Cover design case study: Don’t Hold My Head Down
It’s a privilege to do what I do. I love having an idea and seeing it become a book cover. Every now and then, a design goes beyond the page and teaches you something about yourself. Don’t Hold My Head Down by Lucy-Anne Holmes, published by Unbound, did that for me.
It is a memoir about sex. In her mid-thirties, Lucy-Anne Holmes still felt like a novice, but when she tried to find out what she could do about it, everything she googled was geared towards the male gaze. So Lucy penned a list, less bucket more f*ckit, and set out to discover what her sex life was missing.
Unbound’s Creative Director, Isobel Kieran, wrote the perfect design brief and we chose a gifted female designer. She produced some beautiful, considered designs, but it didn’t work out because of a relative suddenly falling ill. I had to take it on. The clock was ticking and the expectations were high.
I had this lingering, irrational doubt that I couldn’t design a cover for a book on this subject aimed at women, even though covers like I Love Dick and The Female Persuasion are by male designers. I also couldn’t help but feel an even more irrational sense of distant responsibility for #MeToo and issues like the gender pay gap, simply because I’m a bloke who watches the news.
‘Etch-a-Sketch it,’ I thought. Try and forget the expectations and the nervousness, shake it up. I produced design after design; typographic, illustrative, photographic. Instinctive and immediate. Sometimes it’s best to just throw everything into the top of your head and see what comes out.
All of the designs had a touch of attitude, they riffed on the wonderful title. Here are a few that were considered, but rejected…
At Unbound, authors are very involved with the creative process, and it’s my job as Art Director to get a design that balances everybody’s views. Visual after visual came and went, and nothing quite hit the mark. So, I did another trick which I call ‘fresh eyes’. I paused for a week and then came back for another run at it, even though we couldn’t afford to lose the time. Getting away from the design gave me perspective. I re-read the brief, re-watched the video, read the rest of the book and an idea hit me…
It was the taboo of online porn. I sheepishly looked online and found that what Lucy says in the video is true. Everything is geared towards men, but also aggressively AGAINST women. I was shocked, disgusted and guilty.
The video titles had their own kind of language, dirty incomprehensible acronyms everywhere. I copied and pasted a set of video titles to create a wallpaper background in a digital font around the jacket. Then I took a red pen and angrily crossed all of them out. Over the top I scrawled the title and a shoutline, like a diary or a protest placard. A full moodboard with a mockup, showing my rationale and how I saw the endpapers and production values, helped to give a holistic view of the product.
The next Tuesday, with everything crossed, I took this single idea along to the weekly Unbound Cover Meeting… and they loved it. The next hurdle was author approval, so Imogen Denny, the book’s editor, took our case to Lucy.
‘When Mark brought this design to our cover meeting we all loved it immediately. It was brilliant to have such an original design to show Lucy. It’s more provocative than anything we’d looked at previously, in no way coy, but still looks intriguing and stylish – the background requires a second look – and the design makes the title really stand out. And luckily Lucy was delighted as well!’
It was a massive relief that she loved it too. She even liked my idea for the book’s endpapers, which reverses the video captions into positive statements written by women. In the best spirit of Unbound, Lucy asked her contributors to write their own positive captions to contrast against the crossed out language on the outer jacket.
‘I love this cover, it is bold, defiant, and unmissable. My niece summed it up for me by saying ‘I love it. It is so not patronising.’ I shied away from it at first because it was so strong. I had become so used to pink, flowers, sparkles. What, no cupcake? Was this too masculine? Shouty? Where was the softness?
But when I shared it with some online groups to get their feedback the response was excitement. The messy crossing out of porn titles in the angry red, the simple request in large font, it’s brilliant, a thousand thank yous, Mark.’
I thought that this nervous boy couldn’t design a book cover for girls, but I was wrong. And amongst all the lessons this project has given me, I’ll be encouraging my daughter all the more to have confidence in herself, and to question what she sees online.
What a job I have, bring on the next cover.