Interview with Pushkin Vertigo series cover designer Jamie Keenan

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Questions by Victoria

  • I’ve been looking at book covers you’ve designed and it’s an incredibly impressive range. How did you start working with books – was that always a goal of yours?

When I first left college I got a really well paid job at the BBC doing graphics for TV, but hated it, so I left, almost immediately, for a really badly paid job with a tiny company that designed posters and leaflets for theatre and contemporary dance and I loved it. After a while I started showing our work to record companies and book publishers and before long I was bringing in all my own work, so I decided to go freelance. One of the publishers I worked for heard about this, suggested I work for them for a month or possibly two, and I was still there four years later, then I moved to another publisher for a couple of years and then I finally succeeded in becoming a freelancer and I’ve done pretty much nothing but books covers ever since. All of this was down to good luck.

  • Can you describe an average day in your working life for us?

I always read on my way to work and it’s more often than not something I’m working on. When I get to work the first thing I do is go through my emails – there are normally about 100, but 94 of them will be dodgy ones pretending to be from friendly women in Russia. Whatever the other 6 emails have asked for gets added to my to-do list. Then I design stuff, have lunch and design more stuff until home time. The design process usually involves reading the brief and maybe the book and coming up with a few ideas, which are then sent to the publisher. Sometimes all the ideas I’ve come up with are hated and sometimes one idea is accepted exactly as it is, but usually it’s somewhere between the two and it’s a case of  knocking into shape whichever idea went down best until everyone’s happy. ‘Everyone’ being quite a few people at the publishing company and possibly authors, agents, bookshops and even supermarkets.

  • I’m presuming that you have to read the book first when you begin thinking up designs! I’m fascinated by how you’d go about translating what you’ve absorbed in words into some kind of image – and what happens if you’ve disliked the book?

I think designers might have brains that are set up slightly differently to ‘normal’ people (there are always a lot of left handed people design departments). Quite often someone will mention authors and titles of books to me and it won’t mean anything, but when I look those books up on Amazon and see some pictures, I’ll realise I’ve read them or even worked on them. Words don’t seem to lodge in my brain in the same way that images do – I’m useless at remembering people’s names, but I can recognise someone because I sat next to them on a bus three years ago. When I read a book, I’m not sure if I experience in the way you’re supposed to do. It’s hard to describe, but from reading a book I get a sense, in quite an abstract way, of what the tone of the cover for that book should be. Each book seems to create its own world with its own rules and logic. And working on a book you don’t like is always easier – there’s nothing worse that trying to design a cover for your favourite book. It’s like being so keen to be friends with someone that you instantly become the most boring person in the world.

  • Is the process different when you’ve got a whole series of book covers to design?

It takes a bit of effort to design a decent book cover and once it’s finished that idea is then used up. What’s nice about series design is that you get to develop that idea (or milk it) and see it working with different colour schemes or words or images. Plus any fool can design a series design (try Googling ‘Turd Theory) Like a lot of things, it’s a balancing act: if the series design is too restrictive, individual titles in that series get smothered and if the design is too loose, the book won’t be recognised as even belonging to a series.

  • What particular features about the Pushkin crime series did you want to draw out in images?

One of my best friends when I was a kid had a dad in the CID. One day in his house we discovered a really grisly book which was mostly photographs of nasty weapons and the nasty things they’d done to people (should I be telling you this?). I wanted the images to look like the ones in that book – black and white, objective, cold, like pieces of evidence. I wanted the images to be really obviousIy taken from the text rather than symbolic or mysterious and I liked the idea of the obvious contrast with the rest of the cover.

  • Intriguing typography strikes me as a feature of your covers – and the Pushkin series is notable in this respect. What drew you to the font you use, and to the overlapping of titles and authors’ names? 

As the books will appeal to people who like mysteries and books dealing with who-has-done-what, I wanted the type to require a bit of work to read and to be ambiguous and puzzling. On a practical level, the font is very simple and adaptable, so it will work with any title that gets published in the Vertigo series and it somehow fits the period that these books come from which is anything  from 1920 to 1970 and in a way the covers do conform to the traditional big typographic approach that a lot of commercial crime covers follow. Making each letter solid by filling in the counters (or holes) always hints at nastiness.

  • Can you tell us a little about the colour choices you made for Pushkin Vertigo?

I wanted the covers to look alien –  like they’d come from another place and time. Traditionally, crime covers use industrial quantities of black, so I wanted the covers to be bright and appealing but with enough grit (both in terms of added ‘mess’ in photoshop and through the choice of typeface and images) to avoid looking too pleasant. It’s having your cake and eating it.

  • Each book cover features a small icon from the novel – the bell tower in Vertigo, for instance. How did you go about choosing these icons?

Er, see 5

  • Are there other book designers who have influenced you, or whom you admire currently? 

I admire ALL book cover designers.

  • What will you be working on next? 

You never know – that’s the great thing about this job.

Shiny New Books Logo

Jamie Keenan’s website can be found here where you can see other covers he has designed.

Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Read her reviews of two books from this series here.