Finding your style in book cover design
Micaela Alcaino is a graphic designer, turned book cover designer, who fell into the publishing world by chance. Helped by her distinct and recognizable style, she has built an enviable body of work, designing covers for many bestselling and prize-winning fiction titles. In this interview, she shares the story of how she came to work at one of the world's largest publishing companies — where she still manages to put her stamp on every cover she designs.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a born-and-raised Aussie, now living in London, and I design and illustrate book covers for a living.
How did you get started in book design?
I actually fell into it by chance. I moved to London from Sydney fresh out of university and wanted to find a job in graphic design. I didn't realize designing book covers was an actual job until I turned up for an interview with Transworld Publishers. They took a chance on me, and I fell in love with it straight away. To me, it’s one of the best jobs out there for graphic designers — every project is completely different from the next, using your imagination is a must, and you get to read incredible manuscripts and then make the journey to find the right cover for it. I never looked back.
Tell us a little about your role at HarperCollins. How did it come about?
I’m a senior designer at HarperCollins where I work on a variety of book covers and internals. I was brought on by my boss at a previous job who had moved there a little before I did. I work across all genres, from fantasy to crime and thriller to non-fiction, and I get to illustrate some of my own covers and design internals, such as the insides of cookbooks.
How did you develop your own style as a book designer?
Experimentation. I think playing around and experimenting with different concepts eventually leads you to your own style. I’ve tested many different types of illustration and played with typography and hand lettering — eventually, you find your rhythm. I really believe that playing and experimenting evolves a designer.
How did you start creating covers like this? Where did you get your inspiration?
Lots of places. Pinterest, traveling, billboard campaigns, art exhibitions, product packaging. Everywhere, really. I try not to get ideas from other book covers so that I don’t get stuck in a genre spiral when it comes to designing.
I’ve also always loved drawing but I was never trained as an illustrator. I used to sit and sketch in the park and draw animals for hours. When I was given John Lewis-Stempel’s first book Meadowland, I submitted one of my own owl drawings as one of the concepts. To my surprise, that design was picked for the cover! That really gave me the confidence to submit more of my illustrations for projects.
Then, when The Running Hare came along, I wanted to move a little away from my natural style of black-and-white pen drawings and experiment with colors and patterns. I researched patterns and came across a postcard that my boss had in her office — that sparked a couple of ideas. I sat down and sketched out half the cover, then duplicated it to see how it would sit. I then played with colors and textured brushes in Photoshop to bring it to life. I also submitted other black-and-white drawings as options, but I'm really happy that this was chosen for the final cover.
What was the process like for taking your cover for Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Experience from an initial idea to the final design?
I had so much fun doing this cover!
I first read the manuscript before I did any design work. I then researched the different ways I could represent the ‘devil’ character in the book, which naturally led me to the snake. I sketched out a few snake shapes to see how the title might fit in (it's a pretty long title!). Once I figured out the shape of the snake, I created a color palette and just started illustrating until the cover came together.
It took about two days of drawing and redrawing and recoloring until I came to this. Funnily enough, instead of creating around five different covers, I just submitted this cover, and it was approved in-house and by the author immediately. This doesn’t normally happen!
What is your favorite book cover that you created and why?
Oh no! I couldn’t say I have a favorite! But I definitely favor the ones I get to illustrate!
What advice would you give to fledgling designers looking to get into publishing?
Make sure you establish a portfolio; even if it isn’t paid work. Redesign book covers of your favorite books. Play with typography, illustrations, and photography. Don’t favor one genre just because it’s your favorite to read. The more genres you can design for, the more valuable you become.
So which is your favorite genre of book to work on?
I love to read everything really, but I would say my guilty pleasure is definitely fantasy.
Looking for more tips and guides for freelance publishing professionals? Head to the Reedsy Freelancer Blog.