Q&A with Anna Morrison, art director, designer and illustrator

By   Hannah Bickerton 4 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Anna is a UK-based freelance art director, designer and sometimes illustrator. She works mainly in publishing, designing book covers for a variety of clients in the UK and internationally. Find out more about Anna by visiting her website. whitefox spoke to Anna about the cover design process, publishing and her work on bestselling books.

Could you tell us a little about yourself, and your work as an art director, designer and illustrator? 

I’m a UK-based book cover designer who has been working in publishing for just over 14 years… yikes, I can’t believe it has been that long.

I studied illustration at art college and always loved reading, which led me to pursue a career in publishing.

My first job was in a junior designer role at Random House in 2005, where I learned the process of book cover design from ideas stage to print. After several years there, I moved to 4th Estate, and due to redundancy in 2010 I’ve worked mainly as a freelancer ever since, with a short stint at Puffin and a few lovely years at Pushkin Press.

I feel ever so grateful to have found this job. It combines all the things I love: reading, drawing and design. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

You have worked on some fantastic book covers, including Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail, Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Unicorn and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Which of the covers you have designed are you most proud of, and why?

Ah thank you so much, that is very kind. To be asked to interpret someone’s stories and ideas is a huge privilege, it carries a responsibility to the author.

The Puffin Classics that were published in 2015 were a joy to art direct and design. This was the first in-house role I had taken on since 2010, and to be given this sublime project to sink my teeth into was both daunting and extremely exciting. It was quite time-pressured, but getting to work with some amazing and much admired illustrators and designers (and the lovely team at Puffin) was wonderful. I learned so much and it inspired me all over again, which I’m grateful for.

I also loved working on Clover Stroud’s My Wild and Sleepless Nights, it was a book that resonated with me very much and I was so happy that Clover loved it. 

Could you talk us through the cover design process? What is the process of translating the author’s work and brief into a beautiful book cover? 

I imagine every designer’s process will be different. I sadly often don’t have time to read the full manuscript (if it’s available), but I will always read the first couple of chapters to get a feel for the narrative, jot down a few words or bits of the text that I sense could spark a few ideas.

If I’m finding it quite hard to get started on a new design I begin with a few rough sketches. I like to play around with the title. There is usually a lot of trial and error, wasting time on ideas that never seem to progress. If I feel that is happening, I close the project for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Once I’m happy with the ideas or feel it would be good to show as a starting point, I send some initial designs to the publisher. Often that can mean a lot of back and forth. Occasionally it can be a straightforward process, other times it can be a bit of a struggle between publisher and author to get the design to a point where everyone is happy.

From there I start thinking about the full jacket spread (back/spine/flaps), taking into consideration any finishes (foiling/embossing), then the final version is sent off to print.

How does genre affect the cover design process? Does your approach vary depending on whether you are working on a fiction or non-fiction title?

I feel there is more opportunity for pushing the boundaries with fiction – depending on the text – but there’s a challenge with non-fiction to pull away and not make it feel so literal.

I don’t have a particular genre I tend to work in, the variety of working on fiction, non-fiction, kids and YA keeps me motivated and also lends itself to pushing ideas between genres.

Could you offer some advice for authors planning their book cover and putting together a brief?

All designers work differently, so there will be varied opinions on what makes a good brief. I do like a thorough synopsis, maybe a few thought starters and also some comparative titles (not to copy but to see where this book would sit in a bookshop), and the manuscript if available. It’s a tricky one, as you don’t want to be too prescriptive, but a vague brief can be time-consuming. I think if an author can allow room for a bit of experimentation or is open to it, I love to include a wild card idea, time permitting.

Since you began working in publishing, how have trends in cover design changed? 

I’ve seen a lot of trends over the years in book cover design – not all beautiful ones – but it’s so subjective. However, I feel a really well-designed book doesn’t need to play up to a trend, it stands on its own.

Finally, do you have an all-time favourite book cover?

It changes every week… there are too many to mention! My current favourite cover design is by Jo Walker for Granta Books (publishing next year): The Manningtree Witches by A K Blakemore, it’s bloody lush.

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.