Q&A with Emma Graves

By   Tim Inman 4 min read

Emma Graves, a freelance designer, spoke to us about how she got into the industry, what makes a good cover brief, and what her very favourite book cover design is.

1. How did you start designing covers for books?

I studied for my BA in Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University, 
I was lucky enough to be hired straight after our degree show by Collins, the non-fiction part of HarperCollins. I designed both covers and internals for their non-fiction list. After three enjoyable years at Collins I moved on to work at Little, Brown, designing covers for all of their imprints, some non-fiction but mostly fiction.

After the birth of my son I decided that I wanted a more flexible work/life balance and decided to go freelance. I felt that I had the experience needed to go and start on my own and haven’t looked back since.

2.     What makes the best sort of cover brief from a writer or a publisher? Do you prefer something highly prescriptive or to have more creative freedom?

A good brief from my point of view includes a short summary of the book. It’s important to get to know the feel of the story, the characters and setting. It should also give some information about the core target consumer, what kind of books would they usually read, what sort of magazines would they buy or what tv programmes they watch.

The brief should also include what the cover needs to convey and personally, I find it really useful to have some thought starters or images of other covers that the author or publisher liked.

I prefer a bit of creative freedom and I like to do a range of cover options so that the client has something to compare with, i.e. some photographic options but also some typographic and some illustrated.

3.     Which is your favourite ever book cover design?

This is a difficult question. There are many books out there that are both beautiful and memorable but I am going to have to say that one of my favourite covers is the Vintage cover for Memoirs of a Geisha. I think it is very well-designed for a mass-market paperback. If you walk through a book store it most definitely stands out from the shelf, it has a beautiful photograph, the colours and contrasts are clear and striking.

4.     What advice would you give designers wanting to work with publishers or indie writers?

Most book cover designers have some sort of degree in graphic design /typography. I was personally lucky enough to get a job in publishing straight after University but of course this does not always happen. Many publishing houses take interns straight from design courses and this is a great way to get a foot in the door. It might not always pay very well, some might only cover travelling expense but it is a good way of getting to know people, get a feel for the job and decide if this is the career you would like to go down.

It’s important to have a good and up-to-date cv and a well-organised portfolio. It’s not necessary to have book covers in there, film posters, album covers, leaflets etc. all show your skills. For an internship or junior designer at a publishing house, they’re not expecting to find someone who’s got a lot of previous book experience. They’re often just looking for someone with creativity, passion, an eagerness to learn, and good time management skills.

5.     How has the enormous shift to on-line sales channels affected the way you design?

As the customer often view the book in thumbnail sizes the importance of legible type and image is even more important than with printed books. Instead of standing out on a bookshelf in a store, the online book needs to stand out in a very small size. The image needs to be simple and the title and author name clear. To have a legible title can be crucial. As you can’t add any finishes, the design needs to work without any extras, the colours need to be strong and clear. It’s important to not go overboard, too much detail will distract the reader from the content of the book.

If a book is going straight to e-book I would, in general, focus on either the image or the type. The other day I read an article about e-books saying that crime titles often do well as e-books, which I agree with, they often have big strong sans serif type in clear striking colours. Books with small serifed type is a bit trickier and let’s not even talk about scripts, there are not many that are legible in small formats.

About Emma Graves

Emma Graves received her a BA in Typography and Graphic Communication from the University of Reading. She worked at HarperCollins for the non-fiction imprint Collins, and continued her career at LittleBrown, designing both non-fiction and, increasingly, fiction titles. She is now enjoying a freelance career based out of a studio in Hampton.


Read more interviews with creatives, editors, authors and more on the whitefox Blog and check out some more of whitefox’s collaborations at Our Work.