Jon Gray on designing book covers for Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and other literary giants

13 May 2019

If you were pushed to pick a selection of the most notable book covers of recent years, there’s a very good chance some of Jon Gray’s designs would be in there. From Sally Rooney’s critically acclaimed bestseller, Normal People, which adorned every bookshop window display late last year, to Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which seemed to make at least one appearance on every tube journey to and from home.

It’s been a mixture of luck and skill (mostly the latter) that has got Jon to where he is now, designing book covers for some of the biggest authors and publishers around. “I studied at LCC a very long time ago and I was fortunate enough to get an internship at Little, Brown Book Group during the summer of my second year,” he explains. “When I finished college they offered me a job and I’ve been designing book covers ever since.” Despite partially falling into his early days of design work, the route he’s take seems inevitable; both of his parents were avid readers and his dad was an archivist, “so it’s no real surprise that I gravitated to all things paper,” he says.

Working out of a studio in Dalston that he shares with illustrators Tom Gauld and Dan Mumford, Jon has a busy schedule. But despite jumping from bestseller to bestseller, he tells us that he’s often still critical of his own work. “Getting past that seems to get harder and harder the longer you do the job. It’s learning how to switch off that critical voice long enough to give yourself the time to play, to experiment, that I think is the key to making good work.” Jon goes on to describe his envy of people who can naturally forgo their impulsive fault-finding and details a process that belies his true artistry:

“1. Hooray new job! 2. Read it and take notes. 3. Look at notes and recognise sinking feeling in stomach. 4. Bang head against wall as deadline looms, repeating mantra: ‘you’re shit, you’re shit…’ 5. Look on as deadline passes and angry emails appear in inbox.” But the sixth step is the one he wishes he could just skip to from the start: “6. Go back to notes and realise that actually, if I take a breath and calmly assess what’s in front of me, then give myself a bit of room to play around, there is usually the makings of an idea in there somewhere.”


Jon Gray: A collection of J.D. Salinger novels

Strenuous and stressful as it might be, it’s a tried and tested method that has brought Jon much success. Having designed around 3000 covers since he first ventured into the industry, many of them have set the bar for his fellow designers. In 2002 his cover for Jonathan Safran Foer’s first book, Everything is Illuminated, brought about the revival of hand-lettered typography, sparking off ten years of DIY aesthetics that were a reprieve from the clean and cliched design that had been so prevalent before.

That being said, Jon’s covers are not simply aesthetically pleasing; they’re also suitably thoughtful. He always asks for the most text possible from his clients, in order to kickstart his creative process. “I struggle designing without knowing the mood of the book, it’s character,” he says. “I’m not good at fishing in the dark for concepts and I think my best work comes about when it’s rooted in the text.”

But sometimes, he has to make do with very little. Which is why working with gifted authors like Zadie Smith and wonderful editors like Simon Prosser (Zadie’s editor) is such a blessing: “They will send me a great brief that outlines the plot and sets the mood. There will be visual references and often a strong sense of the area that the book should sit, but with plenty of room to experiment.”

He adds that working with high-profile clients is easier than one might think. “People often imagine that designing covers for big authors is going to be harder somehow. It’s true that marketing and sales departments have a big say in the final cover, but generally, if you can make an author and their editor happy, the rest will follow.”

And he’s certainly made many very happy. Other notable titles in his expansive and diverse portfolio include David Foster Wallace’s landmark novel, Infinite Jest, two books by Salman Rushdie and, more recently, some rejackets for J.D. Salinger, to name but a few. “These I feel particularly proud of because they were the last collaboration with my very good friend John Hamilton, an art-director at Penguin who sadly passed away in February. Also, Salinger is always a joy to read and re-read.”

But for such an accomplished and long-standing designer, what can possibly be left? Well, Jon insists, “there are so many covers I’ve still not been lucky enough to design: Carver, Greene, Murdoch, Stein, Simenon and anything by Denis Johnson.” Though he adds, “My agent Dutch Uncle gets me into other worlds outside of publishing and that’s always exciting. I’d love to do some work in film if anyone will have me, and still have plans for a children’s book. In general though, I love my job and feel very lucky that people continue to give me work.”


Jon Gray: Zadie Smith, Swing Time


Jon Gray: Sally Rooney, Normal People


Jon Gray: Salman Rushdie, Quichotte


Jon Gray: Truman Capote, In Cold Blood


Jon Gray: David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


Jon Gray: Zadie Smith, Grand Union


Jon Gray: Alan Trotter, Muscle


Jon Gray: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated


Jon Gray: Matthew Sperling, Astroturf


Jon Gray: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


Jon Gray: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Little Boy


Jon Gray: William Gibson, Neuromancer


Jon Gray: César Aira, 3 Novels by César Aira

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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