Designed to be read: ‘Even the smallest detail can spark a concept for the cover’

Bloomsbury’s art director David Mann designed the cover of Sarah Bannan’s novel. He talks her through every aspect of the process and explains why he loves certain covers

How did you get your start?

I originally started designing packaging for an agency, but soon realised that packaging is too ephemeral for me, and I wanted to design in a field where work has more longevity. I was offered positions designing film posters, but settled on cover design as I have always read and read and read!

Cover design is difficult to get into, but my folio included the packaging concepts and also retail design for Selfridges from my long time designing posters for them so was lucky to be offered a position at Simon & Schuster, and then Penguin before settling at Bloomsbury as art director.

How do you begin your process? Do you prefer to do this independently or in conversation with others? Do you read the book and go from there, or do you speak with the editor, publicity, the author?


I’m very fortunate to work as part of a fantastic team at Bloomsbury. New books are launched at monthly meetings where we discuss potential cover approaches with a team of editors, and sales and marketing experts. We often look at existing titles that help give me a steer to pitch any title effectively to the readers we feel the book will most appeal to. The editor will give me an overview or synopsis of each title to get the discussion rolling. I always try to read any title I’m designing too, as even the smallest detail can spark a concept for the cover. I make notes as I go along of any scene, descriptions of characters or key elements that might form the basis of a cover. I have worked with authors on occasion at the start of a project, if they have ideas they have shared with us, but more usually only if the author has feedback on approaches we’ve presented them so we can develop a cover to the point where they feel we’ve really captured the spirit of the book.

You’ve worked with authors like Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth Gilbert and Howard Jacobson across several books – both in hardback and paperback. How important is it to keep a consistent look or brand across titles while still reflecting the individuality of each title?

Designing for the hardback and then the paperback of any title is always a great process. If the hardback has done incredibly well we’ll quite often keep the design for the paperback. Or it could be that the hardback design was successful, but we’d like to try and reach out to a different market for the paperback reader. This is one of my favourite aspects of being a cover designer – the opportunity to create a new image from the same novel a year later. I’ve been fortunate to design both hardbacks and paperbacks for Khaled Hosseini. For A Thousand Splendid Suns we kept the cover for both editions, but for And the Mountains Echoed the cover evolved to bring in the emotional impact of the two children at the heart of the story. For Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, we changed the look dramatically between the hardback and paperback. We wanted the hardback to resemble the main character’s notebook, making it a collectible object, then for the paperback we wanted the reverse – a panorama to reflect the epic scope of the novel.

What are the differences between designing the hardback/trade paperback and the mass-market paperback? Are there different demands for each type? And do you rely to any extent on what the critical and reader reactions have been thus far in doing the redesign?

It is definitely a different mindset between designing a hardback and a paperback which is hard to pinpoint. Ultimately, I step back from anything I have designed and ask myself if it appeals to me as a reader, not just as a designer. I think the greatest shift for designers, though, is that we have to also consider how a cover will look online, at a massively reduced scale. It needs to have as much, if not more, impact for the customer as it would have a physical appeal for them browsing a bookshop. Colour, text and iconography are all discussed in depth to ensure an appealing, inviting cover.

Have you ever had to dramatically redesign a jacket because an author or a bookseller or an editor wasn’t happy? Are you sorry you didn’t stick to your guns or do you feel like the process works best when there’s a bit of friction?

We always welcome feedback and input from our authors and want them to be part of the journey. It’s very rare that we dramatically need to redesign a cover, but sometimes the cover we present might just be a great starting point to move forward towards a design that the author will ultimately be happy with, which is of the utmost importance to us. I definitely don’t go for friction – a collaboration always works best for everyone involved!

There are trends that always pop up following particularly successful books. I think the trick is not to mimic but to develop, or start a new trend yourself! At Bloomsbury, we found a fresh new look for our historical crime book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, and for Ben Macintyre’s books – Agent Zigzag, Double Cross and Operation Mincemeat. Both of these new looks inspired similar covers from other publishers and that is always a clear indicator that the new looks were successful!

And what are the trends that you’ve been seeing lately? Do they make you excited or depressed?!

Cover design is always evolving, and frequent trips to booksellers are always inspirational. I think one genre that particularly changes very quickly is the thriller market, but also historical books, and classics are constantly reinvented. The design for Gone Girl really refreshed the look for thrillers, and the cover for Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts (designed by Isabelle deCat) was stunning. In terms of classics, a brilliant re-invention of my favourite novel 1984 (designed by David Pearson) has to be one of my favourite cover designs in recent times. These covers all bucked current trends and deservedly get lots of attention from both readers and designers.

I’ve noticed that jacket design in the United States differs in pretty profound ways from design on this side of the water. What do you see as the main differences? Or am I imagining that?!

There are often differences in UK/US design. As Bloomsbury is a global company we have an office in New York, and it is always fascinating to see which covers tick all the boxes for both territories and which we feel might need separate approaches. We always try for a global look where possible, and we work very closely with the team in the US, and with Patti Ratchford, the art director there. We often share ideas and just a tiny tweak to the type can make a cover suitable for both markets. If a concept is great, it usually translates well to both markets.

Can you point to a few designs you’ve been exceptionally happy with and explain why?

Recent designs I’m really happy with are The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. The former is an incredible new talent, and the latter my all-time favourite author and one of the main reasons I desperately wanted to join Bloomsbury.

For Watchmaker I wanted to create a new look for this new voice and it is such an imaginative novel, I wasn’t short of inspiration. For some titles I like to think of the book as an object rather than a two-dimensional plane, and this was the case here, with a die-cut cover that you just have to open. For The Heart Goes Last, Margaret loved the initial concept and helped us develop it further in subtle ways to really convey the theme of the novel. A wry smile she asked me to add to the female figure speaks volumes!

Previous titles I’ve loved working on are Weightless by yourself, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, Maggie and Me by Damian Barr, Our Young Man by Edmund White, The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett, Not Quite Nice by Celia Imrie, and Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood. I greatly admire all these authors among many, so designing their covers is a huge privilege. Designing a cover for Margaret Atwood is a dream come true – so making that pig fly seems appropriate!

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)