In Conversation: The State of Book Jacket Design

Ryan ChapmanI sat down with three designers over coffee and muffins to talk about how they came to their jobs, and where they think the industry is headed. Susan Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Art Director at FSG; Charlotte Strick is Art Director, also at FSG; and Henry Sene Yee is Creative Director at Picador.

—Ryan Chapman, Online Marketing Manager
“I’m not just here to create something beautiful. Sometimes I’m here to be a plumber.”

Origin Stories

Henry Sene Yee: Most of my friends drew comic books, that’s how I got into [book design]. For some reason, I liked logos. I used to get into the McDonald’s logo. I found this used bookstore, Ruby, in Tribeca—before it was called Tribeca—and I found this commercial art book. It had great diagrams. I thought, maybe I can just read this for fun: the mechanicals, the rules, the triangles and T-squares just sort of fascinated me. And my brother started doing architectural renderings, these beautiful rollout building plans. I wanted to look at them, but they would hide [the plans] from me because I was too messy. I would rip them up. So it became something so valuable that I couldn’t see . . . I decided, I’m going to make my own drawings.

I was thinking originally about a career in music. I didn’t know what to do. My art teacher said, “You’re going to be doing this [your career] for a long time, so you should do what you love.” It took me awhile, but I thought, “I think maybe it’s art.” I wanted to go to Parsons. Parsons was the hot school. But I didn’t get in, it was already two months into the semester. SVA had open enrollment. And they accepted me! I went to my first class, and I thought, “They let me in, just like that?” [Laughter]

Ryan: It’s like that Marx Brothers joke about any club that would have you as a member. . .

Yee: Exactly.

Mitchell: I went to Pratt, only because a high school teacher wanted me to go to art school. My family are all engineers and mathematicians, and they would have loved for me to have gone to Carnegie Tech. I graduated [from Pratt] without an idea of what I wanted to do. My parents said, “Get a job or come home.” So I got a job as a waitress at a private men’s club on Wall Street. I became friendly with two Iranian guys who kept saying,, “Are you a Zionist?” And I was going, “What’s that?” So then I said, I better get on with my career. My first job was at Alfred A. Knopf, a trainee position under Betty Anderson, who was legendary in book arts. Alfred Knopf, who was still alive at the time, was very supportive of book arts: the interior, everything. It was very important that you got a colophon on the back page, you got credit, the typography and all that.

I somehow sailed into a wonderful place. I quit there, twice, when I maxed out. I needed to move on. But they hired me back. I took over Vintage, and worked in Pantheon, all those different divisions. It was a wonderful, wonderful growth period.

I grew weary, though. It became more corporate. It became more complicated. I had three lists, and I was ready to go back to two lists. I got a phone call from Laurie Brown that this job opened up at FSG. And I’ve been here for thirteen years. So, somewhere publishing and books have to be so important to me that I don’t even know. Somehow I’m just doing it without making a definite choice.

Yee: I remember, I didn’t know book design was even a field.

Strick: I wanted to be a fashion designer since the age of three, because my mom had been a fashion designer in England. I grew up with her talking about what London was like after the war, how it was this burst of color after so much gray. Carnaby Street, and Mary Quant . . . I just thought, wow. That’s what I want to do. Of course, that scene had long since passed when I became an adult. But that was my dream, and I grew up drawing, making little fashion magazines. I made a logo for myself. And I grew up with my father pointing out typography to me, because he had been very involved in the Calligrapher’s Workshop that’s now part of the AIGA. I remember at the age of five, him pointing out, “Look at that sign! That’s a terrible letter j!” I got quite snobby about stuff like that. I wanted to go to art school, I wanted to go to RISD. But my family said, “Go to liberal arts school, be a fine arts major, but study all these other subjects. Then you can go to art school if you really want to.” I went sort of frustrated. I did a lot of painting, I took art history classes. All the time I was drawing and trying to teach myself to sew.

I came out and I was working for Elie Tahari. At the time they were just branding Theory, which is huge now. There was a girl a few years older than me, who had gone to design school, and she was given the task of designing the Theory logo. I looked over her shoulder and thought, “What is she doing?” I hadn’t been on a computer much at that point . . .

Mitchell: That’s another whole story, the advent of the computer [in design] . . .

Strick: And Parsons had an interesting [postgraduate] program which allowed me to work and go to school. I worked part-time for all these people in fashion. I thought, maybe I’ll work at a fashion magazine and combine my interests with graphic design. But the more that I got into typography and design I thought, I don’t want to use the same three typefaces everyday, in the same column grids.

My dad had been a book publisher. He was one of the first people to bring trade paperbacks to this country. So I ended up in my dad’s field instead of my mom’s. I’d had an internship interview with Rodrigo Corral, who was then in the position that I’m in now. We got along well, I thought FSG was a really cool place, but I had already worked for a few years before going back to school. I really didn’t want an internship. A few weeks went by. I called Rodrigo up. I said, “I was just curious if you filled that internship.” He said, “Oh yeah, we filled it.” I was just about to say thanks and hang up. Then fate grabbed my hand and I asked,, “Do you mind if I ask why you didn’t hire me?” He said, “Well, I could tell you didn’t want the job.” [Laughter] He said, “Why don’t you come in and do a freelance job for me.” So I started that, and when he left, Susan was shopping around for a designer. I came on. And I’ve been here ten years.


Strick: For creative people, it’s very important to have other creative outlets.

Mitchell: Because what we do is conditioned by other opinions. Necessarily so. In the early days, pre-computer, you could only cough up one comp and work on that. But now . . .

Yee: We’re interpreting or packaging other people’s ideas. If someone gives me a manuscript, I interpret it. That’s problem solving. Problem seeking is: I’m going out into the world, and it’s a nasty, rainy day. I’m feeling depressed. But I say to myself, I’m going to take my camera and find beauty. Take a great picture of a puddle or something.

Mitchell: We have to reinvigorate ourselves . . . In what we do, we read the manuscript and the ideas spring from other people’s work. But the real pure, creative mind is what gets it going. Then other people can comment and give feedback. So we need to free ourselves up to be ready, to be creative. I paint on Fridays in the summer. Things to free up my mind so that I’m not totally conditioned. You have to protect the seed. The project that starts from the seed and goes on uninterrupted to a wonderful finish—I think the John Waters book (Role Models) was like that. Having everybody come aboard and protect the process so that it finishes in the way that it needs to be finished.

Yee: I’m not just here to create something beautiful. Sometimes I’m here to be a plumber. I love that aspect—I can fix things. I’ll make it balance, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be a Maserati every time. It just has to get you to the beach. So what if there’s no roof? We’ll call it a convertible! You make it work out. That’s what I like the most.

Ebooks and Design

Henry Sene Yee: I don’t know what the future of book design is. I think it’s going to flourish. Hopefully it’s long-form reading, more than just blogs or magazine articles. I hope they want to read 800 pages still.

Ryan: Thoughts on ereading and ebooks?

Yee: It is a little hard to read on the screen.

Charlotte Strick: I know a lot of people who seem comfortable with it, though.

Yee: You have the Sony Reader? I hate reading on that thing. I liked it at first, but now I just hate it.

Strick: The device also looks like it was designed twenty years ago. It’s pretty clunky.

Mitchell: I like it. I like not having to lug heavy manuscripts on my train ride.

Yee: I know mass market [paperbacks] are dying. I wonder if it’s the outlets, the airports, where people who fly would rather carry a Kindle. If you buy a book at an airport, most likely you’re going to leave it at the hotel.

Mitchell: I commute from Connecticut, so I’m on the train, and I look down the aisle: four rows of Kindles, read by four different kinds of people, in different formats. One was a newspaper, one was a book . . . It’s arrived, it’s here.

Yee: How many iPads sold in the first generation? Two million so far?

Ryan: An analyst at Piper Jaffray is predicting six million for the year.

Yee: And that’s the first one. I don’t know how many of you bought iPods when they first came out. I didn’t. I waited until the second generation.

Strick: I hate to think that our industry’s going to end up all online. People still really love books, feeling the paper in their hands. Even if the Kindle were to go full-color, it’s just going to be this image on the screen. It pains me.

Yee: One thing at FSG, the production values are high. People say we love books, the quality . . . but [the industry] is printing on thinner, lighter, cheaper paper. It feels disposable. We’re cutting down on value anyway. The book as an object is losing it.

Mitchell: Right now there are two worlds: a tactile object to be held in the bookstore; and then what you see on Amazon, doing an adjustment so the cover reads better. I can see all that melding into the Amazon-image side.

Yee: With the advent of computers, you think, “One person can do it all.” Get rid of typesetters, interior designers, everything. Right now we have three different departments: design, interior and ad/promo. What’s big now are book trailers—

Mitchell: Crush Design does that . . .

Yee: Most 2D designers think in the future they’ll go into [3D]: motion design, after-effects, or movie titles. I think the way things are going there’s going to be a lot of overlap. A cover design person who wants to do interiors, or the whole package.

I was talking to [a friend in the industry]. He said something along the lines of: I love book designers, they have to deal with emotions, the story, the themes, and all these techniques to bring it to life—but book design is dead, it’s over. It’s like you’re at a frat party, and you hear music, and there’s beer bottles everywhere, it’s a mess, and you think, this was an awesome party!

See Also: Susan Mitchell highlights great designers of the past