The Fascinating, Complicated Art of Designing a Book Cover

An Interview with Paul Buckley, Creative Director for Penguin Classics


Cover to Cover, a new book from Penguin Classics, is the closest I can get to looking at pornography in the office. I’ve stared at it for hours, flipping back and forth between covers I’ve passed a hundred times in bookstores and covers I’ve passed a thousand times on my own shelf. The book itself is a model of beautiful design—wide pages with a combination of text and imagery so pleasing that those like me—with a layman’s understanding of graphic design— can only offer some vague guess that it has something to do with that golden ratio people talk about.

In Cover to Cover, Paul Buckley, the creative director of Penguin Classics, reflects back at some of the covers he’s overseen, offering his reflections on the process alongside the covers’ artists. For book nerds, this text is our Golden Ticket to tour the chocolate factory. I was lucky enough to send along some questions to Buckley about his career in creating the covers of books, which, no matter how many times we hear an idiom telling us not to, we always, always judge.

A Penguin cover of "Emma"
A Penguin cover of “Emma”

OBSERVER: What does a “creative director” do?

BUCKLEY: Generally an art director oversees the visual identity of a single imprint or account. But a creative director oversees multiple imprints, accounts, and the staff of art directors and designers, and sees that they have everything they need to do their jobs properly and in a rich creative environment…

I also see that birthdays are celebrated and feign great interest in any new baby pictures that make the email rounds. My staff consists of dedicated design teams that create the covers for 16 distinct imprints within Penguin Random House, and the visual book identities of literally hundreds of authors. Well over a thousand unique covers and jackets flow through this department per year.

How do you go about assigning a certain book to an individual?

I’m a firm believer in there being many ways to skin a cat – or a book cover – so many of my choices have an element of serendipity involved.

As I’m generally looking to solve a number of manuscripts or books on my plate, I’m always scanning the world around me for visual artists and general ideas that can be rerouted into something new. This can be from an artist sending me samples via email or snail-mail, or something I see on media or the street as I’m going about my day. I’m looking for a voice, a tone that matches the book, the author—and like any voice in a crowd, it sort of finds you first, you just have to be in a receptive state.

Once I think “Yeah, that’s going to be an interesting match,” I reach out and see if they are interested in taking on the material. Depending on the complexity of the situation, I may then show my Publisher and Editor, and if they like the idea, it often goes to the Author and Agent, or estate, for their feedback.

A cover from the Penguin Drop Caps series
A cover from the Penguin Drop Caps series

How long does a book cover design take? (Between original assignment, drafts, etc.)

Anywhere from three hours to three months.

Classics are a far more pleasant experience than new fiction, which can be quite a dramatic ordeal. A book’s cover is often the strongest piece of marketing that book and author will get, so tensions can run extremely high. Everyone involved might like the first instinct you have and the first thing you create, or they might hate absolutely everything ‘till the UPS man is knocking on the door.

Think of it like this: yesterday your spouse kicked you out of the house; an hour later you might be walking the dog and meet the love of your life bonding over “My god, that squirrel came out of nowhere, are you sure you’re scalp’s ok?”… And two hours later it’s Netflix and Negronis, and you never leave.

OR you might wander the streets homeless for months until one day, strapped to a hospital IV due to exposure, exhaustion, and dehydration, you lock your one working, teary, dirt encrusted eye with the orderly changing your bed pan and you both instantly know you’ve each found the one, your ordeal is finally over. Then you wake up a few minutes later under the overpass, in your box, and realize it was all just a dream. And you wander some more. Hoping, always hoping – will my cover get approved today. Maybe it’ll be today. Must. Keep. Hope. Alive.

Is there a series you’re the most proud of?

I’m pretty proud of all the series in this book. But I suppose I’m most proud of the series I pitch, as that’s not generally how it works in publishing. The Penguin Threads stands out in that it remains such a distinctive idea that might not have been so wonderfully embraced, having traditional illustrators stitch covers. Jillian Tamaki and Rachell Sumpter put so many weeks into creating each of these gorgeous, insanely elaborate embroideries – I still can’t believe it was pulled of so exquisitely, with so much detail, and so darn beautifully.

Books from the Penguin Threads Collection

It was also a lot of fun in that I had just ended working on another series I had pitched – the testosterone-fueled Penguin Inks where I had hired the world’s most revered tattoo artists to work on covers of authors such as Don DeLillo and T. C. Boyle, and I really wanted a 180 degrees break from that, so here we were stitching covers for The Secret Garden and Wind in the Willows.

You say in the book that you didn’t like all but two of the horror series covers you designed: if you could, how would you redo them?

I think I did a fine job with the horror series, but fine is never my goal, and a better illustrator would have knocked these out of the park. The two that disappoint me most are Frankenstein and The Raven, simply because the imagery I used has been done before, many times over. I do think, overall, it’s a handsome series and I’m not un-proud of it – but I would have liked to solve those two covers with more unique imagery.

What’s the cover that someone else designed that you’re most jealous of?

I’m not jealous of anyone else’s work. I don’t mean that to sound vain, I just don’t get caught up in that headspace as there’s room enough for everyone. If you are asking me which cover designers I’m a fan of, I’d say anything by Jaya Miceli, Helen Yentus, Oliver Munday, Peter Mendelsund, Rodrigo Corral.

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What’s the difference between overseeing the cover of a classic vs. a new book?

A lot.

Classics have been packaged so many times, over so many years, and often this is what freaks designers out – “Oh my god, it’s been done 100 different ways already, how am I going to come up with anything new?” Instead of walking through the front door, come in from the back door, come down the chimney, climb through a window, and turn off that goddamn waltz. Bring new music, open the windows and let some fresh air in, mix up some cocktails and have fun with it. Make it a costume party and give the protagonist a new set of fun clothes to party in. What people forget is that the beauty of the classics is that we already know the book – we get it, so feel free to come at it in a brand new way. Have some fun with it, and highlight to a new audience that classics are not locked into any one time and place, their challenges, hopes, dreams, are the same as we all go through today. Just without smart phones.

A cover from the Penguin Orange Collection
A cover from the Penguin Orange Collection

New books, this  piece of writing, everything is riding on that new cover. Is the mood right? Does the imagery hint at what is going on in the text? Did you tell too much? Did you tell too little? Yes, it takes place in the winter, but we want it as a summer read, so try to avoid seasons; she would never dress like that, or maybe she would, but it makes an off-putting cover; I know everyone in the book dies – but that image is so depressing no one will buy it; is the author’s name prominent enough? The type has to be much, much larger. We understand the word has sixteen letters, make it larger. No, it can’t go sideways, people can’t read sideways. I know spines read sideways, that’s not the same. No, no it’s not, and no, this word cannot be broken. We realize the title is part of the problem, we know it’s confusing, we can’t change it. Ok, the type is too condensed; it’s ok if it goes smaller if we can get a nicer font. Have you tried it sideways? The author hates it sideways and is suggesting you try championing condensed 87, do you have that font? I don’t know who designed this, I think it was one of his students, he asked that we show it to “the art dept;” I know, I know, now I can at least say I did. It’s approved! Sales didn’t like the cover, we have to change it. Was it just one person? Bob, how many in sales disliked the cover? Oh, it was just Jim, he’s always out in left field, never mind, glad I asked. Or, yes it was just Sally, BUT she looooves this book. I know you did too, we all do, we still need a new cover by next Tuesday’s deadline. Huge chain “X” wont commit to this book with this cover, I know we all loved it maybe you can save it for something else, here are some suggestions from the buyer, at least they are trying to be helpful.

Are you also involved with the layout of the book, choosing typeface?

I do not work on interiors. In most large publishing houses, one department is working on the covers while another is working on the interiors.

What, in your mind, makes a great book cover?

Distinction. Stand out from the pack. Otherwise, why are you here?

What was the most challenging book you’ve worked on for you?

They are all challenging. A 3,000 poetry print run can be as grueling, or as rewarding a process as a million print run. It all comes down to the personalities involved and whether the group as a whole is a trusting, fun gathering of people, or an anxiety riddled mess that’s going to suck you in. Which is exactly like anything else in life. It’s work, but you hope to have fun with it, and for the most part you do, but life is life and once in awhile you have to work with whatever and whoever you get and do your best to steer your design ship through.

This is why I love the classics team, and Penguin in general, it’s just a great group of people without control issues who know how to have fun and let you do a great job while they do a great job as well.

From "Cover to Cover"

The Fascinating, Complicated Art of Designing a Book Cover