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#FreelancerFriday #6 - Tom Sanderson, Cover Designer

Posted in: Book Design on August 15, 2014 Leave your thoughts 💬

tom sanderson

“What I’m interested in about book design is how when you get a project and a brief, you’re very much a visual problem solver. You’re trying to turn a load of words, a manuscript, a blurb, an idea, into a visual package in the most interesting and pick-up-able way. Each cover is different - they may look similar in some respects, but the way you approach them mentally is quite different.”

Tom Sanderson is a designer based in Brighton. He’s created book covers for just about every demographic imaginable, from children’s fiction through young adult to adult fiction, commercial and literary, and beyond. His full portfolio is at The Parish.

REEDSY

How did you get started in design?

TOM SANDERSON
I went down the art college route. I’ve come from an illustration background. My father’s an illustrator and my mother was a Ceramics teacher. I went to art college because it seemed like the natural place for me to go. I initially did my degree in illustration, and then a postgrad after my degree which is when I got more into the graphic design side of things. I’ve always been interested in books, and I was lucky enough that the college I was at for my MA had a really good bookbinding department, so a lot of my projects were based around that.

When I left college I looked for jobs in the publishing industry. Initially I worked as a junior in children’s books. Publishing is one of those industries where once you get into the system it’s a small world. If you work in a company for a couple of years, people you work with move around to other houses and you get to be known by your work. I got to move around on the back of my work from children’s fiction to teenager fiction to adult fiction design, and ended up at Penguin for about five years before going freelance.

REEDSY
Why go freelance?

TOM SANDERSON
There was a number of factors. When you work as a designer you get to a stage where you either go down the art director / creative director route, and push down that path where you’re managing people and managing projects and managing departments; or you go the freelance route. Initially I was interested in becoming an art director and did bits and pieces of that. I lived in Brighton and used to commit to London every day; after six years I wanted more of a work-life balance, so I settled in Brighton permanently and now I’ve got a studio here. If I’d stayed in London I probably would have stayed in-house too. But the other negative side of being an art director, for me, is being less hands on with stuff. It’s more about managing projects and managing people. For me my strengths are designing, and I’d miss that if I wasn’t doing it.

REEDSY
How do you see the creative challenge of designing a cover?

TOM SANDERSON
What I’m interested in about book design is how when you get a project and a brief, you’re very much a visual problem solver. You’re trying to turn a load of words, a manuscript, a blurb, an idea, into a visual package in the most interesting and pick-up-able way. Each cover is different - they may look similar in some respects, but the way you approach them mentally is quite different.

REEDSY
Is being pick-up-able more about standing out, or just not ‘blending in?’ Looking at your portfolio, your cover for A Deeper Darkness stood out to me.

image

TOM SANDERSON
Yeah, that particular cover was about doing something quite dramatic, but having a framing device that brought you visually into the cover to make it stand out. I guess that’s what the effect of going to art college was and having a background in illustration - you’re training to know what looks good, what visually works, what visually stands out, how to make something look iconic. A big part of what I do is making things look interesting and different.

Since I’ve been freelancing I find myself doing a lot more mass-market commercial cover design, which I really like. For my ideas I spend a lot of time looking at movie posters - they’re sort of the crown jewel of how visual stuff can have an impact on you, how they grab your attention and work on you, and I try to reflect that in what I do.

In Hollywood they spend hundreds of thousands just getting the visual package just completely right, and they have so many talented people getting that to work properly… I get a lot on inspiration. Some of the key poster designers like Kellerhouse create stuff I find inspiring. He’s an interesting designer. I also get a lot of ideas from TV and film intro credits, I’m really interested in that kind of thing as well.

REEDSY
Is there any reason you sometimes go for an illustration over photos?

TOM SANDERSON
It very much depends on the brief and the story I’m trying to package. I do try and create as much imagery as I can myself. I do use photo libraries, but where possible I photograph stuff. If I draw bits and pieces or draw the type myself, then all the better. If I feel like I’ve got a thumbprint on what I’ve done, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. Some designers spend their time commissioning illustrators and photographers, but that doesn’t really interest me. I’m much more into trying to create the package myself. I’d like to draw more stuff - if I can, I’ll see if I can persuade the client go for it. The nature of the business is you have to supply different approaches, and it comes down to whether the the company thinks that approach is viable for what they want to sell to their customers.

Some publishers are very safe. They’re not prepared to push things or make things look different. I can understand that because they want a guaranteed sale, within a genre usually. You get other publishers who want something different and totally fresh and new - that’s exciting but comes with its own problems as well. Sometimes it ties them up because they want something that’s so different it affects up what they imagethink is achievable.

REEDSY
What materials do you look for in a book when you start a cover? Scenes, themes?

TOM SANDERSON
If possible I try to get more of a synopsis or a condensed idea of what the book is. I do read manuscripts but the nature of juggling projects comes down to the time available. I read at least a few chapters to get a feel of what’s going on, and I’ll sketch out ideas as I’m reading. I try to use typography as a starting point - I really like playing with typography and getting something looking interesting with type that looks quite strong, that I can then hang the cover on.

With a lot of the mass-market stuff you’re trying to create a strong author brand rather than the title of the book, so you spend a lot of time working to get that right. You’re sifting through visual stuff that could be appropriate and making mood boards and pulling things together to make something you’re happy with that’s reflecting how you’re thinking about what you’re working on. There’s no defined process that I follow, but the typography is a great place to start.

REEDSY
What kind of work are you doing with the type?

TOM SANDERSON
A lot of the typography I do, say the title type of the book, I don’t just get a font, go into photoshop and stick a photo behind it. I’ll have worked up further a font I’m using further with illustrator, making it look unique to that particular book. I’ll add various effects and make it into something of its own. I quite like making things look a bit unique in that respect. Especially with crime novels, a lot of that is taking type then putting textures on it, making things look cut up, taking things apart - it all takes time.

REEDSY
Could you talk through how you built this cover for The Book Thief?

imageTOM SANDERSON
As you can imagine, there was quite a lot of different approaches to that book because it was so massive. Initially they gave me various thought-starters about the book and how it could work as a visual reference for the cover. So we talked about having piles of burning books and Nazi banners and things like that. We talked about a German street scene, initially doing a lot of visuals of narrow streets with bombed-out buildings, and the type working above that. It wasn’t getting the emphasis that they wanted across, so we brought in the idea of having the girl reading on top, which was a nice way of reflecting what’s going on in the book. Once we had that in place we brought in elements of fire around the edges. The typography was quite simple - we just wanted to make 'The Book Thief’ stand out as clear as possible.

REEDSY
When an author brings you a project is there anything they can do that helps?

TOM SANDERSON
It’s helpful to know the kind of books your book is up against. Knowing competitor’s books, knowing the genre is useful. Any visual ideas that they might have are always good to know - it gives you a greater understanding on what you can play with visually. Sometimes by having a conversation with publishers you find ideas you’d never have arrived at on your own.

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