Although the saying goes that one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s fair to say that when discussing literal book covers, most of us actually do. Yet in this creative case, maybe this judgement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, book cover design is a dedicated craft in which the narrative, context and author of a title are taken into careful consideration by the designer at hand. For us, one of the most thoughtful communicators in this field is Alex Merto, an art director for Picador books in the States, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Alex, who is based in New York, first stepped into the field of graphic design in high school designing album covers and artwork for bands. His more formal education then took place post school, first in a summer art program at OTIS in Los Angeles, before heading to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. Yet, his interest in book cover design specifically came from the endless possibilities the medium allows for. “I think it’s easy to become really bored with your work or what you do,” he explains, “but book covers allow you to explore areas that you haven’t done before.” For instance, depending on what the narrative may call for, working in this field encourages a creative to try on various hats: “It allows you to be an illustrator, photographer, designer, editor, animator or whatever you feel is bests for the subject matter.”
Within Alex’s role at Picador, the aim is simply to “try to make work that feels new,” the designer tells It’s Nice That. In more detail, Alex alludes to how his covers often lean into aesthetics that are “bold and graphic and hopefully unexpected.” The text at the heart of his creations are titles “that have the potential to live on forever,” maybe passed on enthusiastically by friends, inherited within families, or even studied in schools. “I want my design to become an object that someone wants to hold onto for a very long time.”
In terms of literal process, Alex says he follows the same few steps no matter the title he’s been assigned, “although it doesn’t always work the same way,” the designer explains. Unsurprisingly, he’ll start with reading. This is necessary for fiction in particular, while non-fiction can allow for more of a skim read to lift key takeaways. “While I’m reading I’m usually also taking a ton of notes and highlighting words or passages that jump out to me.” Snooping for “visual clues and/or places that help give me an idea of why the author came up with this particular title for a book,” Alex will then combine his notes and random sentences or words lifted from the book “to create a new image.”
Yet there are two specific aspects of Alex’s approach to book cover design which spoke to us at It’s Nice That – and may have to you too if you’ve picked up one of his covers. The first is an element of wit which draws in a potential buyer, such as his work for David Means’ Instructions for a Funeral, which features a classic document folder shaped to resemble a coffin. “Whatever the process, the most important thing for me is having some understanding of where the title comes from,” Alex reveals on how he develops these creative cues. “I’m also very aware that I do the thing that you’re not supposed to do in book design, and that is do what the title says,” he admits. “But, I hope I abstract it enough that it gets away from it being too obvious.” In fact, much weighs on the title chosen by an author for Alex: “Titles really make or break the book for me. A good title is everything,” he adds. “A short title is even better.” Such focus on the title means Alex can often be found at his desk repeating it in his head, “until I’m subconsciously thinking about it and the idea presents itself to me, hopefully before the deadline is due.”
This title is then rendered in the second part of Alex’s design approach that we love: his use of typography. No matter the context, the designer’s use of type is consistently refined, whether he’s commissioning the likes of linocut artist Sophy Hollington, or hand drawing a font himself. “Type design is always there from the start,” Alex explains. “I usually start and end the design with just typography.” This eye for text is driven from the designer’s belief that “the type needs to be able to work on its own before starting the design,” as well as the fact Alex admits he’s “one of those designers who spends an overwhelming amount of time researching typefaces”.
Alex only recently took on the title of art director at Picador, and will spend 2022 excitingly rebranding the imprint to bring forward “a new look to how the books have been designed,” he says of the future. Within this role will also be plenty of collaboration, spending time reaching out “to new designers and illustrators whose work I’ve always admired, much who have been featured on this site” – which we look forward to seeing come to fruition!
Alex Merto: Among Flowers A Walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid (Copyright © Alex Merto, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.