Cover designer interview: Anna Woodbine of The Woodbine Workshop

Anna Woodbine is an independent book designer and illustrator, based in the hills near Bath. She works on all sorts of book covers from children’s to adult’s, classics to crime, memoirs to meditation. She takes her tea with a dash of milk (Earl Grey, always), loves the wind in her face, clompy boots and that lovely, damp smell after its rained. Find her at thewoodbineworkshop.co.uk.

What led you to become a designer, and how would you describe your design style?

Every holiday we went on as kids, my brother, sister and I were dragged along to the local Art Gallery; hundreds of them! My parents were interested in all types of Art so it was a major factor anywhere we went and it exposed us to a huge breadth of modern and classic art from a young age. The turning point for me was at age 11 at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts – I fell in love! Something about this ‘art’ being more illustrative, humorous and applied to print media made much more sense to me. Art within set parameters suddenly had an appeal and I suppose that’s what led me to graphic design further down the line.

I think I have a naturally feminine aesthetic and you see a lot of colour in my work – I love a mix of bright and bold colours and patterns. Colour brings emotion, so using it well can really help convey a feeling or atmosphere. For book covers I tend to illustrate quite graphically, as I find this works well on a medium that need to translate both as a tiny thumbnail on screen and something physical in your hands. 

How did you become involved in designing book covers?

After graduating with a Graphic Design degree I found I had no idea what to actually design! I worked in various creative jobs and then had a real lightbulb moment reading an interview with a book designer in Stylist magazine, it made so much sense! It was my perfect job! 

I then spent my evenings and weekends designing and illustrating covers for my favourite books to build up a portfolio. I even got friends to pick me books to read and to cover them in white paper so I could read them and design having had no existing visual influences. It wasn’t always very successful but this jumble of a portfolio did eventually get me a job. It was a case of serendipitous good timing; speaking to an Art Director at Hodder & Stoughton on the day he happened to be interviewing for a Designer position. I went in with a few designs to show on a mobile phone and a lot of enthusiasm and amazingly was offered the job the next day.

Can you give us an insight into one particular book design project that you’ve done recently?

My Past is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani was such a lovely project to work on. It’s a memoir recounting her compelling journey through faith, feminism and self compassion and spans her experiences over many countries and continents. The brief wanted the cover to feel bold, confident and appeal to millennial women. The challenge was to suggest a mix of cultures whilst avoiding being ethnically or locationally specific. 

I looked at mixing ink, paint and papercut styles in the rough rounds. This helped give the feeling of a mix of identities, emotions and cultures in a really positive, modern way. 

My Past Is a Foreign Country - Rough 1 by Anna Woodbine
My Past Is a Foreign Country – Rough 1
(Anna Woodbine)
My Past Is a Foreign Country - Rough 2 by Anna Woodbine
My Past Is a Foreign Country – Rough 2
(Anna Woodbine)
My Past Is a Foreign Country - Rough 3 by Anna Woodbine
My Past Is a Foreign Country – Rough 3
(Anna Woodbine)

We developed the mountain range visual – this was the favourite as it pinpointed a location that felt ‘other’ whilst also feeling recognisable. I developed two versions – a stiflingly hot colour palette of pinks and oranges, and a more abstract version with pinks, greens and dots. This was the clear favourite and became the final cover we’re all really chuffed with. 

My Past Is a Foreign Country - Rough 4 by Anna Woodbine
My Past Is a Foreign Country – Rough 4
(Anna Woodbine)
My Past Is a Foreign Country - Final Design by Anna Woodbine
My Past Is a Foreign Country – Final Design
(Anna Woodbine)

Do you have any tips to help publishers write successful cover briefs?

I’m sure writing a cover brief is jolly hard, I’m glad I don’t have to do it! I’d say outlining a clear synopsis, target market and visual references are crucial. Designers tend to be very visual people, so I find the visual references the most telling – whether these are comparison titles, illustration styles or just a mix of things that inexplicably have the right vibe. Finding a common visual language between a wordy Editor and a visual Designer usually gets you both on the right page from early in the process and really helps it go smoothly.

Is there anything you’d like publishers to do differently, to help the design process go more smoothly?

That’s a hard one, the cover design process varies so much from project to project, or publisher to publisher. I have worked both in-house and freelance and I’d say it really helps to speak to the Editor or Art Director, once the brief has been approved – whether on the phone or face-to-face. Often there will be key elements discussed for the vision for the book (sales strategy, market, comparisons, author’s taste etc.) which won’t have been noted on the brief but may be really key information for a designer to get the cover right. 

Thank you Anna Woodbine for answering our questions today!

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