• 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. List_copy

    In the introduction to his exceptional new Erik Spiekermann monograph, Johannes Erler sums up “Spiekermann in two sentences” by way of this quotation: “I’m totally chaotic. I’m so untogether, my left leg doesn’t even know what my right leg is doing. I need order. I need systems. I don’t really do anything without a design grid.”

  2. List_2

    Their website is a combination of fluorescent colours, textures, media and effects so hectic that you can’t help but surrender yourself to it, but it’d be foolish to assume The Royal Studio’s design work is as chaotic as it appears. Behind the madness is a method which elevates their vibrant, contemporary design beyond the realms of trendy and into something actually very interesting, whether it’s an Honest Manifesto which claims that “everyone loves titles and captions” but they “don’t give a fuck about content” (repeated to fill) or a very well-executed poster advertising the studio’s 15-day tour around cities including Zagreb, Ljubljana, Dijon and Porto. The fact remains that Portugal-based Royal Studio are taking conventional graphic design and turning it on its head to see what happens, and we’re really enjoying admiring the results.

  3. List

    Of all the design disciplines, typography is almost certainly the least sexy. But Dan Rhatigan is one of the people who is able to talk about type in an engaging, and very human way. Earlier this year the Monotype type director worked with Grey London on Ryman Eco, described as “the world’s most beautiful sustainable font,” as it uses 33% less ink than the likes of Arial, Times New Roman, Georgia and Verdana.

  4. Tumblr_n4iq1a8swj1qdf776o1_1280

    Anyone you know a downright sourpuss? Treat ‘em to a link to work by Hungarian designer Anna Kövecses. Here at It’s Nice That we give high praise to work that is candy-coloured and cute – as long as it never falls under the tasselled umbrella of “twee.” Anna’s work is a perfect example of that as beneath the childish exterior lies a wealth of design knowledge and style.

  5. List

    In the year-and-a-half since we first featured Belgian designer Vincent Vrints on the site his fortunes have risen with the quality of his work. We were always enamoured with his canny ability to create aesthetically astounding imagery and merge it with equally appealing layouts, but he’s refined his process and embraced some new digital techniques resulting in a portfolio that floats between the retro and the ultra futuristic.

  6. Main8

    Google Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and almost every book cover design that appears either depicts someone hitchhiking or it has the aesthetic of a grotty travel diary of someone who’s been “finding themselves” along a motorway for a month or two too long. Kerouac’s novels don’t even need covers, right? They’re stand-alone pieces of literary genius. Big applause is needed then for Copenhagen designer Torsten Lindsø Andersen who has taken the rulebook of second-rate Kerouac book design and thrown it out the train window on to the track where it belongs. These ambient, sterile designs he’s proposed for the author’s back catalogue are the perfect fit to the words within: weird, unpredictable, drunk and unique.

  7. List

    I am a big believer that every magazine should be able to sum up what it does in a few words. New title The-Art-Form does just that with the pithy statement that it’s “a limited edition publication about art and artists.” Issue one features six artists – Ian Davenport, Peter Liversidge, Rana Begum, Dan Baldwin, Michael Reisch and Paul Insect – and each has been asked 13 questions ranging from why they make art to their favourite place. The answers vary not only in tone and subject matter (as you’d expect) but also in form, so while Ian has provided handwritten answers, Michael, Dan and Rana have created paintings, drawings and sketches in response to the questionnaire.

  8. List

    Over the last few weeks we have been exploring how Shillington College are revolutionising design education through their own model of practically-focused graphic design tuition. We talked to the teachers about how they put together this new kind of course and to those employers who have found the college to be an invaluable resource of young design talent. To round off this series of features, we went along to the London Graduation Show a few weeks ago to chat to some of the students about their experiences, so rather than hear it from us, best hit play and hear it straight from them…

  9. List

    It’s been a couple of years since we headed over to Sweden to celebrate the work of Stockholm studio Research and Development but in that time art directors Daniel Olsson and Jonas Topooco have kept the great work coming. They’re a versatile pair who pride themselves on working closely with their clients to produce design work that plays to their strengths without losing sight of the brief in a blaze of self-indulgence. Anyone who can make a publication for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency look this interesting is always going to get in our good books.

  10. Main9

    Anyone who designs a clock that reminds you to “have a nice day” must be a good person, and it turns out Joe Cole Porter is not just nice, he’s also incredibly good at what he does. His work is the perfect balance of well-informed and actually fun. How many times have you watched through your fingers at corporate brands trying to be fun and ending up just being boring with a healthy dose of wacky? Exactly. They should take a leaf out of Joe’s book and produce design that is cheerful and colourful but intelligent enough to get the job done at the same time – a bit like a friendly builder, or a cheeky plumber. Some of Joe’s most exciting stuff is his record sleeve design, and we hope to see a little more of that in the future.

  11. List

    Five years ago when we first discovered Swiss designer Mathias Schweizer (thanks to Côme de Bouchony) he was an incredibly elusive fellow, with no online presence to speak of and little work to be found anywhere on the internet. Since then he’s been nothing short of prolific, producing exhibition identities, posters, publications, typefaces, solo and group shows as well as out and out experimental pieces. In fact the one thing that seems to define his work is experimentation; with classic design rules broken all over the place in his vast portfolio.

  12. List

    I’m not sure what it is about the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague that means it spews out so much creative talent at such an alarming rate, but it certainly doesn’t show any sign of stopping soon. Here’s an example; Marinus Schepen hasn’t even graduated from his Graphic Design studies there just yet, but the work he’s creating is of such a calibre that we can’t help but share it any how.

  13. Main

    Unless you’ve recently relocated from a teeny tiny little hut atop a snowy, sheep-covered mountain miles from the nearest village, you probably know that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is on. It’s only the world’s biggest arts festival, after all. What you might not know is how it all began. Back in 1947, when corned beef was still a dietary staple and your granny was grateful for her bread and dripping sandwiches, eight rogue theatre troops gatecrashed the Edinburgh International Festival. These unofficial performers staged shows on the outskirts of the festival, and so “the fringe” was born.