Cover Design 101: Behind the Scenes of Scott Westerfeld’s Spill Zone Cover

Cover Design 101: Behind the Scenes of Scott Westerfeld’s Spill Zone Cover

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but we think the same can be said of publishing graphic novels. Spill Zone was written by Scott Westerfeld and the art was created by Alex Puvilland. Once the book was ready for publication, an entire team stepped in to create the cover and jacket. Andrew Arnold, the associate art director at the graphic novel publisher First Second, was part of that team. Here, he takes readers behind the scenes and shares the secrets of cover design.

Click each image for a closer look at the design!


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Hello, comics fans! Here at First Second, we take a lot of pride in creating thoughtful and beautifully packaged books. One of our biggest design challenges is creating the cover, and the jacket for Spill Zone was no exception. Here’s an inside look at how this cover came to life, from its earliest stages to the final printed book.

Spill Zone was one of the first projects on my plate when I joined the First Second team last summer. The first thing I did to familiarize myself with the project was read the book, and wow, what a treat that was. Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland have created an incredibly rich world that feels movie-ready. It’s a sci-fi adventure, but also has some dark and twisted elements, and we wanted to make sure the cover conveyed both of those facets.

The process began with several thumbnails from Alex, artist extraordinaire, who had come up with some pretty thought-provoking and eye-catching sketches. At this stage, we like to say that nothing is off-limits. I often find that only a small portion of what we look at during this stage makes it onto the final book. It’s pretty fun to look back at an artist’s initial sketches to see what was originally on the table!

After Mark Siegel (First Second’s editorial director), Danielle Ceccolini (First Second’s designer), and I processed Alex’s thumbnails, we decided that the more graphic approaches were working better than the more illustrative ones.

Once we were all in agreement on the general direction, Alex started to think about the background art and color palette.

As the overall design started coming together, we began to focus in on the details. In the previous stage, we liked what Alex did with the environment, but wanted to see if he could tone it down a little. Sometimes, less is more.

We started to get pretty excited about where it was headed, so we gave Alex the green light to move to pencils, and very soon thereafter, inks.

Once the inks were in, we started exploring the color palette a little further. A good chunk of this story takes place in a radioactive-colored world, so a lot of these early explorations focus on that.

As we got closer and closer to a palette we liked, we delved into a variety of title treatments.

And before you know it, we had ourselves a final cover!

Once the cover is resolved, we start thinking about the rest of the jacket. How will the back cover interact with the front? How can we create an effective spine, with such a tiny piece of real estate? How can the flaps inform the reader with descriptive copy, but still look good?

And then there’s the pre-printed case design! This is the art you see under the jacket, which is glued to the book board.

As all of these elements were being finalized, we were simultaneously communicating with our production team to determine what printing materials and techniques would work best with the design. This includes paper stock, special inks, embossing plates, and lamination. For Spill Zone, we decided that metallic stock was a must-have, not only because it looked good with the art, but it made a direct reference to the radioactive element. Our senior production manager, Alexa Villanueva, worked closely with the printer to make sure the proofing process moved along smoothly. At this stage, we made any last minute text corrections and color adjustments, and made sure all the special effects and materials were printing properly.

From start to finish, this project took several months, but when the books arrived I could hardly contain my excitement. Collaborating with this wonderful group of bookmakers was an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to relive it with their next book, Spill Zone: The Broken Vow.

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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