‘Shoreditch had seen stranger things than wrestling a hobby-horse into a photo booth’
Irish Times Book Club author Thomas Morris asks Faber’s senior designer, Luke Bird, how he developed the distinctive cover to We Don’t Know What We’re Doing
The book cover and, left, out-takes: “I actually explored the idea of using illustrations of the characters,” said designer Luke Bird, “but then it struck me that the people that you’ve written about feel so real, and therefore somehow getting photographs of all the central characters – ‘casting’ them, like you would a sitcom or film – would be a far better way of achieving the end goal”
Thomas Morris: Firstly: I absolutely love the cover, and I regularly receive compliments for it (which makes me feel a bit fraudulent, seeing as I didn’t make it.) Could you explain a little about the concept, and how you came to settle on it? I’m wondering if designing a cover for a story collection is in any way different to designing for a novel?
Luke Bird: With most covers, I start by reading the book. It’s not possible to read the whole book in every case, but the advantage of working on a short story collection is obvious in this sense.
I must say, I immediately felt drawn to the stories and felt I could connect with them. I myself grew up in a small northern market town not unlike the one that your stories are based around.
It was obvious that we needed to showcase an accomplished literary collection, but, crucially, I also realised that the cover should not take itself too seriously. Anything too clean and clinical or, on the flip side, too commercial, just wouldn’t feel right.
Usually, short story collections have a cover which either depicts one story (perhaps considered the most accessible or important story), or be more abstract in their approach and use the design to illustrate the overriding theme. After some initial unsuccessful experimentation based around photos of Caerphilly, which were quickly discarded, we came up with the unusual idea of depicting every single story on the front cover. The idea of showing each brilliant character around which the stories are based would be paying them the best possible compliment. It would also give each story equal weight, which I felt was important.
Firstly I actually explored the idea of using illustrations of the characters but then, after some further thought, it struck me that the people that you’ve written about feel so real, and therefore somehow getting photographs of all the central characters – “casting” them, like you would a sitcom or film – would be a far better way of achieving the end goal.
The idea of using a photo booth was appealing in two ways. Firstly, I thought that photo booths felt nostalgic and had a great “small town high street” vibe. Every small town seems to have a photo booth in an important community location (pharmacy / bus station / foyer of the town hall), which would probably tell the very best story of the town in which it sits, and its varied characters. Secondly, the resulting photographs are portrait in their format, and therefore somewhat mirror the shape of a book cover (which, when with faced the possibility of a potentially “busy” cover, would likely make for a more pleasing layout/design).
Thomas: How did you go about sourcing the people (and how did you persuade them) to be on the cover? Is this the first cover that you, yourself, appear on?!
Luke: Very kindly you had given us some “casting notes”, which gave us a great starting point.
The sad fact of the matter is that people with little or no experience of being in front of a camera often look decidedly awkward in posed photographs. In some shots, that wouldn’t be a problem (where, for instance, a mask is used or the character’s face is turned or only partly in-shot), but in the more “straight-on” portraits we needed some experience. I drafted in my sister-in-law and two of my oldest school friends who are all actors and happened to fit your casting descriptions. These shots are particularly successful. There are also two models on the cover, one of whom (a very lovely lady called Melanie who plays the role of Mrs Morgan) we had to hire, and one of whom we found on an online image library. For me, the star of the show is undoubtedly the editor, Hannah’s, son, bottom left, who captured the role of the little boy from Clap Hands effortlessly.
The other shots, using non-professional models/actors, were carefully directed by myself where possible and, unsurprisingly, they (and me!) needed to work a little harder before I was happy with the outcome. I appear, in some way, in three of the frames. My wife appears in one, and some Faber colleagues in another. It’s the first cover I’ve ever been on.
To break up a cover made entirely of portraits (which risked looking a little monotonous), we used a slightly tongue-in-cheek hobby-horse in the frame for Bolt, and a blank frame for the last story about the afterlife.
Thomas: You used actual photobooths for the photos, which surprised me at first – I just assumed you’d fake it with some curtains and a few hours on Photoshop. What kind of practical challenges did you face with it all? I love the idea of you sneaking a hobby horse into a photo booth in a public place.
Luke: Photoshop is a wonderful tool when used properly but, where possible, I do always try to be authentic. It makes for a more believable cover. There was a tiny bit of trickery used where we had to but, for the most part, the photos are left unchanged.
The most practical challenge was finding an old-fashioned analogue photo booth. There’s so much character to the old ones, and the photos still come out of the machine in an old-fashioned strip; tactile and damp from the developing process. The resulting photographs are much less clinical than you would expect from a modern booth. In a fancy hotel foyer in Shoreditch, I shot the actors, actresses and models. And where I needed to sneak in a hobby horse or a wrestling mask, for instance, I used a booth in the quiet basement of a trendy Italian restaurant near by. My main concern was having to explain myself if approached, but it turned out that Shoreditch had seen stranger things than a man wrestling a hobby-horse into a vintage photo booth.
I spent about six afternoons, in total, in and around the two booths.
Thomas: Can you tell me a bit about the choice of typeface? (It’s Helvetica, right?)
Luke: Yes, the typeface is Helvetica. I felt it had the right balance. I didn’t want to use anything which fought for attention with the photos, and I also felt that it had a familiarity and nostalgia which would complement the old photographs. It’s a staggeringly versatile typeface. I chose to use lower-case lettering to mirror what I took to be a slight naivety in some of the character’s expressions.
Thomas: I’ve heard lot of writers say they have no input into their cover designs, but I felt very much involved on this one. How difficult is it to balance the expectations/demands of a writer with your own vision for a cover (as well as the publisher’s vision)?
Luke: We have a slightly different way of doing things here at Faber. We encourage the author to be involved at every stage of the process. The publishing team around the book use their skill and knowledge of the market to create the cover which they feel has the best chance of success, but ultimately if the author doesn’t feel that it represents their book then we would want to work together to make sure they are as happy as possible with the cover.
Coming out of the process having balanced good design principles with the wishes of the client(s) (and, in our case, our clients are effectively the publishing house, author and agent) to create a successful piece of design is perhaps where the skill lies in being a designer. Much more so than proficiency on digital programs (though that obviously helps). It’s hugely satisfying when all parties are considered happy.
Normally we don’t show the author their proposed cover until there is a more polished final visual, but we felt that the logistics of getting 12 people into a photo booth meant that we should get approval of the idea at an earlier stage. Further to that, you are closer to these characters than anyone, so it felt important that you had a say in their appearance!
Thomas: And finally, what do you find the most satisfying about designing books?
Luke: Knowing that you’ve helped realise an author’s dream of publishing something that they’ve put their heart and soul into is immensely pleasing. If you also end up with a design that you’re proud of, too, then that’s all the better.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris is published by Faber, at £12.99. Hodges Figgis offers a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers.
Over the next four weeks, we will be exploring this stories with articles by the author, critics and fellow writers. Next: Gavin Corbett.
The series will conclude with a podcast discussion with the author; Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times; and Sorcha Hamilton, to be recorded at a live event in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, January 28th, at 7.30pm.
Morris is editor of The Stinging Fly magazine and edited Dubliners 100, a Tramp Press collection of stories updating James Joyce’s original to mark its centenary.