In this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with graphic designer and creative director Rodrigo Corral. They discussed his book cover art design work, where he seeks inspiration for designs, and how he matches up with authors when creating a cover for their work. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: It’s been a long time since I wanted to talk to someone for this show that draws book covers. Just to introduce our listeners to some of your work, as I think a lot of people are going to know about your work, I will mention the cover of James Frey A million little pieces, which shows a hand covered in glitter on a pale blue background; or I will mention that of John Green The fault of our stars, which has a black cloud sitting on top of a white cloud with this lettering that looks like chalk on a blackboard; or I will quote that of Junot Díaz Oscar Wao’s brief wonderful life, which has a spray painted silhouette that looks like graffiti, but also looks like a Rorschach test.
If you go to the bookstore right now in this country, you are going to see paperback editions of Rachel Cusk Contour, Transit, and Glory which each have these striking photographs on the cover: a seashell perched in the sand, a praying mantis trapped in a plastic cup, a view from an airplane window.
I am only mentioning a few of your designs, but I think it gives an idea of what you did that really caught my eye, which is designing books. What does the brief look like when you design a book cover, and how is it different than when the task is to design a hotel logo or illustration for a magazine article?
Rodrigo Corral: There are certain overlapping qualities between a logo and a book jacket. There is a creative brief in the edit. We call it either a tip sheet or a cover note. It has the key elements. You have a title, an author, is it a hardcover, a paperback, comparison titles – “composition titles” as they call them – and a brief description of the book, as that should give you a basis for know what you can do.
What we’re trying to do is really dive into the text, almost naively read a manuscript while thinking, Well, why did the author choose this? It’s almost like a why on why on why series. All the blankets you mentioned, as you go through them, I think you could line up 10 people in a room and show them these blankets, and for most of them they might not even register. none of the elements. They may not even see the silhouette on Oscar Wao’s Brief Wonderful Life, or they might not head or tail what the bubbles on the clouds on The fault of our stars mean.
But personally, these ideas come from the content – responding to the content of the book, and that stays with me and makes me feel like it has power. It has lasting value. Readers want to go on a trip. They want to feel, in a certain way, of discovering something, of learning something, of winning something. I think a jacket only adds to this story.
The jacket also has to do this other thing, which is to persuade the reader to take the trip in the first place. Because the jacket is on a table in a local bookstore, or on the shelves in the library, and it has to communicate something.
Presumably the brief you get from the publisher – because every publisher wants their books to sell a million copies – is, “Give us the most striking thing possible, really grab the reader’s attention. ” Is it always the most important thing in your mind to stand out on a crowded table? Or is it something you let marketers take care of?
I think about it until this: understanding that our lives revolve so much around a laptop, a cell phone, and today, more than ever, we see things for the most part first digitally. I try to take it into account.
Beyond that, I really try to find the most effective and impactful solution that is true to the content of the book. It might sound pretty naive or serious, but that’s really what I’m trying to stay focused on. I’m aware of what’s going on in the market, but I’m not trying to get too excited about it.
What interests me about this is that you’re an artist, you think visually, but you negotiate when you design a book with a sensitivity that doesn’t necessarily think that way. You are dealing with an artist who works in words and not in images. You’re almost translating something, aren’t you?
Do you have to like the book you are designing the cover for? You said you needed an emotional connection with the material. You designed the jacket for crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen, coming out this fall. What if you hated this book? What if you had thought I do not understand. I don’t understand what this novel is trying to do. I don’t know how to make a face for him. Has this ever happened in your work?
I am sure it does. I can’t believe that after the many years that I have worked I still think back to the time of school, but I still have the voice of my teachers saying, “You have to stay open and also curious as possible if you want a career as a conceptual designer – as a graphic designer, period. If you want longevity, you need to stay as open as possible. “