Several people have commented how much they liked the cover for my latest novel, Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge. For that reason, I persuaded the unreasonably talented Charles Bown, who has designed all my book covers to date, to give an interview.
Tell us a bit about yourself
Hi I’m Charles Bown, graphic designer of finely crafted pixels for motion design, print and wrangler of smaller versions of myself. During the day I work as a Senior Graphic Designer in GOD TV. By night I am a design-addict scouring the world for beauty in type and colour.
How did you get into graphic design?
When I was growing up I loved to draw, scribble and doodle – much to the annoyance of my parents and teachers.
I took this as some strange sort of encouragement, and progressed this annoyance through my A-Levels in Art and Design, to a BTEC National Diploma in Fine Art. It was whilst studying for my BTEC that I discovered both video graphics and print design. Following this two-year course I went to Farnham College of Art & Design in Surrey to study Film and Television Production … The rest as they say is history with the past 21 year being somewhat of a blur.
With over 20 years experience working for and with various creative teams helping create award-winning motion graphics for clients ranging from the multinational behemoths of GOD TV, ITV, UTV and Sky to mid-sized local companies, I have seen a lot.
Do you judge a book by its cover?
A book cover is a crucial element of the reading experience. I do judge a book by its cover. It’s the first thing you see, and a great cover can draw you in and persuade you to start that journey of discovery, page by page.
The art of the book cover is an indestructible part of our cultural life – there’s no doubt that recent years have seen a golden age of book design. There are of course whole bookshop shelves full of cheap, dull, generic products, but for those who know where to look, books have rarely been more interesting to look at, hold and open.
I feel partly this is both a case of big publishers relying on brilliant design to make their goods stand out in an increasingly difficult market; but also partly, and more importantly for me, results from the emergence of small, independent publishers springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object.
How important is genre to the design process for book covers?
Designing for a genre and within the expectations of that genre is hugely important. After all, the artwork must be both reflective of the individual story, but also it must fulfill the reader’s expectations, tease them, excite them and ultimately draw them in and persuade them to remove it from the bookshelf.
It has to be remembered whilst designing the artwork for a particular genre, that the reader may be new to the realm, where the story resides and therefore the appeal of the design is paramount in opening the door to this brave, new world.
Tell me about the process of designing the cover for Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge?
Whilst designing the cover for Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge, an informed “nod” to the thriller/adventure genre was important in establishing an overall look and theme for the design. The title of the story was also very evocative, conjuring up darker imagery, the basis for the “tease/scare” elements of the design – everybody has a fascination with being scared and to play on the emotion of fear is always an interesting brief.
This particular idea originated from a briefing session with Simon, helped instantly by our joint love of the suspense/horror genre and of course by having the daylights scared out of us. It was decided that the “Beast” was to play a large part of the design, employed in a more intriguing way than just merely having a visual representation of the “Beast” on the cover. Using only the foreboding eye allows the reader’s mind to create their own “Beast”.
The title itself created three main areas of focus for the artwork: the “Beast” as mentioned above, but also “Dr Gribbles” and “Blackthorn Lodge”. The visual representation of the Lodge comes directly from my misspent youth, immersed in both the comic/graphic novel artwork of 2000AD, Alan Moore’s The Swamp Thing and other murky classics of the early 1980s and that of the Hanna-Barbera/CBS co-production classic Scooby Doo. Designing within the expectations of a particular genre, coupled with the knowledgeable “nod” to personal experiences within that genre, usually lead to a design which is open to a wider readership by both evoking memories of the familiar in an older readership and aiding in the discovery of a new genre to first time readers.
During the design process, it quickly became apparent to me that whilst playing with three large themes/characters (for me, the Lodge itself is a character), on one cover would not really work – each would remove emphasis from the other to a greater or lesser extend. With the design for the “Beast” being the first element I created, balancing it’s physical presence on the cover artwork (placement in the design), any reference to Dr Gribbles, as a character would both weaken the presence of the Beast looming out at the bottom of the cover but also remove the ability of the reader to form his or her own mental head-space. I therefore decided to “hide” Dr Gribbles. Can you find him?
Of the five book covers I have designed for Simon, I would say that Dr Gribbles was the most fun to work on. The brief was open enough for my imagination to run wild and yet detailed enough to steer me in a clear direction. The design had to be highly tactile, using bold period typography to give a sense of when and where the book was coming from. Offer-up enough of a persuasive “off the shelf” draw for the potential reader, balanced off against just the right amount of “character tease” but still allowing the reader to form there own representations … oh and, just a little dash of foreboding and fear.
If I wanted to design covers for books as a career, how do I do this?
So you want to follow the rocky path of being a graphic designer? Firstly let me say well done. You’ve taken your first steps.
I believe everybody is born with the ability to acknowledge and understand “Good Design” (a term which personally I loathe). For me design is an emotion. (OK, now for the pompous “designer-speak”) It is an aesthetic inner feeling which you experience. “Good Design”, cannot be measured in a finite way. (OK, enough of the pompous “designer-speak”).
One piece of advice: keeping perfecting, being annoying, and doodle.