artist abbreviated: neil swaab

I’m really not quite sure what on earth possessed me to call this feature “Artist Abbreviated.” Judging by my past interviews, I don’t know what it means to abbreviate things. Whether you want to chalk it up to my early journalism days or my never-ending interest in my creative community, I feel like I never seem to run out of questions.

But this post isn’t about me. It’s about getting into the imaginative brain of a guy who seems to have his finger in every pie when it comes to artistry. Illustrator, designer and art director? Oh, sure. Animator? Check. Writer…yes. Cartoonist? Sure, why not be talented in this arena, too?

If you’re not familiar with any of his work, you may recognize at least one of his YA covers:

Yep, he’s the guy responsible for designing (and illustrating) the face of a book I’ve heard nothing but endless praise for. Being perfectly honest, I wanted to read it as soon as I saw its cover. So without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to its maker, the unlimitedly talented Neil Swaab.

Photo © Cat Cutillo 2007

How did you get to become who you are today in your profession? Did you always want to be an illustrator/designer/art director?

I went to Syracuse University where I majored in Illustration. I’d always been attracted to art, writing, and storytelling growing up and thought it would be incredibly cool to have a career where I could make things in that market for a living. When I graduated college, I moved to New York to try to make it as a visual artist. I landed a job at a magazine soon after and started illustrating on the side during evenings and weekends.

A year afterwards, I left that job and moved into the book publishing industry at HarperCollins where I was an assistant for an art director in their Children’s Division, working on children’s books and young adult novels. I worked my way up through the ranks in a few years and then was put in charge of the two imprints I had started on as an assistant. All the time, I was still freelance illustrating. After five years of doing that, I quit to work fulltime freelance. All sorts of interesting projects came to me soon after, and I even got to animate two television shows for Adult Swim and Comedy Central. I now split my time between art directing, illustrating, and writing for a variety of clients inside and outside of the publishing world.

You’ve done a pretty darn healthy amount of fantastic YA covers. I can’t even choose my favorite, because they’re all completely different and fantastic in their own way. Do you have a favorite one that you’ve done so far?

Thanks! I don’t really have a favorite, but at the moment, I’m really proud of the Boy21 cover I did for Little, Brown. That cover was the closest to my original vision and, luckily, didn’t get compromised in the book cover committee machine that governs most covers. And I got to work with my friend, Josh Cochran who illustrated the drawing over the photo!

(You know how I’m normally all OMG MAKE IT STOP when it comes to faces on covers? Obviously this one doesn’t count. OBVIOUSLY.)

How would you describe your particular type of artistry?

I would call it narrative illustration. I like to do art that tells a story in some capacity. Even as a designer, I’m obsessed with story.

How would you describe your design process in cover design?

Cover design is an incredibly long and tedious process. First, I’ll get a memo that has some key points relating to the book, usually giving a paragraph summary of the plot, description of the main characters, and a list of a few similar titles in the marketplace. There may or may not be a manuscript at this point. If there is, I’ll read it as quickly as I can, jotting down notes and making little sketches for any imagery that comes to mind. I try to think about what the tone of the book is, what are the key things I want to convey in the cover, and what might be a fresh take on the cover. I try to make covers that are graphically interesting, but also have something clever going on as well.

After I’ve done my reading and recorded any initial responses I had to it, I’ll then meet with the editors and have a conversation about the book. I want to see if the way they see the book is how I see it and discuss things we both think are important to convey and any strong ideas I may already have. The editors may have a concept already in mind as well or an idea that they want to see. I’ll add that to my list of things to work on as I start exploring concepts. Once we both know that we’re on the same page I’ll go off and start concepting.

When I concept a book, I do everything from rough sketches to fully-finished pieces. If I’m imagining a cover will be illustrated by someone other than myself, I’ll do some rough sketches for it and attach it to samples from the illustrator. I may even use the illustrator’s work to make a mock-up of the idea(s) to help people visualize it. If I’m imaging the cover being more photographic, I’ll do photo research and start mocking up idea after idea. This is the fun part of the process because one idea often sends you in the direction of another you might have never thought of. I generally work very intensely for a couple of weeks (often juggling other work or covers at the same time) until I have a large collection of ideas. Generally I do a minimum of 30 or 40 complete sketches.

I’m pretty sure the non-creative average reader would want to claw his or her eyes out at this point. *inserts multiple high fives for creative courage*

I like to leave no stone unturned when it comes to idea generation. Ideas are the most important thing! Once I’ve got 30 – 40 comps, I’ll narrow them down to about a dozen to share with the Creative Director or whoever my contact is at the publishing house and we’ll then narrow them down to 3 – 5 concepts that we think are working the best. I’ll take any notes they have and incorporate them into those comps and then meet with the editors to review and narrow down further and refine based on their feedback.

Once the creative director, editor, and I are happy and feel we have a strong cover direction and a couple viable alternatives, we’ll take them to a jacket committee meeting where the publisher and representatives from the sales and marketing departments will review and give their input. It is rare that a cover concept leaves one of those meetings unscathed. Frequently, they’ll have lots of comments or may even hate all the covers completely. It can be quite brutal. Afterwards, I’ll take whatever comments they had and start the entire process over again—refining covers they generally liked, or starting fresh if they felt the entire take on the book was off. When the latter happens, it’s usually not a fault of the designer, but a disconnect between the editor and the sales staff who see the book and its placement in the marketplace differently. For example, an editor may see the book as being more literary while the publisher may want it to look more commercial. Navigating the waters between both opposing views can be difficult. This process continues until everyone is in agreement on a direction or the weaker party gives in.

Once we’ve decided the look of the cover, if it will be illustrated or photographed I’ll contact the illustrator or photographer we want and commission them to create the cover. We’ll then go through the above cover meeting again to make sure everyone is happy with the sketches before proceeding to final art. If I’m creating the art myself, buying stock photos, or doing the photo manipulation, I’ll then go off and create the image. Once all final art is in, I’ll tweak the design—which at this point is mostly mocked up and not close to final—to get something that starts feeling like a real book. I’ll take it to a cover meeting again and get any other comments (there are usually some) and revise and tweak as necessary as often as it takes to please the many cooks in the creative kitchen.

Once the front cover is approved, I’ll then go on to design the ARC, which is an “advanced reading copy” with lots of marketing stuff on the back cover and spine. After that’s complete, I’ll design the real book jacket, carrying over design and art elements from the front to create a nice package. The jacket will route internally for several passes as copy and design are tweaked until it’s finally released to the printer.

We’ll then see a test print from the printer and adjust any color accordingly (and make any copy or design alterations as well which, as you guessed, most likely happens). Once the jacket is finally approved, we give the printer the OK to print. We’ll receive copies of the final jacket not long afterwards and the process is complete. The only exception would be if a large chain like Barnes & Noble has a different view of the book in which case, sometimes, they may tell the publisher they’ll take less copies of a book because they don’t like the cover and more copies if they were to change it to suit the market they want to push it in. And then the whole process starts over—only at a much more intense schedule since you still have to make the same release date! It can be crazy when that happens!

And that’s the process! Whew!

What do you think is the biggest misconception about cover design from the non-design-savvy’s perspective?

That a cover is made very quickly. Covers take a lot of time and are a carefully orchestrated affair. These images aren’t random that are put on the covers, but are scrutinized from every angle.

What is the most fulfilling part about being an artist?

I love to create. At the end of the day, I have something to show for it. I can point to something on a shelf or in a magazine or on the internet and say, “I made that!” Not a lot of people can say that in their careers. I also like the fact that I’m connecting with someone. Art has the power to emotionally resonate with its viewers. Even if it’s commercial art.

If you could work with any other artist/designer/illustrator/photographer (dead or living), who would it be?

I have an art studio in the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I’d love to work with all my friends in the building (and those who have left it recently or are tangentially connected) because they’re all incredibly talented and some of the best illustrator/designers working today. So far, I’ve gotten to work with two of them—Josh Cochran on Boy21 and Alex Eben Meyer on The Unfinished Angel. The others would be Gavin Potenza, Jessica Hische, Leif Parsons, James Gulliver Hancock, Sam Weber, Chris Silas Neal, Grady McFerrin, You Byun, Ted McGrath, Kim Bost, Jennifer Daniel, Gilbert Ford, Jon Han, Jillian Tamaki, and our newest member Jing Wei. I’m sure I probably left a couple people off that list.


What do you look for in cover design when you’re browsing the bookstore, library, or online? What makes you want to pick a book up?

It’s hard to say. It just has to strike me first and foremost. Get my attention. I like covers that tend to have something clever about them where, after the initial impression, it lingers with you longer because there’s something deeper in there. Of course, it has to also be visually interesting and have a nice use of typography. It has to look like it was well thought out and the decisions weren’t arbitrary. Personally, I’m also attracted to minimalist and literary covers, but, unfortunately, don’t get to do many of them in the genres I create in. Somebody hire me for some literary adult covers!

Yes! Hear that, pubs? Neil’s your guy!

Are there any YA covers that have recently grabbed your attention?

So many! I recently filled in at Little, Brown for a few months while someone was on maternity leave, and they do some amazing covers. Ben Mautner and Alison Impey, in particular, just always inspired me when I saw what they were working on. I wish I had their chops.


And finally, just for fun — if you had gobs and gobs of money, and unfortunately could only spend it on a super-expensive jacket/interior design, how would you design it? Any big ideas you’ve had that may have just been too expensive for someone’s marketing’s budget? 

I think all the special effects only work if they’re right for a particular book. Sure, it would be great to have die cuts, embossing, debossing, three kinds of foils, five extra Pantone colors, matte laminate with spot UV, full-color interior, etc. on a book, but it has to make sense for it. Otherwise, it’s like wearing a suit to a pajama party. It looks ridiculous. It’s overkill. You can certainly overdesign and that’s a tendency I see in a lot of inexperienced designers. I strongly feel that the most important thing about design is communication and the reading experience and nothing should get in the way of it—only enhance it. That being said, it would be really cool to do a cover made of metal with engravings and etchings in it. Sign me up for that!

Again, pubs, on behalf of Neil’s Design Fanclub, I want to read (or at least stare at) my metal-covered book. Please hire him ASAP to design it. Neil, many thanks so much for stopping by TCG today!

If you need more Neil in your life, make sure to check out his site, his comic strip Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles, or follow him on Twitter.

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11 thoughts on “artist abbreviated: neil swaab

  1. I’m a huge fan of the cover for “you are my only.” So beautifully designed!

    I like that you delve into interviews with artists and designers. I think they get massively overlooked. I’m not even sure I know how to find out who designed most covers. Thanks for doing this!

    • Glad you liked the interview, Sommer! It was really hard to choose my favorite cover, I kinda love ’em all. I actually discovered Swaab’s work via Twitter, when @pinkcreamsoda tweeted a link to his website.

  2. LOVE the Boy21 cover. LOVE Neil’s style. I just wish I had a finished manuscript needing a cover he could design. Um, does he do gritty YA medieval fiction? ‘Cause that’s what I’m working on.

  3. He’s done some really great covers. The Boy21 cover is amazing, both the illustration and the picture underneath (I mean, those eyes, right?). And I think I was smitten with Sloan’s book after simply seeing the cover, but I knew I NEEDED to read it after I also read April’s thoughts (Good Books and Good Wine). Excellent interview. LOVE LOVE LOVE this side of the industry.

  4. Wow, I had NO idea that much time went into these covers, the process is pretty crazy. And I’m totally in love with that Boy21 cover. I love what he says about art telling a story 🙂

    Fantastic interview, I’m so glad you featured Neil!! 😀

  5. I must say that I particularly love the cover for I’ll Be There. I read an ARC that didn’t have a cover image yet and I *loved* the story. When I finally saw the cover, I was ecstatic because I feel like it’s a perfect fit (also, it’s BEAUTIFUL). Thanks for this interview!! 😀

  6. Pingback: shannon associates: YA cover art represent! |

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