• 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 is now one of our two editors. He oversees Printed Pages magazine and content wise has a special interest in graphic design and illustration. He also runs our online shop Company of Parrots and is a regular on our Studio Audience podcast.

Most Recent: Graphic Design View Archive

  1. _llisr-meteor

    French design duo My Name is Wendy caught our eye earlier this year with the innovative D/I/M/E/N/S/I/O/N typographic poster series. The studio recently launched a new site showcasing some great new projects that suggest the pair’s Bauhaus-esque graphic approach is going from strength to strength. Two projects particularly intrigued us – the first being a poster series which acts as a part of a wider project in which the studio creates the fictional land of Meteor.

  2. List-tumblr_ncojdd7pid1tap5jeo1_1280

    Taiwan-born graphic designer Wang Zhi-Hong claims the place that most stimulates his imagination most is one with “no one but me”. In a somewhat reluctant-sounding chat with French magazine Post IM, he paints a careful picture of himself as a man of solitude and precision. Whether or not this makes for a happy life, it certainly makes for some superb graphic design work. From his impressive portfolio we were most drawn to his book design, which takes this idea of a simple, uncluttered existence and turns it into beautiful pared back, precise creations. We were particularly seduced by the monochrome Yohji Yamamoto book designs, with the glorious curved forms of Japanese kanji characters given space to breathe against this restrained aesthetic.

  3. List-dhub_brochures_inside

    Pitching for a design museum identity that will act as the platform for some of the most celebrated designers the world over can’t be an easy task. How to merge tradition and modernity? To create something beautiful, that doesn’t detract from the work itself? So when Mallorcan agency Atlas put forward their proposals for the new Barcelona Design Museum’s identity, it’s perhaps little surprise they worried their ideas were “too modern and risky.”

  4. List00_mitml_posters

    Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and designer Aron Fay have designed a new identity for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, creating this striking, labyrinth-like look that brilliantly communicates the faculty’s “anti-disciplinary” approach.

  5. List-2

    When it comes to psychedelic album artwork, it sometimes feels like the very best might already be behind us – Wes Wilson, Mouse & Kelly and Rick Griffin already having worked through the golden era. There’s something reassuring about the knowledge that graphic designers are still looking for ways to incorporate psychedelic elements into their designs though, and French graphic artist Lucas Donaud is foremost amongst them.

  6. Stationary

    Hotel branding can so often be a dowdy affair, as if the design nods to the temporary nature of the building’s inhabitants – something to move on from, rather than to dwell on. So it’s wonderful to see a brave, opulent new identity for the Connaught in London’s Mayfair, designed by The Partners around a stunning new artwork by Kristjana S Williams which now hangs in the hotel.

  7. List

    I was surprised to learn that Amsterdam’s HOAX studio don’t seem to have been on the site before, and faced with their wide-ranging portfolio it was a challenge to focus in on a narrative that made sense. Founders Bram Buijs, Sven Gerhardt and Steven van der Kaaij joined forces based on their “shared love for typography, material and experimentation” and this passion for fresh creative thinking runs throughout their work.

  8. List

    Creating a cohesive identity for a design conference might not seem like such a tall order, but the reality of producing flyers, bags, programmes and that all-important logo mark for an international event isn’t as simple as you might think. For starters there’s an abundance of conferences out there, each with it’s own unique look and feel, so creating visuals that present a point of difference will always pose a challenge; secondly how on earth do you make a talks timetable look exciting?

  9. List

    Boasting PVC-clad bottoms, surreal jazz photography and beautifully-rendered risograph prints of basketball hoops, Shabazz Projects’ homepage certainly offers a well-curated and striking experience. The LA-based publishing platform was founded by Hassan Rahim and Brian Okarski, releasing art, photography and design-focused books and objects, all with a run of 200 or fewer editions. Stand-out pieces include the Various Basketball Hoops risographs, which put a whimsical spin on these often weary-looking monoliths; and Eric Wrenn and Antje Peters’ Jazz photographs, which place instruments against a dramatic plume of smoke. Hassan and Brian say their aim is to “provoke and surprise,” and from the images on their site alone, they’re certainly not letting themselves down.

  10. Hellotalja_kit-list-image

    Many a blue-sky-thinker and envelope-pusher has been extolling the virtues of meditation and mindfulness to pseudo-spiritually swell their business jargon lately. So it’s refreshing when a beautifully branded, creatively-minded product emerges that promises to offer that lucrative “pause from modern life.”

  11. List

    If all the magazines and small publications that used the internet as their subject matter were dumped on your head it’d be curtains for you – there’s bloody loads of them. Some, like Offscreen, deal with the people that make digital culture happen and try to bring these unsung heroes out from behind their screens into the RGB limelight, others, like French publication Nichons – Nous Dans l’Internet (Tits – We In The Internet) are more conceptually-minded, analysing and assessing the social and cultural phenomena brought about by the ubiquity of technology.

  12. Main

    Setting up a design studio and changing your name to a cool pseudonym is a good two-fingers-up to life on the quiet side. Parisian designer Julien Ducourthial decided to make this leap, and now overseas The Jazzist, offering bold, fluoro design work “serving in fields of graphic design, illustration and art direction in digital & printed media.” When Julien emailed us he told us he was inspired by 8-bit imagery and cartoons, which gave us an immediate inkling that we were going to like his work. Anyone looking to commission a great French designer any time soon? Julien is your man.

  13. List

    We haven’t featured Oslo-based studio Heydays on the site for a while but a quick check-in with their portfolio shows they’re still producing top-quality work for an eclectic range of clients. Nöra is a design house based between London and São Paulo which among other things supplied the seats for the World Cup stadia in Brazil. Heydays wanted a look and feel that felt “sophisticated with a stylish twist.” The pointillist type treatment pulls this off neatly and there’s some impressive animated elements you can see below as well. Keep up the great work team Heydays!