Q&A with Emma J. Hardy, designer

By   Hannah Bickerton 4 min read

Emma J. Hardy is a book designer and founder of two magazines, Foul Play and Spine. We asked her a few questions about her work, what makes a successful book cover, and her advice to people interested in getting into design.

1. Tell us a bit about your work. Did you always want to be a designer?

My undergraduate degree was actually in animation. I was intending on working as an animator but in my third year I started getting interested in graphic design (from doing our film project packaging) and so when I graduated I ended up in a marketing design job. From there I discovered book design and moved to work for a publisher. After a few years there, where I received on the job training as I moved up the ranks, I decided to go freelance.

2. How has book cover design evolved in recent years? What in your eyes makes a successful cover? 

There’s been quite a big return to hand drawn typography and the printing options (e.g. paper textures) have been a lot more ‘tactile’ in the last five or so years. I think this was a response to the move towards e-books, I think some publishers and designers decided printed books need to be nice objects in order to give them something over e-books.

I think a successful cover is one that communicates what the book is about. Sometimes designers get caught up in wanting their covers to be as ‘arty’ and eye-catching as possible, there’s definitely a time and place for that kind of designing. I subscribe to the ‘good design is invisible’ mindset. If you haven’t heard that theory before, it’s that truly successful design/typography is the stuff you don’t notice as it’s communicated its message so well without distracting you with its design. I think a successful cover is one where someone picks up a book and goes, ‘oh, I’d like to read that’, not necessarily when they go, ‘oooh, pretty cover’.

3. You’ve worked on a number of exciting projects for different publishers. Tell us about one of your favourites.

Visual Devices in Contemporary Prose Fiction was one of my favourites. The book is about books/texts that mess about with the way text is/can be represented. The cover for this is a lot more conceptual than lots of the things I work on. The authors didn’t care about their name being big, or the title being super clear. The point was to mess with it all, just like the inside. It was so different from all the covers I’d worked on before, and since, so it’s been one that’s stuck in my mind as a favourite. More conventionally, I really enjoyed the covers I did for Princeton University Press (Vanguard of the Revolution and Kierkegaard’s Muse) as they sent me samples of the manuscripts and often had interesting archival images to work with.

4. What advice would you give to people interested in getting into book cover design? Are some skills achievable without a degree?

It’s completely doable without a degree. However, a degree does help get a foot in the door. I’d advise anyone who wants to get into book design to try and find a mentor from the industry – they’ll be able to teach you about the theory and help get your typography up to scratch. Typography is usually the thing that gives amateur book designers away.

5. You’ve founded two magazines — Foul Play, covering true crime, and Spine, which focuses on creative and production aspects of book publishing. What has been the most challenging and most gratifying aspect of launching these magazines and what inspired you to start them?

I’ve always loved serialised content. I love tv shows; podcasts; magazines; book series’. There’s something about the continuity of a series and being able to carry it with you as you progress through your day-to-day life that makes it feel much more a part of you than a one-off film or book (although of course there are exceptions to the rule). As a designer, starting a magazine seemed more achievable than making a tv show or radio programme, so I went with it. The most gratifying part is when people tell you how much they enjoyed reading one of your magazines and the hardest part is just having the discipline to sit down and get through the long to-do list that comes with making a magazine.

6. What are you reading at the moment and what’s next on your ‘to-read’ list?

I’m currently reading Arithmetic by Paul Lockhart, which I love. I was terrible at maths at school and now I hide from anything maths related, but I picked up this book because it comes at arithmetic from a social standpoint. First it teaches you the history of number systems and how numbers evolved and then slowly introduces the concepts of arithmetic. I never thought I could be interested in maths but this book is great. I’ve got a whole bookshelf on my ‘to read’ list, and haven’t picked which one yet. But I did buy a little field guide to bumblebees recently, so I’ll probably be taking that out to the park with me soon to try and spot some bees!

You can find Emma J. Hardy here. She is currently designing Jake Case’s book about Danny Ray Horning. Here’s a glimpse of her work in progress:

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.