behind the design: sammy yuen & hunger

If you’ve missed the past two days of me gushing about Jackie Morse Kessler’s Hunger cover (oh, and she gushed too), today’s post may catch you a bit off-guard. Illustrator and designer Sammy Yuen joins me today to talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into designing the face of Hunger, the first installation in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse series.

So, the horsemen of the apocalypse with a modern twist — what were your first thoughts and reactions on how to go about designing the face of a novel like Hunger? Did you get a chance to read it before starting the design?

Whenever I get a new assignment, I always try to think about the audience and what would draw them into the book. I read the first few chapters of HUNGER, and I was fascinated with how Jackie Morse Kessler was able to merge a contemporary subject matter like anorexia with a fantastical/biblical storyline like the four horsemen. So, my first thought was: how do I create a timeless look that reflects an ancient story and a modern theme?

What were your initial ideas for the cover? Do you have some early illustrations/mockups that you can share?

Since this book deals with eating disorders, I thought it made perfect sense to include a scale. I felt like this iconic image tells the potential reader immediately what the focus of the story is. Here is a thumb nail/first sketch.

What is your normal design process after you get a working draft? What were the parts that kept getting tweaked?

When I start working on a cover, I like to do three thumbnails, each with a different concept/composition. When one concept gets approved, I start doing photo research so my comps can be as detailed and as accurate as possible. Sometimes I create an outline of the artwork using Adobe Illustrator, and from there, I import the art to Photoshop and begin adding texture, shape, and light. After I complete the art, I start the text design. I like the text to frame the art. I’d say the text design gets tweaked the most.

What were the easiest parts of the design/process? The hardest?

Every cover brings a new challenge. It’s like a puzzle—you have to put all your ideas (the pieces) together, the text design, the art, and all with the audience and story in mind. So, the toughest part is finding the right pieces /concept for the puzzle. But once you get the right concept, the execution is the easiest part. Michelangelo believed that he had to find the right piece of marble and free the art from the piece of stone. I like to take the same approach. I just chip away at the Photoshop file till I think I have a nice polished piece.

You’ve done a lot of work designing covers for other YA authors like Ellen Hopkins, Scott Westerfeld, and Holly Black. What’s been your favorite cover that you’ve designed so far for YA literature so far?

I don’t really have a favorite because I enjoy the process more than the finished product. I just want other people to enjoy looking at the cover enough that they’ll pick up the book and want to find out more about it.

You’ve also designed the cover for the second book in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse series, Rage. Reflecting on how Hunger’s cover art came to finalization, how did the design process for Rage fare against its predecessor? Was it easier? More difficult?

I think it was easier to design RAGE. When I get an assignment, I always ask if it’s part of a series because each individual book is part of a bigger piece. Since HUNGER is book one of four in a series, it establishes the look of the books to follow.

I recently read an article on trends in YA cover art. Do cover trends play into your ideas for designs? Also, where do you find the balance in prioritizing the message at the heart of a novel and including marketing at the same time? Or, do you feel cover art’s main focus always revolves around the art?

To me, art is about communication, and the final product is a combination of all the pieces of a puzzle. I don’t want to follow the trends; I hope I can be a part of setting them.

How did you come about your career as a designer?

I would have to say my design career began as 4-year-old kid with my first set of Mr. Sketch Scented Markers.

When I was 10 I got my first computer, an Apple 2E. At this point, I discovered McPaint. My mother told me her prediction, that I would one day create art on this computer. (Naturally, I thought she was crazy)

In high school I spent six weeks at RISD summer arts program. This really changed my life.

I went to Syracuse and majored in Illustration and spent one summer abroad in Italy studying art history. To say this experience was influential is an understatement.

A few years and a few odd jobs after college, I got my first opportunity to design books full time at Houghton Mifflin in the college text book cover division.

After a year there, I got my first job in Children’s book design with Planet Dexter, an imprint of Penguin Putnam.

Unfortunately Planet Dexter was a casualty of the .com bust and was cut from Penguin’s line up. So I was out of job, but that was the best thing to ever happen to me because I got a job at Simon & Schuster in NYC.

I worked at S&S for 10 years and really matured as an artist and a person. I just recently left Simon & Schuster to pursue a career as a freelance artist, and I’m really enjoying all the new opportunities that has come with freelancing. Now I’m illustrating and designing book covers and creating apps for publishing houses. Turns out my mother was right.

But moms are always right, aren’t they? 😉 Thanks for the interview, Sammy.

To see more of his design work, you can visit Sammy’s website, or become a fan of his on Facebook.

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9 thoughts on “behind the design: sammy yuen & hunger

  1. Hey, I just wanted to say that I LOVE your blog! YA book covers are one of my favourite subjects and I love how you discuss the ones you like (and also honour the ugly ones ;). I’m a media designer in training and it’s really good to read another designer’s (professional) thoughts on book covers.
    Have you ever visited Melissa Walker’s blog? She very often has blog posts in which authors talk about how the covers of their books were made, rather interesting.

    Keep up the great posts!

    • Thanks for the kind words! I just took a look at your blog (via Google Translate!), I love yours too! Gah, if only I was fluent in German. I especially love comparing international book covers. So interesting to see the different interpretations of what a novel’s cover should look like. And yes, I’m a big a fan of Melissa Walker’s blog, I love her Cover Stories! They’re so extremely insightful and I love reading about how they came to be – from conception to final copy.

      • Thanks 🙂
        I love to look at foreign book covers. Most German covers are really boring (big female face, gaussian blur filter, some nice colours et voilá) but some are quite pretty. I usually prefer the English covers though. If you ever need help or resources concerning German book covers I’m glad to help out 😀

  2. Pingback: FIVE (x 2) great covers |

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