Q&A with Lisa Horton

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

Freelance designer and illustrator Lisa Horton originally studied to be a fashion illustrator before finding herself in the world of YA and kids’ book design, via a stint in adult fiction and a return to college to study Graphic Design. Among many others, she has designed a series of covers for author Lisa Heathfield, including Paper Butterflies, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017.

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

I actually studied fashion illustration. I finished uni and moved to London, thinking I would be an established illustrator in a year, drawing beautiful clothes to sit beside editorial in the high-end glossy fashion mags. It’s safe to say that did not happen. I was getting bits of freelance illustration work and working in retail to support myself, working shifts and spending all other hours of the day (and night) trying to get freelance projects in on time. I know it sounds a bit clichéd, but I woke up one morning and thought, “This is not my life”, so I went out and applied for jobs in graphic design. I got some interviews, and off I went, armed with a portfolio full of drawings and wearing a new outfit I begged my Dad to lend me the money for. The feedback was that I didn’t have the right experience – that’s when I decided to go back to college. I did a part-time evening course in graphic design so I could still work and pay my rent. It was one of hardest years of my life, and at the end of it I had a shiny new graphic design portfolio, which seemed to do the trick, as I got a job straight away as Junior Cover Designer in adult fiction at Transworld. I was literally the oldest junior I’ve ever known, but I was a fast learner and worked my way up the ranks. I stayed there for about 4 and a half years, then decided to go it alone. That’s when my career in YA and children’s book design started, and has been going strong ever since.

2. You’ve worked on some great books for some big publishers. Do you have a personal favourite?

Eeek! That’s a really tricky one as I have had the opportunity to work on some wonderful covers. I think some of the first YA covers I worked on have been my favourites. I re-jacketed two covers by Jenny Downham called Before I Die and You Against Me. The design was a simple graphic look with very bold use of colours, which is a style I love using when I design YA covers. They also have sentimental value to me, as it was when I was finding my feet designing YA and children’s books. Recently, I have designed a series of covers by author Lisa Heathfield, called Seed, Paper Butterflies, and her latest book, Flight of a Starling. This time, instead of having a flat and graphic look, there are some paper and watercolour textures. Paper Butterflies was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017, so it was lovely to see the cover alongside the other contenders.

3. How do you see covers having evolved in this space over recent years? What in your eyes makes a successful YA book cover?

I was actually talking about this with a client the other day, as we were discussing backlist titles and re-jacketing them, and she had a few older covers out on her desk that we were looking at. They were a lot more photographic in style in comparison with today’s graphic, illustrated covers. I think, today, YA covers have really got to stand out and grab the attention of young readers. Bold use of colour and illustration is a great way to do this. I think YA book design lends itself to being bold, so it suits me well!

4. Do you see certain themes emerge when you are being briefed by art directors or editors?

There are always going to be themes and trends that help the cover fit the right market it’s aimed at. I suppose the trick is to design something that fits the market and, of course, the brief, but also stands on its own and doesn’t fade into the rest of the covers it’s up against. For me, that’s a nice part of the design process, as it can be a challenge. You need a cover to fit a specific market or look, but you don’t want it to look the same as everything else.

5. What are you working on at the moment? How far ahead of publication are you usually asked to work on a cover or internal illustration?

I’ve got a cover series about kickass con artist girls that I’m starting at the moment, which sounds brilliant to me! I’m sure I will have a lot of fun designing those. I always get nervous sending out my initial ideas to the client, as I want them to love them as much as I do!

Most publishers do like to be able to put finished covers up online as soon as possible before the actual book is published, so I could have a finished cover four to six months before the publication date – but that’s not always the case. Sometimes I get last-minute briefs, or schedules might move around. As a freelancer I try to be as flexible as I can in these situations so that I can get the cover to my client when they need it.

6. Do you have one piece of advice for any up-and-coming designers working in the YA area?

This bit I shall keep short and sweet! I think my main bit of advice is to have fun with your covers. YA and children’s books really do allow you to do that and to be able to use your imagination not only with the imagery but with typography as well. Working in books for me has been such a great choice in my design career, and I will always remember the first time I held the first cover I designed, printed and bound in my hands and it was the best feeling ever. I will always remember it and any new book designer will as well!

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.