what’s already out there, and experiment with concepts and images until I find the right path to designs I think are worthy of the book. After I’ve designed first-round concepts, I then work closely with the publisher or author until everyone is satisfied.

Are there any particular difficulties or challenges that you have faced when creating an initial concept or during the designing process?

Probably the hardest obstacle when creating initial concepts is a lack of inspiration. This has only happened a handful of times, mainly if the book or brief is a little too vague or too open that I can’t figure out which direction it needs to go in. Luckily, it’s not a regular occurrence!

What are the advantages/disadvantages of working freelance as opposed to for a publisher?

There’s definitely pros and cons to both and I have loved being both in-house and freelance. I miss the office banter, seeing workmates daily, and being able to talk to people face to face, but what I love now is the freedom to work on my own terms. Sometimes, when I have a bit of creative block I go for a walk outside, clock off early, or work well into the evening. My working hours are never determined by a time frame that working in a company has; it’s quite freeing! I also love meeting people in publishing around the world and working with them on some wonderful projects. I guess the disadvantage of being freelance is having to chase your own invoices, but I’m sure most freelancers will agree!

What has been one of your favourite book covers to design?

This is like asking a parent who their favourite child is; such a hard question! I’m proud of every project I get to do, but if I were to name a few it would be anything by the magnificent Bridget Collins, Ariadne by Jennifer Saint, The Ember in the Ashes quartet by Sabaa Tahir, Where Dreams Descend duology by Janella Angeles and The Iron Fey quartet by Julie Kagawa! Not just because of the covers themselves, but also the wonderful team and authors that I got to work with along the way.

Do you have any advice for a hopeful who wants to start designing? What software do you think would be good for them to learn?

For those who haven’t landed a job in publishing yet, I would really urge you to do your own cover design projects. Just choose some of your favourite titles and redesign them for your portfolio! Don’t just depend on your uni/past portfolio. I’d also highly recommend learning Photoshop and InDesign as these are two programs I use on a daily basis.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who would like to go freelance, especially in design, but isn’t sure how to make the move?

My biggest advice is that if you’re serious about going freelance, start building up your clientele as soon as you can. I’ve seen a lot of people rush out of a job in a company and into the freelance world, only to realise they have no clients. If you can’t work on projects outside your daily work hours, then I highly advise you at least start making connections.

Dissecting Cover Design with Micaela

To give a bit more insight into the design process, we wanted to uncover the stages that book covers in a variety of styles have to undergo. Here, Micaela dissects the creative process of her cover designs for The Iron Fey series, The Binding, The Betrayals, and The Unwanted Dead.

For a series such as The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa, how do you approach the theme and style as a whole but individualise the concept for each book?

This was a beautiful project to work on and I worked closely with the art director and editor to achieve the right style. In terms of my creative process, I read through the brief and then read the first book, The Iron King, to get a better understanding of the characters and the series (it was such a fun read!).

The art director then provided me with a list of elements and themes that appear in each book. I went away and played mainly with photography for the first round. Surprisingly, the route that was chosen was my wildcard option; I always like to include one in case they go for it! The other two routes were photography based, but the covers that were chosen were my attempt at combining illustrated elements with photography of the main elements.

Each of the chosen covers have one photographed main element. These include the Crown (The Iron King), Staff (The Iron Daughter), Amulet (The Iron Queen), and Sword (The Iron Knight). I then matched these with illustrated elements. I wanted this route to be typographically led, so all elements of the design were in balance with the title. The only drastic change that happened after the covers had been approved was The Iron Daughter changing from a white backdrop to turquoise, as the team felt the white stood out too much!

Illustrated Covers - The Binding and The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

I obsess over Bridget Collins’ books, so my design process for her books is usually quite a rare adventure! For The Binding, I developed over fifty covers. I had fallen in love with her story so much that I kept designing until I had a handful of covers I was confident with. I designed them in-house whilst working for HarperCollins, and my then art director had opened it up to the whole team to design. I was so determined to get my work on the cover that I designed whenever I could alongside my other projects. It was then narrowed down to five covers for the cover meeting, four of which were mine and then one was chosen! The Betrayals was a similar story.

I was asked to design for The Betrayals as a freelancer, knowing it was also opened up to the in-house design team, though again I was determined to have one of my covers used. The next thing I did was read the manuscript, which is just as brilliant as The Binding! I spent about a week seeking inspiration. The book is set in the 1920s/30s, so I researched art deco and, just like The Binding, some of my designs were heavily influenced by William Morris (who is my artist-hero!). I also spent a day in the V&A and went through textiles and pattern books in Foyles Bookshop.

I then started sketching out designs (horribly may I add). If anyone else saw these sketches, they would think they were abstract as I tend to scribble anything that pops into my head! Next, I started designing and playing with elements. For decorative covers like these, I tend to play with elements before adding text as the text seems secondary to the overall design. Once I’ve figured out the imagery, I add the text in and around the designs.

I eventually provided eight covers, which included two of my favourites. Although neither of those were chosen, I’m still delighted that they selected one of my designs (and hopefully I can use them for another title!).

Covers with Photographic Elements -The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd

This project was so fun! The brief was really detailed so I immediately knew I wanted to play with a modern typeface and balance it with dated black and white imagery. There were a few covers in my first round that experimented with a silhouette of a man, bee/hive elements, and brightly coloured text. The chosen cover was the only one that included my own photography. I was struggling to find men in coats looking mysterious, until I remembered that I’d taken a picture of someone walking home from a church in the snow outside my Airbnb in Tallinn, Estonia last year.

I love taking photos when I travel and it’s come in handy a few times with work, if not for a cover then for inspiration. As for the image in Paris, I had taken it during a trip last year. With the typeface, I thought a punchy, brightly coloured title would work well on the cover, with everything else stripped back. My original design is similar to the finished product, but I had put everything on a slant rather than just the title on a slant. I’m happy with how it turned out!

In reviewing these three projects, I think it’s safe to say that every project is different. Sometimes I prioritise the typography first and then the imagery, or vice versa. I definitely get my inspiration from different places, but it’s what I love most about my job. Every day and project is different and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel incredibly blessed to love what I do, that I don’t feel like it’s work! Cliché I know, but that’s the truth!

You can find out more about Micaela’s work on her website and @micaelaalcainodesign on Instagram.



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