UHoP 2019: Q&A with Mark Swan, designer

By   Hannah Bickerton 9 min read

Mark Swan runs kid-ethic design studio based by the seaside on the South Coast. He has worked in the creative industry for over 20 years. After graduating from Birmingham University he became an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, including a weekly column in the Financial Times. He then moved into book cover design which has been his main creative output since. He has worked with publishers big and small all over the world as well as directly with authors. As well as publishing he has also works as a film poster designer and for the music industry as a designer and film maker.

Tell us a little about yourself and your design work.

I’m Mark Swan and I run kid-ethic design from a studio by the sea on the south coast of England. I’ve been running the studio for ten years but I’ve been lucky enough to have a career in the creative industry for over twenty years. I started out as an illustrator for various magazines and newspapers including a weekly column in the Financial Times magazine. I then moved into designing book covers, then film posters and then back to book covers, which is when I set up the studio. Book cover design is now the studio’s core output but I also produce marketing design for the publishing industry. Film poster projects come in from time to time, which is great. I would say my career has been built on distilling stories into one image. Recently I have started doing some design work for a record label, which has been something I’ve wanted to do for so very long. I have also been dabbling in video work. Creating visuals to sound rather than words has been a real adventure as it’s a much more subjective creative process – the image a person can see when hearing a sound can vary vastly from person to person.

What does an average day at kid-ethic look like?

Average day is up early (I have a three-year-old and an eight-month-old so lie ins are a thing of the past, as are alarms), then when the usual morning activities are done it’s a walk to the studio. I discovered a long time ago that I can’t work from home. Having the distinction of home and work is very important to me. My walk to work hopefully involves a detour to the beach to get some sea air and kick start the brain. This allows me to mentally digest what needs to be done during the day ahead. Probably no different to most people’s journey to work, though the beach is definitely a bonus. Once I get in I fire up the Mac and kettle then have a chat with whomever is in the studio that day. I share a space with some really talented illustrators so it’s great to see what they are up to and talk about the usual. Then it’s checking e-mails and responding. Then it’s updating the board with the projects that are active and then doing a smaller list of what needs and can be done that day. Depending on the projects I am doing then it can be a full day in the studio designing. If I have a manuscript to read then some music on and a sit down to read or if the weather is good it’s to the beach to read and take notes. Some projects as really ideas-based rather than those covers that involve creating a scene and tone for a cover. For this I find getting out of the studio with the sketch book really helps. I think that there is an inner guilt with designers that If you are not in front of a computer then you are not designing. This of course is not the case. I think that some of my most successful designs have been created in my head away from the light of the computer screen. A move away from the computer and out of the studio also helps me if a project is lagging or I have hit a wall. Taking yourself away from the project for a little time can really give you a fresh perspective on how a project should progress and often yields results.

I’ve been really blessed with lots of projects since I started the company so most days are filled with things to design, illustrate and photograph. I’ve never been too good at the late night and all-nighters. I’m a morning designer. For me good sleep and an early start is always much more positive to a project than going into the wee hours. This means the studio day ends at around 5, 5:30, but of course a designer never really stops working. Even when you are asleep.

How has cover design changed over the course of your career – have you seen any notable changes since the rise in technology and self-publishing?

There is of course the advent of the web thumbnail that features the big bold type but as far as things changing in my career I’ve not seen a huge amount, really. Before the internet publishers always wanted clear type and bold images anyway. When customers walk round a book shop the books need to jump out or be instantly recognisable for what they are or intriguing enough to draw a reader into a world they may not normally desire to visit. I think that the internet has just made publishers more aware of this and honed the craft. That said, I’ve done a few covers that I thought looked good but then the publisher has come back to me and requested changes relating to how the cover looks in thumbnail. Then when I do the thumbnail view myself – images or type can do unexpected things when tiny!

I have certainly seen a rise in quality of cover design in self-publishing. Authors now have new avenues for contacting designers directly. I myself have struck up longstanding creative relationships with authors that may not have been possible when I started out. All in all I feel that book cover design is really strong despite some scaremongering at the birth of the e-readers. Publishers are taking more risks and designers are responding to the challenge in the most interesting and exciting ways.

Tell us about your creative process. How do you get a book from brief to final design?

There are so many different paths the process can take so it’s hard to give one example. Some briefs come in and are very clear on what is needed so it’s then the process of creating the scene. Having an image in your head, then making it a reality. This can be really rewarding. Some briefs are very open so it can be a much more experimental journey. There are times that I will need to read a manuscript or listen to a audio version if it’s out there – despite working in publishing I’m a pretty slow reader, so having an audio version is great for me. Plus designing while listening to someone read the story to you can really get you in the zone. Some briefs involve me sitting at the computer and taking a project for a walk. Only giving myself a loose framework to work to. Looking at picture libraries for an image, which then leads on to another, then another, which spawns a new idea and it goes on until without realising it I’ve designed half a dozen covers. Losing yourself in the design process.

Sketching out ideas and having a real concept plan of what you are going to design is another way projects can go. Non-fiction books such as business or science books often involve this process. Knowing the subject and then stepping away from the computer and sketching out concepts. The way I work on each project really is so varied, which makes the job really interesting. A project I did with whitefox recently involved me sketching out ideas and then for one cover I went round charity shops looking for old books I could use to construct a Union Jack flag. Then it was to the studio to set up a photoshoot. I sometimes do drawings, printing of various kinds, photography, constructing sets. I’ve made type out of cake, toast, and light, to name a few. I’m currently making a glitterball skull.

From getting the initial cover designs to the client I will await feedback. Sometimes there are more covers in me but I feel that client feedback would focus the project and give it direction so I will send what I have to get guidance. I will send over at least three finished cover designs – I’m not big on cover comps so they tend to get the finished cover, as I would see it. Then fingers crossed the client picks a cover they like and it either goes as is or there are changes requested. Sometimes I totally missed the mark and it’s on to a second round or it’s the dreaded kill fee. Occasionally the client has totally missed the mark with the brief and they will re-brief me with a new direction they want the cover to take.

Once the cover is selected it goes and sits with the publisher for a while, getting promoted, proofed, shown to retailers for their thoughts – this can sometimes mean more changes once their feedback comes in, as the retailers have a lot of sway as to how they would like the covers to look and this has an effect on how prominently they place the book in their shops, which of course is massively important to the publisher. Then I will be sent cover copy and I will design the rest of the package. The decision of specials for the cover such as embossing, debossing or spot UVs – or sometimes the endpapers and board colours – is sometimes given to me, which is the icing on the book cover design cake (I’ve actually had cakes made from my covers).

What tips would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career in design?

Have passion and don’t give up. Keep sending the work out and experimenting. Enjoy creating.

Is there one project that you particularly enjoyed working on, or perhaps something you’re looking forward to creating?

That’s a really hard one. There’ve been lots I have enjoyed. When I think of the projects I’ve enjoyed the most it’s always the ones where I have created all the aspects of the design myself, whether it be a setup of objects, a photograph or a drawing. I’ve recently brought a copy of Cinema 4D, which I’m really excited to learn and play with. Just learning new things and experimenting.

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.