Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Book Designing, Music, and Collaborating with Writers: A Discussion with Laura Boyle

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On Book Designing, Music, and Collaborating with Writers: A Discussion with Laura Boyle

BT: So, Laura, you’re a talented book designer with Dundurn Press in Toronto, and you’ve recently had two of your designs ranked in the top CanLit Book Covers of 2015 by CBC Books. (You can check out all the covers here)
Tell us about these two covers in particular. Why do you think these covers stood out to the judges?
LB: It’s funny, I’ve never stopped to consider this, but there are certain similarities between these two covers. Both of their titles are common phrases that take on new meaning in the context of the book. Their titles are represented by an everyday object that takes up most of the space on the cover. And there’s a simplicity to both of them that I think is contemporary and inviting.

BT: Was there anything uniquely different about how you went about designing these covers compared to other work you’ve done?
LB: I wouldn't say that this applies only to these two, but in both cases the authors were pretty involved in the process and had clear visions for their covers. And the editor for both books, Shannon Whibbs (another parallel!) worked hard to make sure that the authors’ requests were met.
I would definitely be remiss if I didn’t mention that many people’s talent and insight goes into every single cover, from the author, to the editor, to the other designers I work with, to the marketing and sales teams. Every cover gets bandied about until everyone is satisfied. So I think these two titles are good examples of this process working really well.

BT: Do you have a particular strategy or step by step process that you follow when you design a book cover?

LB: There are some preliminary steps involved, such as getting acquainted with the book, the author and editor’s visions for the cover, researching comparable titles, and sourcing images. But at a certain point the process tends to fork off into three possible courses:

The most ordinary scenario is straightforward, not tied to any strong emotions or obstacles; it just feels like getting the job done. There’s kind of a formula: image/no image + considered typography+ target market= 3 viable options, one of which will likely become the final cover. Some of these have been among my finest and some just meet the needs they are required to meet.
Sometimes the cover pops into my head fully-formed and I work feverishly to realize it. Those are the most exciting times for me as a designer. That frenzy of productivity is pretty much what all artists live for I think.
And some ideas take forever to develop. I drag my feet, start to get desperate, begin slapping together as many drafts as possible, scrap all of them, repeat this process several times, go back and revisit earlier drafts, all in the hopes that a spark will ignite. When finally something comes through, which it always eventually does, I kind of forget the pain of that struggle.

BT: It must be impossible to read every book that you have to design a cover for in its entirety. How difficult is it to come up with an image or artistic representation of a text that you may not have completely read?
LB: I design 50 – 60 covers a year, (on top of working on layouts, which are the bulk of my work) so yes, it would be challenging to read each one. And on occasion the book hasn’t even been written at the time that I’m designing the cover, because of the publishing schedule. I always have a variety of resources to help give me direction, most crucial of which is the editor. So I’m not trying to make the case for designing without reading, but there is an objectivity that comes from approaching a book’s design without being too invested in the actual content. Unfamiliarity can allow for ideas to come out of left field, concepts that the author and editor might not have considered because they’re too close to the subject.
That being said, I don’t just lob ideas off at random. I get to know the book in many different ways, just not necessarily in the same ways that an author or editor does. I study comparable titles and their target markets. I look for themes and symbols of those themes, and try to find unique ways to represent them. I take in the author’s vision, the editor’s vision, the sales team’s vision, and I try distill all of this down to one effective image.
A cover can be seen as a marketing device, and its main function, from that perspective, is to draw in people who haven’t yet read the book. So my real task is to stay on top of design trends, to know the markets, and to convey a sense of what to expect from the product. Reading the book just gives me one more tool to achieve that.

BT: Working with writers must be trying at times, especially if you’re working with someone who has no artistic vision or ‘eye for art,’ like myself for example. Without naming names, what are some of the biggest challenges you face when working with a writer and trying to find a design that you’re both satisfied with?
LB: Actually some of the easiest authors to work with are the ones who have no artistic vision, as long as they don’t then interfere too much. Even authors who want to leave the aesthetic decisions in my hands contribute to the design in other ways, and it’s important to me (and my company) that they’re still getting a cover that feels right. The hardest authors to work with are the ones who have bad taste but don’t know it, and insist on pushing their vision. There are a couple that come to mind, and the resulting covers still stick in my craw a little bit. (The ones who have family members who dabble in design are a treat.) I’ve gotten better at negotiating though, so there are fewer and fewer occasions where I make a cover I don’t like.
Sometimes authors reject a design, and it turns out that the version that was presented to them just needed some tweaks to make it a perfect fit. Not everyone has the language to elaborate on why something isn’t working for them, so part of the process is just finding a way to communicate. People respond much more positively when they know they’re being heard, and that also a whole team of experts approves of the design.
One might assume that I would become increasingly unsympathetic or commandeering as I grow as a designer. But the reverse is true. Through talking to authors like you, Blair, I’ve gotten insight into what the process is like from your perspective. I know the book is the author’s baby. We all want the same thing, but I’m not the ultimate authority on what works for a particular book. I guess if there were one thing I’d want to suggest to authors, it’s to bring your ideas to the table, and be open to new ones as well. Know that your input is crucial, but trust your designer. If you’re working with a publisher, they want the book to sell as much as you do. We’re all in this together!
BT: You’re also a musician, a very talented singer-song writer and guitarist. Tell us about your music and where people can see your shows.
LB: I’ve been writing songs for almost twenty years now. I picked up the guitar when I was 12 and I have been playing and performing since. When I was younger I thought I could “make it” but I didn’t even know what that meant. I’m in a perfect spot now because my music is an outlet and not a demon on my back. Sometimes I feel like Clark Kent, seamlessly transitioning between my day and night jobs. In fact I do most of my songwriting on my way to and from work.
My partner Matthew and I collaborate on both of our respective projects. Mine is called Yola Beru (an anagram of my name, minus double letters) and his is Maaskant. The lines between the two projects really blur but we still keep them separate. The music we make is ever-evolving, a labour of love and exploration.
We play small gigs here and there. Our next show is at Holy Oak’s Open Inputs on December 15, and if anyone’s interested they can “like me on facebook.” That’s pretty much the extent of my self-promotion prowess!
BT: Does music ever influence your work as a book designer? Do you have a favourite band or playlist that helps you focus at work?
LB: I’m a genuine podcast fiend! Kind of diverting the question here, but if you want to know what makes me tick it’s podcasts! I consider it such a perk that the workings of the brain allow for design and podcast-listening to co-exist in complete harmony. So far my list runs the gamut from This American Life to Braidio, a podcast out of Halifax in which the interviewer is braiding people’s hair the whole time while having really great conversations with them. But I’m constantly discovering new podcasts, so I created a spreadsheet to keep track of all of them.
I do reach saturation levels with talk radio though, and I frequently switch to music. I actually don’t have a playlist; I mostly use the fact that I can work and listen as an opportunity to catch up on what’s happening in the music scene locally and at large. I try to listen to everything my people on various social media recommend/ promote.

BT: What are the pros and cons of working as a book designer?
Pros: Dream job. When someone asks me what I do at a party, it usually doesn’t lead to an awkward silence. Also I work with cool people, and they’re all pretty happy, doing things that they love, so that makes for a nice environment.
Cons: There’s no way to get rich. But no one is getting rich off of this, so.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.