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…
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.
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.