The fourth in my series of interviews with people from the publishing industry is with Diane Chonette, Art Director at an independent US publishing company. Tin House Books, based in Portland, Oregon, publishes twelve books a year, as well as the renowned Tin House magazine, and also running summer and winter workshops for writers. Tin House published my debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and in February 2017 will publish my second, Swimming Lessons. Diane designed the cover.
Claire: Hello Diane. You’re the Art Director at Tin House; can you tell me what your role involves and what a typical day is like for you?
Diane: Being the art director of a small independent publishing house requires a significant amount of multitasking. There are always books in various stages of production and the quarterly magazine is either at the beginning of the production process or ready to go to the printer. A lot of art department support is also given to our marketing and publicity team, which includes creating clever press packages, printing galleys/ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), or generating website and social media banners. A single day can include sending a book off to print, showing cover concepts, reading and researching for magazine interior art, and obtaining galley quotes from a printer for an upcoming book. There are usually e-mail requests for files or jacket images that I squeeze in between the other bigger tasks. I think having so many balls in the air is one of the best parts of my job though—keeps my mind active and the day goes quickly.
C: You started out as a chemist and then went into quality assurance, how and why did you make the leap into design?
D: Wow, I love that you have researched my background! As a child and young adult, I was always drawing and painting and crafting. That said, I was basically taught that art was a hobby not necessarily a career. So when it came to college, I chose to pursue a more traditional degree in biology because science had always been really interesting to me. Once school was over, however, I floundered for a few months trying to decide what to do. My dad rescued me, in a way, by getting me an interview for a chemistry job at a pharmaceutical company he had ties with. He had worked in the industry for years and had a lot of connections. So that’s how I became a chemist. It didn’t take me long to realize that working in a lab with a lot of harmful chemicals wasn’t quite my thing. After a year or so, I transitioned to a position in Quality Assurance/Regulatory Affairs. Under the tutelage of a very dedicated and detail-oriented supervisor, I learned and excelled at the art of documentation and investigative reporting. I also learned a lot about myself and what aspects of work I found fulfilling. Close to ten years later—after working at a few different companies and surviving a marriage and divorce—I had the confidence to search for something more creative and personally satisfying.
I initially thought interior design would be the answer and I first told my mom, who’s got impeccable style and an eye for interior design. She blew my idea right out of the water! She said, “If you were an interior designer, you would have been decorating and redecorating your room since you were tiny. You never cared about that. You should be a graphic designer. Just look at your artwork!” At first I was crushed and then I was angry, thinking my dreams for a life change were spoiled. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. Of course, moms are always right! So I enrolled in art school and graduated a couple of years later. Then through a series of fortunate events—I was the right person in the right place at the right time—I became the art director at Tin House.
C: Clearly you do a lot more than book design, but I’m really interested in the process for designing a book cover. How do you go about it?
D: I read the book before even beginning to think about the cover. Once I know the story, there is usually a meeting with the editors and publicity team to talk about the tone and target audience and to look at any comps that the author may have provided. The book’s editor usually provides some visual comps as well. This is mostly to ensure we don’t start heading off in a direction that feels inappropriate. Then the task falls on the designer.
When I approach a new jacket design, I really try to use the feedback as a guide but not be restricted by it. It’s not always that easy and sometimes I have to try some of the ideas that have been suggested just to put those behind me. Every once in a while one of those ideas may end up working brilliantly because I’ve been able to find precisely the right image to make it work, but many times I have to find another way to solve the design problem.
For Swimming Lessons, it felt obvious that there be water on the cover. I had many conversations with the editor, Masie Cochran, about finding a photo of a woman either underwater or in the waves or looking longingly out to sea. We both searched high and low for the right photo. Masie stumbled upon some really beautiful and captivating photos that felt very close to what we were looking for. They were taken by an unknown photographer and had been discovered as film in a vintage store. The person who had developed them was shocked at the treasure she had found and was on an internet quest to find the photographer. Even though we knew the photos were likely unavailable to license, we tried one as a cover. Surprisingly, it just didn’t capture the mysterious complexity of the narrative and somehow felt flat in spite of how gorgeous the image was.
C: That is such a beautiful image, but I agree, not quite right, particularly for the time in which the book is set.
D: After that quest, I was determined that a photo was not the best solution. I had already been looking at many images of water and had found some really interesting artwork that gave me some inspiration. I wanted to incorporate Ingrid’s letters and Gil’s books which are such an important part of Swimming Lessons into the design in some way…either in the form of script or of paper itself.
I thought that I could make the water out of paper, so set off in that direction, tearing and gluing sheets of construction paper together. At the same time, I started looking for a silhouette of a woman that I could combine into the design. After playing around with the artwork in Photoshop, I got to a point where I thought I might have something, but I wasn’t quite ready to share it. I felt I had to show at least one more direction. That’s when I found the pattern that ultimately became a part of the final design. I loved how graphic and undulating it was. I could visualize placing a body or head within it and how the hair could float along behind. In the end, the design was sort of a combination of the artwork I had created and the use of the water pattern. I will admit that this jacket had me worried for a few weeks…but I’m thrilled with the finished design.
C: I’m so delighted with it too, and also that Penguin, and Piper, my UK and German publishers must also love it, because they will be using versions of it for Swimming Lessons in their territories.
C: So, how long does it generally take, from the first ideas to the finished thing?
D: Truthfully, every book is different. Sometimes the author has an idea or an image that they’d like us to try. There have been many lovely covers created this way. Other times, it’s a battle from start to finish. The most difficult books to design jackets for are generally books that are hard to describe to someone in words. These books are usually really complex and it’s often harder to pinpoint a visual that will come across clearly. If we have an image that everyone is excited about, the design can be done in a few days. If there are multiple rounds and we’re not getting any consensus from our team, it can sometimes take months to get the cover decided.
C: What about if you dislike a book? Does that make it harder to design the cover?
D: Luckily, most of the book jackets I’ve designed have been for books that I’ve been able to connect with in some way. Even if I don’t love the ending or most of the characters, there is usually something that I can find a connection to. I work with a wonderful designer here at Tin House and because of the way our distributor’s schedule is set up, we have to have all of our jackets for a single season completed by the same deadline. Because of this, we share the work. Fortunately, we have different tastes in books and are usual able to divvy them up in a way that we both get to work on books that appeal to us in one way or another. I think the real difficulties generally come from trying to get consensus from the several parties that weigh in on each jacket. Sometimes one opinion is enough to push us toward a new design and that can certainly be frustrating.
C: What are you trying to achieve with your jacket designs?
D: My fundamental goal with any jacket design is to give the reader a visual cue about what to expect from the book in both content and tone. I also want the book to look appealing on the shelf, so that even if you’re walking through a section that you’d normally ignore, you might just pick it up anyway. I have always felt that the book should speak for itself more than for the company that’s publishing it, so we aren’t restrictive about type or imagery or placement of elements on our jackets. There may be some similarities in designs from book to book at Tin House, but it’s really the content that is driving the design.
C: What’s the best bit about your job; and the worst?
D: I think the best part is watching a book transform from a stack of manuscript pages to a beautiful object. The worst part is often the pressure of coming up with an amazing jacket within a quick period of time.
C: What book jackets do you most admire or like?
D: There are some really brilliant designers out there these days creating covers for houses like Graywolf and Riverhead-Penguin. I’d say that I prefer books that have very strong graphic elements and typography. I love seeing it when a designer can take a really conventional design or photograph and make a subtle tweak to entirely transform it.
Some of Diane’s favourite book cover designs
C: What thing about your job do you think people reading this might find surprising?
D: I’m not sure everyone realizes that we read and ruminate over the book before beginning the design process. A jacket design often takes shape from some of the smallest details pulled from the narrative. If possible, I like to allude to something that the reader can discover for themselves and then make the connection to the jacket design.
C: Any advice for people trying to get into book design?
D: As with anything, it always helps to have a mentor—someone who can guide you along the process and teach you the fundamentals of good book design. I learned quite a bit in school, but the majority of my skills were honed while working for the previous art director here at Tin House, Janet Parker. I was able to learn in a pretty safe environment where guidance was available when I needed it, yet I was still allowed a lot of freedom to try new things. I also learned to design with a clear purpose and not to just fill the space. If you have a reason for your design decisions, it not only produces a better design, but one that you can feel confident in presenting when the time comes.
C: Thanks so much Diane. It’s been fascinating to see how a cover design develops from the idea to the finished thing.
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Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House
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