Suzanne Dean on the cover design for Ocean Vuong’s searingly beautiful tale of mother and son

The creative director at Vintage discusses the book cover design for poet Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

2 September 2020

The creative team at Vintage, a part of Penguin Random House, are no strangers to the dynamic art of book cover design. Once a month, Vintage editors brief the team of eight designers, plus Picture Editor and Studio Manager, on their new titles. “Thinking about the book cover doesn’t reduce the pleasure of what I am reading,” its creative director Suzanne Dean tells It’s Nice That. Favouring to read titles as manuscripts on paper so she can scribble down ideas as she reads, it’s this approach that Suzanne used to create the cover design for acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

A New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller, Ocean’s first novel is a sweeping and shattering portrait of a family told through powerful storytelling. A letter from a son to a mother who cannot read, the text is written from the point of view of a man in his late 20s known as Little Dog, who unravels his family’s history rooted in Vietnam. In turn, the book unlocks parts of his life that she has never known, leading to unforgettable revelations while touching on deep explorations of race, class and masculinity. A story of modern America, the novel has been called ‘a marvel’ by Marlon James and ‘a masterpiece’ by Max Porter.

For Suzanne, approaching a new jacket design can often go one of two ways: “The visual imagery I develop depends very much on how I respond to the words, tone and content of the novel. Sometimes there are too many images to choose from within a manuscript, and I tend to work up several options to start with, before settling on a final approach. Or I can find myself zoning in on a single dominant idea.”

With On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the creative director landed on the symbol of a monarch butterfly and an image of a boy early on, but on reflection, felt the novel needed a “more abstract and poetic approach.”

Recalling her experience of reading the book, Suzanne describes the writing as “searingly beautiful, very moving, and so much about a son and his mother.” So, with this feeling in mind, she went on to design the hardback and paperback editions to feature delicately formed leaves. The leaves on the cover express a fragility, the ephemeral, and the passing of time. They also neatly provide a supportive layout that give tone and texture to a long title.

It’s a highly considered book cover design, for a novel The New York Times describes as “some of the most moving writing I’ve read… The tenderness of the prose feels like a triumph against a world hellbent on embittering the tenderhearted.”


Hardback design for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Copyright © Vintage 2019)

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Paperback design for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Copyright © Vintage 2020)

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Further Info

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is out now in paperback, ebook and audiobook. You can buy the paperback from Waterstones.

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