• 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. Jorgeleon-amigo-int-list

    It’s always refreshing to see a creative being really honest about the challenges of a particular brief before showing us their solution. So it is with Barcelona-based graphic designer and art director Jorge León, who sets up his work for the Amigos skate shop by referring to the “many problems” it had encountered with its brand.

  2. Unnamed

    International design agency IS Creative Studio has done some elegant branding work for both rotisserie AND grilled chicken restaurants. And both identities look refreshingly tasteful. The studio’s work spans print, product and retail design, and its practice is based on extensive research and a desire to always go beyond the product at hand. Or indeed the chicken. Founded in 2010 by Richard Meza, the agency produces great work that shifts aesthetics seamlessly. From visuals that wouldn’t be out of place on a summer’s day in Capri in 1965, to fast food stereotypes and what is described as “type [broken up] to simulate chunks of fruit swimming happily in cream,” it’s a bunch of consistently impressive design work.

  3. Screen-shot-2015-01-26-at-10.12.37

    It’s little surprise that Mike Lemanski’s graphic design work has been something of an It’s Nice That favourite, and since we last posted about him in 2013 he’s not let his style slip. Mike’s site boasts some beautiful, mature designs for Feuilleton magazine, which takes articles from various international publications such as The New York Times, translates them into French and publishes issues every quarter.

  4. Hardyseiler-hannover-list-int

    When Hanover-based designers Bureau Hardy Seiler and web design agency Created by Monkeys decided to pitch to design the identity for the Freies Theater Hannover, they found themselves faced with a dilemma. The theatre hosts every flavour of live performance going, from puppetry and musical shows to experimental dance, and all in one flexible and family-friendly space. How could they create a graphic language to match that?

  5. Charlottedelarue-list-3-int

    Illustrator and art director Charlotte Delarue’s varied work shows her to be an uncommonly talented illustrator, conjuring incredibly realistic portraits out of paper and pencil safe in the knowledge that she doesn’t need to do anything more to make them impressive. Her art direction is of another ilk entirely, however – she works with the likes of electro acts Chromeo, Justice and Kavinsky to draw up impactful logotypes and album artwork concepts that can be spotted from miles away, from the golden legs which reappear on almost every Chromeo album cover to Kavinsky’s mysterious blue-tinged scenes.

  6. Parades-artdillier-sale-int-1

    When you’ve got a load of Christmas stock to flog at the start of the new year there’s only one way to go; have a big sale. But everyone else has had that exact same idea, and it’s a pain in the arse to make a sale look good right? Wrong! If you’re smart you’ll hire Bordeaux’s Bureau Parade to come up with a bespoke solution to communicate your low, low prices. Geometric shapes, bold colours and a playful use of typography meant that everyone knew about the sweet deals at Bordeaux’s most high-end shoe retailer, Michard Ardillier, without the store having to Xerox a bunch of giant red signs à la Tie Rack. Nice solution to an often overlooked problem if you ask us.

  7. Cometsubstance-sleeve-1-int

    We’re big fans of Comet Substance, graphic designer Ronny Hunger’s poster-producing alter-ego. Since we last featured him back at the tail end of 2013 Ronny has shifted from the Xerox collage aesthetic to slicker lines and high production values, without losing any of the depth or attention to idiosyncratic details of his earlier work.

  8. Oyalstudio-dishonestmanifest-int-list

    Portugal’s Royal Studio are not just winningly adept at creating bold, interesting and creatively ambitious visual treatments – they’re also terrific at writing the most intriguing project summaries I think I’ve ever seen. There’s a fine line between being weird and funny on the one hand, and gratuitously wacky on the other but these guys manage to pull off descriptions that mirror the invention, and occasional iconoclasm, in their work. Take The Dishonest Manifest, a series which seems to be ridiculing the preoccupation with how posters look as opposed to how well they do their job. The clearest indication of this is a long, thin creation with the phrase “Don’t give a fuck about content” repeated over and over again.

  9. Bonhams-auction-catalogue-int-4

    The idea of London’s auction houses, all stuffed to bursting with hushed voices, incredible art, taut-faced women and a nonchalant yet overpowering scent of money (I’ve never been to one, if you hadn’t guessed) make them feel like something of an alien concept. A place not for the likes of me, and one happy to remain in its exclusive bubble. But recently a series of innovative redesigns have suggested that perhaps a new aesthetic sensibility seems to be settling into the high-end fabrics of these places. There’s a sense they’re working to rethink their approach to their brand and how it looks.

  10. Mobydigg-aaberaward-1-int

    How many design studios can you think of who are named after a mis-pronounced classic novel? Because Munich-based design studio Moby Digg is, and that fact, coupled with their fun, bright site, propels them above most straight-laced studios in our book.

  11. Aaronvinton-kidsong-1-int_copy

    Aaron Vinton graduated from CalArts in 2009 and has since been producing idiosyncratic, skilled and occasionally creepy graphic design. Clearly influenced by the working processes of the days of yore, the thematic span and style gauge in his work are reminiscent of studios like Push Pin, whose work would adapt to context seamlessly.

  12. List

    Designed by Minna Sakaria, Carolina Dahl and Maria Ines Gul, this great identity for the upcoming Royal College of Art’s School of Communication Work-in-Progress show is a modular representation of the works in progress that’ll be exhibited. Made up of a set of parts, the typeface allows for each element to contribute to any number of letterforms or abstract shapes. As well as existing online and in print, the specially-designed typeface has been printed on stickers with the intention of interrupting the RCA’s corporate identity in a playful and productive way.

  13. 1.-of_drippy_donut_copy

    “Designing for Odd Future was a little bit like working for a bunch of slightly familiar homies, who have ridiculously awesome ideas for apparel and a lot more money than you,” says Chris Burnett, a Portland, Oregon-based designer who got in touch recently to show off his rather awesome site.