I really could spend all the live-long day on the internet looking at artwork. And not just cover art. I could gaze at comics, sketches, illustrations, color palettes, furniture, paintings, video game concept art, photography, the list goes on and on until the end of the internet (which luckily I haven’t reached yet).
There’s no denying that art has its own impression on what a book cover should look like. It is cover art, after all. But what’s more is how it affects the artist responsible for a cover’s canvas. One night, I happened upon the portfolio of Alison Impey, a designer who’s responsible for crafting a few covers I may have mentioned on the blog. And she is all about some art.
Alison has kindly obliged to stop by for an interview today, so please do give her a warm welcome — I’m happy to share her work with you! I hope you love it as much as I do.
(PS – And holy photomania, Batman, is this interview filled with all kinds of book design eye candy! Okay, get thee to reading!)
TCG: Can you give a history of your career as a designer? What were some of your early influences? What eventually made you want to go into art/design?
AI: My career as a designer really began right here at Little, Brown and Company, but I think my desire to “design” became obvious to me when I was in college. Up until that time I had focused my creative energy on painting and drawing. I wanted to be an artist. When I got to college there were just so many new mediums to try. I found myself spending a lot of time in the printmaking studio and in the theater. I wanted to design costumes and sets. I never wanted to be on stage, but I loved the idea of contributing to the storytelling process. Oddly enough I think that experience, plus my love for the printmaking process and all the tactile elements of the paper and ink, really paved the way for my interest in making books.
After graduating from Bates College, I moved to New York City and set out to find a job. I met a few really great people right off the bat. Brian Floca, a children’s book author and illustrator, was one of the first people to put me in touch with designers that were working in publishing. It was his friend, Alyssa Morris, who soon became my boss and mentor. Alyssa was the Art Director at Little, Brown and Company and she hired me as her assistant. The timing was perfect because Little, Brown had just moved from Boston to New York and they were looking to grow. Over the years we’ve practically doubled in size and with that have come wonderful opportunities to work on some amazing projects.
TCG: My three favorite covers of yours are Ash, Sweethearts, and You Killed Wesley Payne. Were you able to read the books prior to designing the covers? Did Little, Brown give you an idea and you ran with it? What kind of parameters did you have to work in?
AI: Thank you!
I do read all the books I work on. I would find it difficult to connect with the book if I didn’t read it first. A great design begins with a good understanding of the book’s tone. I don’t believe a cover ever needs to be literal, in fact I prefer if it’s not, but I do think it’s incredibly important to convey the right mood.
The process begins with a discussion about how the book should be positioned. We want to make sure we understand the intended audience and genre. We meet with the editors to discuss basic positioning details. After that we read the manuscript and begin brainstorming.
Ash is one of my personal favorites too. Malinda Lo actually featured a nice interview on her blog where I go into detail about that particular cover, but more recently I designed her second book, Huntress. It’s a prequel to Ash, and it was great to be able to design a companion piece. Huntress is much more of an adventure story and I wanted an image that was really powerful, but still had a soft lyrical feel. It was a tough balance, but I think the snowy background and the determined, yet poised presence of the character helps strike that balance. I also think the soft movement in the hair is dramatic, but not overwhelming. For this image I actually worked with a photo retoucher to get just the right details that I wanted.
The book also includes a map, printed in a beautiful plum color, on the endpapers. The map was something the author had suggested, and I was excited to work with map artist, Dave Stevenson on it. He did an amazing job. The details are simply exquisite. I just got the finished book in and it looks great sitting next to Ash. I intentionally chose inverted palettes, white on black and black on white. Seeing them side by side is very satisfying.
TCG: How would you describe your particular type of artistry?
AI: It’s nice to hear you refer to it as artistry. I couldn’t agree more, and I think book designers have a special knack for communicating a mood and translating the essence of a story into something immediate and visual, and hopefully something memorable. It’s no easy feat, but it’s a wonderful job to have.
I also like to think of what I do as packaging. As a book designer I’m responsible for packaging the content of the book. I believe an effective design carries through the whole book. I like to think of how someone will experience the book, from first seeing it on the shelf, to opening it up, and even the last thing they see when they close the book. To open a book is to enter a world, and the design should both enhance and complement that world.
TCG: List three of your favorite pieces you’ve done so far, whether they’re photography, design, or illustration. (They don’t have to be YA-related.)
AI: It’s tough to pick favorites. It’s like picking your favorite child, but okay, I’ll play along.
Top on my list has to be the ghostgirl books. It was such a unique opportunity to work on a project where I really had free reign to ask for whatever specs and format I thought best served the book. I was lucky to work with a great team (author, editor, illustrator, and production coordinator). It was truly a designer’s dream project.
I recently finished working on a book called The Time-Traveling Fashionista, which I was able to commission beautiful full-color art for the interior. I was thrilled to work with the illustrator, Sandra Suy, and I had no problem spending lots of time researching vintage clothes. It’s a really fun package.
Ash and Huntress are of course favorites, as is Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Okay, I realize I’ve maxed out my limit. That’s much harder than I thought it would be. I love so many of the books I work on.
TCG: What’s your absolute favorite part of designing?
AI: I really enjoy the brainstorming process. In the very beginning when I’m alone with a manuscript, reading it for the first time, I’m filled with the excitement of starting a new project. Of course, as the process continues there are many challenges and hurdles to overcome in the approval process, but it’s those early days with the project that I enjoy the most. And I think that’s where I develop the connection that keeps me going through what can sometimes be many, many variations of a cover.
I also really love finding new artists to work with, and I enjoy collaborating with artists. As a designer you may have the vision and the idea for a cover but you need to find just the right artist or photographer to help bring that idea to fruition.
TCG: Who are your artistic influences?
AI: I look to art for a lot of my inspiration. I enjoy going to galleries and museums. The art fairs were recently in NYC and I went to both the Armory Show and Pulse. It can be exhausting to cover an entire pier of the Armory Show in one day, but the amount of contemporary art you get to see is simply astonishing. I snapped a lot of pics on my phone to chronicle all my favorites and to log what I found inspiring.
I recently went to the Abstract Expressionist exhibit at the MoMA, and there was a gorgeous Rothko there (No.10). I can’t say I like all Rothkos equally, but this one really made me stop and gaze into it. It was so simple, and so emotive. The soft edges and weightlessness of the color was mesmerizing. While on the Abstract Expressionist topic, I absolutely love Joan Mitchell’s paintings.
I also really like some of the graffiti art I see in NYC. There’s someone that goes around and manipulates the posters on the subway platforms. They meticulously cut out part of a poster and incorporate it into a different poster. It’s incredibly clever.
Artistic influences are never fixed or permanent for me. I find inspiration from an array of sources, but the key is to always be observing and looking for new sources.
TCG: What type of qualities in a book cover would make you want to pick it up? Are there any recent pick-me-up-worthy YA covers that you’ve noticed lately?
AI: As you can probably conclude from some of my earlier responses, I’m a sucker for packaging and when I go to pick up a book I want to feel the lamination and/or specs on the jacket, and I always take the dust jacket off and look at the case cover. I love when you’re surprised by a fun and different case cover design.
But with that bias aside, I think the biggest challenge with YA covers right now is that a lot of the “Paranormal Romance” books are beginning to all blend together visually. I personally find that the books that stand out are the ones that avoid the trend, but that is of course difficult to do when a trend is successful.
Thank you so much for the wonderful interview, Alison! I love your take on cover art — how it should enhance and complement opening a book as a door to another world.
Don’t forget to ogle the rest of her portfolio here!