How do you design the cover for the biggest book of the year?

Toby Hopkins of Getty Images talks to Glenn O’Neill, Deputy Art Director of Cornerstone publishing, a division within Penguin Random House, about his design for this summer’s blockbuster “Go Set a Watchman”.

1. There has been a lot of talk about this book – and quite a lot of talk about its cover too. How did you come to be involved in the design?

The whole briefing and design process for the jacket was unusual. Given the high profile of the book, and its importance to our list, it was decided that all six designers in the department would have the opportunity to submit proposals. It was a very open brief. For reasons of security, access to the text was extremely restricted. None of us would be able to read it until publication day. But we were made aware by the publisher of the essential outline of the story, that covers Scout Finch’s return home to Maycomb from New York, and would feature many of the same characters of To Kill A Mockingbird, though now older, and Go Set A Watchman’s historic context, in that the manuscript had been recently rediscovered after so many years. We all wanted one of our designs to be chosen. It was like going back to university – there would be a range of designers’ responses to this instantly classic book.


2. You arrived at a unique typographical solution for your cover design. The lettering of “Go Set a Watchman” is shadowed by similar sized letters of Harper Lee’s previous title “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did that come about?

In the initial focus meeting, whilst in discussion regarding the company’s plans for the book involving all of editorial, sales, marketing and publicity, I was doodling on a pad. I noticed the similarities in the wording of the two titles, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Go Set A Watchman: the four words, each of a similar length, and of a similar rhythm. One title could be a reflection of the other, both historically and typographically. This lettering featured in the first design produced, and stayed the same through every version: similar sized letters sitting in bars across the page to give structure. The autumnal textured orange background was also an early decision.

3. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has an unusually strong visual brand for a single book. The cover of the first edition is famous and the US edition of “Go Set a Watchman” follows its theme. Other editions have used similar visual elements. How aware were you of this tradition?

I designed the fiftieth anniversary UK paperback cover of “Mockingbird” five years ago, so I read the book then for the first time, and was transfixed by the writing. Most editions of Mockingbird focus on similar motifs, and there have been numerous visual interpretations over the years, of which I was aware as part of the research for that first book. In the US, Mockingbird has been reissued with its original cover, and their edition of Go Set A Watchman elegantly echoes that legacy. A tree is a recurring motif of many Mockingbird designs. To link to this UK first edition of Go Set A Watchman I’ve used a branch, stripped of leaves. I’ve placed falling leaves on the back cover. Time has passed. Scout is older.

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 4. How did you employ illustration in your design?

As previously mentioned the initial idea for the cover was purely typographical, but on reflection and discussion it was apparent that it needed a further visual element, though oddly the one thing I was not going to try was a mockingbird … It seemed too obvious in the weight of the previous book’s history. But after implementing many other symbols and illustrations the bird began to re-emerge as the best solution. The mockingbird featured is the perkiest one I could find. It gives animation to the cover, the way the tail points up between the words, the way the beak is open. None of the others I found were as animated. For me it comes back to that quote that Harper Lee uses in her original Mockingbird text:

Mocking Bird

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

I’ve simplified the bird from the original illustration, to more comfortably integrate with the lettering. The original illustration is great, but a little bit too floral for our purposes, however you need that initial source to get the life and strength of the illustrator’s drawing into the final silhouette.

5. The cover selection process can be notoriously demanding for a designer. How was this one?

All the solutions from our art department, three from each designer, 24 in all, went forward to a select group within Cornerstone. The process gradually refined down to this one version. Then the publisher and managing director flew out to Monroeville, Alabama, to present personally to Harper Lee. She’s in her eighties now but is still is as bright as a button. She liked our cover fortunately.

Thereafter it had to be further considered throughout the various publishing levels within Penguin Random House, both in the UK and internationally, to further ensure that it would be well received by the book retailers and the customers.

6. How do you feel about the cover now?

It’s gone out into the world now… and of course you want people to like it generally. There’s been some criticism on Twitter, but individual dissent is ultimately trivial, as long as it’s got the backing of key players centrally involved in the publishing process, and, most importantly, the author. Down the coming years however, as with To Kill A Mockingbird, there will be countless designs put forward for different editions of Go Set A Watchman, mine will then be one of many.

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