Cover Design 101: It’s the Little Things that Matter

Cover Design 101: It’s the Little Things that Matter

Some readers may think that  designing a cover for a graphic novel is easy. After all, you’ve got an entire book of artwork at your fingertips. But the process is incredibly complex, and sometimes the smallest details make the biggest impact. We’ve invited our friend Andrew Arnold, the associate art director at First Second, back to share his behind-the-scenes secrets about designing the cover for Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina.

Click each image for a closer look at the design!

It’s a lot of fun to look back on a book cover design process, especially one as near and dear to my heart as Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina. I’m always surprised by which of the initial ideas make their way onto the final cover. Often times, they’re “little things” that didn’t stand out to me in the beginning stages of the process—like the way an image is cropped, the placement of the type, the positioning of a character, etc. So not only is revisiting the process fun, it reinforces how important it is to listen to your gut and trust your initial design instincts—you’re probably onto something!

As I flipped through the various stages of the Pashmina cover design, I noticed that a lot of those “little things” from the earlier parts of the process made their way onto the final cover. For my last guest post, I started from the top—sketches, then inks, colors, etc—but this time around, I thought it might be fun to start with the final image and then take you through the process so you can search for all those little details yourself. So here you go—the final cover of Pashmina!

My goal with this cover, as with all the covers I work on, was to draw in readers and tell them a little about what’s inside the book. Pashmina tells the story of an Indian-American girl who learns about her family’s history with the help of her mother’s magical pashmina. We knew we wanted the cover image to capture a few things: our strong female lead character and her magical (and mysterious) pashmina.

The first step was to ask Nidhi if she had any specific concepts in mind. I’ve found that providing too much art direction at the outset can really stifle an artist’s creativity. It’s also a lot of fun to hear an artist’s initial ideas—I’ve seen them come in the form of a written description, a sketch, or even a loose doodle on a cocktail napkin. If an artist isn’t sure where to start, that’s when I start brainstorming and we begin a more collaborative process. In the case of Pashmina, Nidhi had several starting points that helped shape our direction. Here are a few of them:

As you can see, we kept these early stage sketches very loose. If you get too caught up in the details at this point, you can miss the bigger picture! And, if you look closely, you might see a few things that appear on the final cover! (Like Pri’s windblown hair.)

After some back and forth between Nidhi, her editor, and myself, we eliminated some of the above directions and decided to explore compositions with a full-figure image of Pri:

While Nidhi was doing that, I explored some other ideas:

The thinking here was to revisit the magical component by exploring ideas with and without Shakti. (She’s an important part of the story.) Again, if you look closely, you’ll see a thing or two that appear on the final cover.

Seeing Nidhi’s previous round of images got us thinking about the palette. The orange and black felt a little too much like Halloween (which is a big no-no unless you are working on a Halloween book!), so Nidhi explored a different direction—one that felt a little more fiery and picked up the color of Pri’s pashmina.

We discussed this general direction and, in the end, felt that we needed to show more of a magical connection between Pri and her pashmina. With that in mind, we explored several more directions:

There were some strong options here, but they needed to be developed further:

As you can see, those little things aren’t as a little anymore. One pattern is now easily seen against the background, while another rests within the pashmina itself. The windblown pashmina—while a little different in each composition—is still prominent throughout, and Pri’s gaze is clearly looking away from the viewer; she’s either looking up or off to the side.

In the end, we settled on the following direction. You’ll see that Nidhi supplied some brand new art for Pri and her pashmina (up until this point, we’d been re-purposing interior art to build the cover directions.) Once the general layout was nailed down and the artwork was finalized, we wanted to really zero in on type treatments….

…Before turning our attention to the full jacket design with the spine and flaps!

And there you have it! I hope you enjoyed taking a look at this cover’s evolution, and picking up on all those “little things” that crept their way into the final design. It just goes to show you that sometimes the little things really go a long way!

Happy creating!

Andrew Arnold is one of the co-authors of the Adventures in Cartooning series and moonlights [during the day] as a book designer for a children’s book publisher. His work has appeared in several publications, including Nickelodeon Magazine, Cambridge University Press, and Roaring Brook Press. Originally from Houston, TX, Andrew currently lives in New York City.

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