Jason Smith is the design genius behind the covers of WOOL, SHIFT, and DUST that most of you have come to know. He also designed the UK cover of SAND, which is flipping gorgeous. Covers are such a crucial part of the book package, which is why I think these artists deserve more attention and praise. As a reader, I’m also curious about how these covers materialize. So I asked Jason a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:
Me: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into art and design? And why publishing?
Jason Smith: As far back as I can remember, design has always been a soundtrack to my life. Some of my earliest memories revolve around copying birthday or Christmas cards and seeing how close I could get to the original. I remember my dad teaching me how to portion an image into a grid system in order to copy it more effectively. I also remember being fascinated by the imagery in books and studying them for hours, encyclopaedias, fables, The National Geographic.
I went on to study design through education, from my early school years in Nottingham all the way to Saint Martins in London. I began my career designing covers for CDs and DVDs and this I loved. I got a real buzz from combining my passion for music with design. The move into publishing was quite a natural progression as there were a lot of similarities designing across both medias.
Me: How important is it to read the books you design covers for? Do you have time to read every book you work on?
Jason Smith: It’s great if you can read as much as possible, but it’s not essential. Sometimes all you need to read are the opening chapters to really get a feel for a book. Other times the editor can have a very clear brief of what they want to achieve and so a synopsis is enough. Alternatively there might not be any material available and so you use your knowledge of the market, experience and creativity to solve the problem.
Me: Walk us through the cover design for SAND. I understand you did some involved set construction for some of the design ideas?
Jason Smith: I really enjoyed designing Sand, like the characters in the book I felt I went on a journey of adventure.
Once we had settled on a route for the cover I set up a photo shoot with a trusted photographer. The concept was to actually bury a person in sand and shoot various parts of the body emerging from the dunes. As you can imagine this proved quite tricky and safety was paramount. We used a huge board, which we raised off the floor and covered with ten bags of children’s play sand. We cut a small hole from underneath and got a very brave volunteer (not me) to put his hand through the hole and up onto our artificial desert surface. It looked fantastic!
The photographer had also sourced some diving masks, which we then strapped to our model in order to bury his head. This proved one step too far, the logistics of actually getting someone to breathe under all the sand was a nightmare, blocking up the ears with cotton wool, cutting a hole for a snorkel etc etc. In the back of my mind I worried the headlines in the paper the next day would read : MAN DIES DROWNING IN SAND IN FULHAM. And so we just didn’t feel we could do it safely enough. We got the shot in the end by using a combination of a mannequins head and our model in a mask, and superimposing the two.
Me: What’s the process in settling on a final cover? How many people are involved, and what are those discussions like?
Jason Smith: There are actually quite a lot of people involved in the process. After I have done my visuals they are put in a weekly jackets meeting and discussed by a selected team of the divisions key figures, the Managing Director, Sales and marketing to name a few. The discussions are wide-ranging and deal with all aspects of the cover: is the design the right feel for the book; does it answer the brief; will it reach the appropriate target audience etc etc. Once we have a design that the meeting has agreed upon and are happy with, then we approach the author for their thoughts. It’s quite a collaborative and organic process that I feel works well for us.
Me: There is a lot going on with this hardback, with a reversible dust jacket and map, and a cover design on the board of the book itself. How involved were you in this production?
Jason Smith: I am always heavily involved in the evolution of the design, from initial roughs and concepts, through to art working the rest of the package and suggesting possible finishes. In this instance I was very fortunate to work closely with the editor of the book, Jack, and he had a very clear vision from the start. He wanted to create something for the fans, a physical object that they could treasure. He had already commissioned an illustrator to work on the map which features on the reverse of the dust jacket and it was my job to bring all the elements together and embellish further.
Me: Do you see publishers doing more involved designs like this to help books stand out? And what does it feel like to see readers gushing over your covers for the WOOL series and now for SAND?
Jason Smith: To be fair, going that extra mile now and then is something we’ve done here for some time. That extra little push can really help breakout a debut author or it can help draw attention to an already established brand author. Much like a bespoke suit, it’s the little hidden details, the way it has been lovingly put together, that can help give a book it’s character.
I loved working on the WOOL series and I’m very pleased with the way they turned out. I felt it was only fitting to put as much passion into the covers as there was in the writing. I guess if people feel I managed to achieve this with the covers then that makes me a happy designer:)
Me: Finally, what are you reading now, and what can we expect to see from you next?
Jason Smith: At the moment I’m reading the next book from Tony Parsons, The Slaughter Man, and I’m looking forward to designing it. We’ve just published his first crime novel in the series called The Murder Bag, and it went straight to number one, which we were all very happy about.
Me: Thanks, Jason! And thank you so much for all of the amazing covers you’ve graced my words with.