• Lead

    Jamie Keenan: The Wasteland (detail)

Graphic Design

We talk to Jamie Keenan about Turd Theory and designing exceptional book covers

Posted by James Cartwright,

Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Nick Hornby, T.S Elliot, Richard Dawkins, Ian Banks and Martin Amis – what ties them all together (aside from their stratospheric levels of success in the literary world)? Well for one thing they’ve all had the good fortune to have the mighty Jamie Keenan, London-based designer and book fetishist, lend his skills to their covers. Jamie’s designed more beautiful covers for works of fiction and non-fiction than I’m capable of wrapping my head around, including my absolute favourite cover for Lolita – a novel that has sent numerous designers into panic spirals when tasked with its reinvention.

We ran into Jamie in a local greasy spoon last Friday (he was tucking into a really delicious looking sandwich) and felt bound to ask him some questions about his career, his process and whether he’s a fan of Kindles…

  • Badmouth

    Jamie Keenan: Bamouth

  • Bleeding-london

    Jamie Keenan: Bleeding London

  • Blind-watchmaker

    Jamie Keenan: The Blind Watchmaker

Describe as succinctly as possible, who you are and what you do…

My name is Jamie Keenan and I design book covers.

Has it always been about books for you?

No. It took me a while to find a place in design where I felt I might fit. My first job involved working nights putting together weather maps for BBC News (I hated it and left after ten months), then I designed posters for theatre and contemporary dance (which I enjoyed), a few CDs (which I also enjoyed) and finally I started designing book covers by accident.

Designing a book cover is great because you can treat it as a piece of packaging, a mini poster, corporate identity, something to use illustration on, or photography, be purely typographical, figurative or conceptual with just the right amount of type to play around with, have complete ownership; and even if you mess up totally, nobody dies.

How do you begin the process of designing a book cover?

Read the manuscript (if it’s non-fiction this probably isn’t necessary – sometimes the subtitle is all you need to know), have a bit of think about the book and scribble the title and author in pencil on a piece of white paper a few times (this alone sometimes suggests an idea), let it float around in your subconscious for a few days – by then you’ve hopefully built up a weird, semi-abstract picture of the world the book lives in (but only in your head) – and then you just need to show what that world looks like to other people. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they’re horrified and you repeat the process but change a few things. It’s hard to explain as it’s instinctive and something you do without too much thought.

How does that process differ when you’re designing a series?

Book covers involve quite a lot of effort per square centimetre, so it’s nice to be able to come up with an idea and be able to show how that works on more than one cover. I always imagine it’s like designing a logo for a company and then working out not just how it’ll work on a letterhead or business card, but also a truck or a shopfront. Series designs are a bit of balancing act; if they’re too constricting, individuals titles lose their identity and the whole thing becomes a bit faceless – conversely, if they’re too loose, they fail to work as a group and the point of producing the books as a series is lost. With a series you’ll always get one author with a really long surname that’ll mess up your nice series style.

Does putting a series of covers together offer more or less challenges?

I think a series of covers is much easier. Turd Theory (one of The Twenty Irrefutable Theories of Cover Design, written by myself and Jon Gray) works on the idea that in a scary world of disorder and chaos people are programmed to seek out repetition and order. So even the worst cover in the world, repeated 20 times in different colours of the rainbow will get you an award or two.

Turd Theory works on the idea that in a scary world of disorder and chaos people are programmed to seek out repetition and order. So even the worst cover in the world, repeated 20 times in different colours of the rainbow will get you an award or two.

Jamie Keenan

Great book cover design always seems to be a process of reduction and refinement. Would you say that applies to the way you work?

I’d agree that it involves refinement – that’s why a bit of time is always handy. I’ve designed a lot of things and thought they were so great that I was obviously some kind of second-coming über-designer, only to get to work the next day and realise what I’d produced was absolute and total crap. As for reduction, it can be the case that a piece of design needs paring back until it’s as pure and simple as possible, but what makes some book covers so beautiful is the level of detail that comes from someone adding more and more elements.

Which of your covers are you most proud of? Or do they all have their merits?

I quite like Metamorphosis – the whole process was fun. I had the idea as I was talking to the art director giving me the job, found just the right font really easily, cobbled together the cover exactly as I’d pictured it and it got approved almost immediately.

What titles are you working on at the moment?

A vintage crime series, a book about the man who claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper, another about the life-cycle of the gun and the story of man sentenced to seven years in prison for illegal possession of firearms – which he owned legally. All nice, light reading.

And finally, do you own a Kindle?

Yes! In the past a manuscript would mean lugging around 500 pieces of A4 paper, now you get sent a pdf and you can read it on your Kindle. I think we all thought the Kindle would be to books what the mp3 was to the CD, but it’s not turned out that way. Rather than replacing the traditional book it’s just a different way of reading one and, if anything, has meant the traditional book has been reborn.

  • Kino

    Jamie Keenan: Kino

  • Metamorphosis

    Jamie Keenan: Metamorphosis

  • Otherwise

    Jamie Keenan: Otherwise Pandemonium

  • Lolita

    Jamie Keenan: Lolita

  • Asbo

    Jamie Keenan: Lionel Asbo

  • Wasteland

    Jamie Keenan: The Wasteland

Jc

Posted by James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and came back in summer of 2012 to work online and latterly as Print Editor, before leaving in May 2015.

Most Recent: Graphic Design View Archive

  1. 5173

    As the creative world digests last night’s big D&AD winners (those that scooped Black and White Pencils), there was a host of interesting work recognised in the 44 Yellow Pencils given out at the London awards bash. In total, the D&AD juries considered 847 projects this year and so less than one in five made the prestigious Yellow Pencil cut. Here’s our rundown of those winners that caught our eye for one reason or another – you can see the full list of winners over on the D&AD site here.

  2. The-plant-art-15-its-nice-that-list-

    Staying two seasons ahead (calendar-wise, at least) of the autumn art fair scrum, Art 15 takes place this week over in west London, heralded by some unmissably bright new branding by The Plant. The annual fair – now in its third outing – used to take place in February, and its new look aims to reflect its sunnier spot on the calendar. “As it’s spring and it’s a fairly new fair, we felt [the new identity] needed to look quite bold,” says Matt Utber, founder of The Plant, who also designed the fair’s initial identity. “We chose colours that were very bright and vibrant because of that light change – it reflects new life, flowers bursting into existence, it’s that kind of feel.”

  3. Thomaswilliams-bolo-itsnicethat-list

    Australian designer Thomas Williams’ work has appeared on the site several times over the years, in the shape of his editorial work for MADE, Nourished Journal and The Process Journal. He has recently decamped to Los Angeles and set up his own studio, Thomas Williams & Co., which comes complete with a newly updated site on which you can peruse his publication work alongside all manner of considered and communicative identity projects.

  4. Chwast_nose_08-1020x1600its-nice-that-list

    I don’t use the word “iconic” lightly, but in the case of designer Seymour Chwast, it fits. Co-founder of Push Pin studios, Seymour shaped what graphic design and being a graphic designer meant in the 20th Century, creating images that not only looked incredible, but distilled a message that could be anything from a light-hearted comment on design itself to an anti-smoking poster. His much-imitated graphic and illustration style still holds up brilliantly today, as proved by a fantastic new online resource, the Seymour Chwast archive.

  5. List-naonori_yago_laforet_itsnicethat_1

    I’m all for a bargain but when I hear about people queuing up at 4:30am for the big Next sale every year I can’t help but sigh. Surely sleeping is more preferable to numb lips chapping in the wind as you stand next to other haggard shoppers? Even bigger than Next’s sale is Japanese department store Laforet HARAJUKU’s annual “Grand Bazar,” which has taken sale shopping to a new level.

  6. Ah_ha_ciclovia_de_aveiro_it's_nice_that_list

    “Studio AH-HA started as an experiment. We never took ourselves too seriously, and we think that is why things have been working out,” say Carolina Cantante and Catarina Carreiras. For the last three years the Portuguese designers have been making lovely things out of their studio just a stone’s throw from the Lisbon City Museum and the university where they studied and met. Between them, Carolina and Catarina cut their teeth working with some of their heroes; Catarina at Fabrica with designer Sam Baron, who they still collaborate with, and Carolina at the renowned OMA led by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam.

  7. List-vasundhara-pachisia-its-nice-that

    Brookyln-born graphic designer Vasundhara Pachisia is still studying, but has managed to clock up a CV including work with MoMA Design Studio and Ralph Applebaum Associates. Not bad at all. She’s currently studying at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she’s making some great work combining vivid colour palettes with some gorgeous experimental typography. This is perfectly exemplified in the piece Until Perfect Comes , a typeface the designer says is “an ode to Victor Vasarely.” We’re sure the “grandfather of op-art” wouldn’t be disappointed.

  8. Antonio_ladrillo_lines_it's_nice_that_list

    Back with a colourful series of minimal, origami-like creations, Antonio Ladrillo’s Colors, Lines and Dots continues the same optimism and sense of play that has made the Barcelona-based illustrator is an It’s Nice That favourite. You may remember our enthusiasm for his exhibition of 40 small paintings on repurposed wood, Crash or his book Being a ghost is cool! The three new softcover books are designed with the same cuts, folds and palette but use different patterns, taking on multiple 2D and 3D combinations like folding cards. Part papercraft, part publication, like all of Antonio’s sunny portfolio, Colors, Lines and Dots is simple yet striking.

  9. Shannonlea-philliplarkin-itsnicethat-list

    In our recent interview with Spin’s Tony Brook he spoke about the shift in his design approach towards a fixation on conceptual work – “I wanted reasons, I wanted intelligent thought.” Tony of course is one of the best in the business with a great deal of experience; it’s less common to see this same concept-driven lust in young designers, particularly those still learning their craft at university.

  10. Alain-vonck_ruins_it's_nice_that_list

    Whether it’s glitchy internet art, streamlined design and art direction or bespoke typefaces, Alain Vonck has been building a strong portfolio since graduating from Paris’ ESAG Penninghen in 2012. Concentrating on visual identity as well as editorial and web design that communicates a passion for pattern, Alain confidently moves between a variety of commercial and self-directed projects. Whether a book and net archive inspired by early web designs and 90s digital culture, ilIustrations for the daily French newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July, Libération, or super minimal art direction for a digital magazine, the Parisian designer has proven his approach is both contemporary and versatile.

    The pixelated, retro-tech visual language of many of his self-initiated projects has taken cues from GIF revival and the unrefined aesthetic of the internet’s early days, carving him a niche as something of a digital archeologist. Further illustrating his creative range, one of Alain’s most recent commissions marked a departure into new stylistic territory with a bright book of over 250 block-coloured illustrations vaguely reminiscent of Matisse cut-outs for Franco-Lebanese publishing house Tamyras.

  11. Alex-horne-do-it-poster-its-nice-that-list

    As the likes of Haw-Lin and Tom Darracott have proved in recent years, club posters are no longer the all-caps, bright yellow, shouty things on lampposts they used to be. Well sometimes they are, and there’s something quite charming in that (UK GARAGE SENSATION in Surbiton, anyone?), but there’s certainly a finessed approach to many of the posters now, as Alex Horne proves. The designer, who also founded label Fine Grains Records, hails from Aberdeen but now lives in London, working with clients including The Financial Times, The Vinyl Factory and Vice. Today though we’re looking at some great music posters, namely those for AV collective Do It! and Oslo-based club night promoter The Drop, which Alex runs alongside Norwegian record label boss and musician Andre Ishak. Throughout the work there’s a leaning towards Bauhaus-esque typography and clean, graphic shapes, with crisp layouts proving once again that the marriage of graphic design and electronic music is one made in heaven. Or in this case, in Aberdeen, London and Oslo.

  12. Arthurfoliard-mood-itsnicethat-list

    Arthur Foliard has some impressive design experience on his CV – Pentagram, Landor and Moving Brands – and he’s been honoured by both ADC and the Cannes Lions. Not bad for a 25-year-old, but this London-based Frenchman has a portfolio of work that makes sense of these accolades.

  13. Mirko-borsche-itsnicethat-list-2

    Is there no end to Bureau Mirko Borsche’s brilliance? Having already produced season after season’s worth of printed collateral for long-term client the Bayerische Staatsoper, Mirko’s eponymous studio has just released its newest collection of work for the theatre. Spanning a series of events entitled Die Unmögliche Enzyklopädie, plus posters for the house orchestra Bayerisches Staatsorcheter and premiere posters too, the newest selection might even be the most diverse to date.