Pursuing Publishing - Design

Welcome to another Pursuing Publishing post, where industry experts answer questions about their roles!

Book front covers are typically the first thing we see on a book, and whether we care to admit it or not, they do play a key role in enticing and intriguing potential readers, making the Design team a crucial stage in publishing. In order to learn more about Design, I spoke with Alex Kirby, Senior Cover Designer (part time) at Yale University Press & Freelance Book Cover Designer.

What does an average day in your role look like? Across both my roles, I work on books that are at various stages of production. Some can be at a very embryonic (i.e. sketching) stage while others could be heading off to the printers so may require finish plates and spine width adjustments. After 15 years in publishing, I'm aware that my creativity levels can tail off as the day concludes so I tend to divide up my daily workload accordingly - brainstorming/sketching in the morning and after lunch; with corrections, admin etc in the early evening. When did you discover that Design in publishing was something you wanted to pursue? I can't lie and say I had this grand plan to pursue a career in book cover design. I only knew that I wanted to work within the creative industry, but was uncertain of which field. After graduating from Falmouth, I toyed with Advertising but following various internships and placements I was offered a Junior Designer role at Random House (as it was back then). After nearly four years I moved to Faber where I spent 12 years. In July 2018 I headed to Yale whilst simultaneously setting up my freelance venture 'Mister Kirby'. Throughout my career, I've chosen roles that I hoped would challenge, broaden and ultimately improve my skills as a cover Designer. 

Why is Design/book covers so important in publishing? Readers can and do judge books by their covers, and with the latter increasingly forming the basis for a book's marketing and advertising campaigns, it's vital that the jacket design is striking, engaging and desirable. 

What is your favourite thing about your role? The sheer variety of subjects. For example, at present I'm designing covers for books about the Kindertransport, a bank robber, healthy eating plus a collection of short stories. Researching and learning about areas which I may not usually encounter is a real privilege.  

And your least favourite? I think waiting for 'author approval' can, on occasion, be an anxious time, especially with the jackets you're particularly proud of. Also, 'cover reveals' on social media that don't tag the designer/illustrator responsible. 

Do you have a favourite genre of book to work with? If so, why? Working for Yale I design lots of Non-Fiction, but I can genuinely say that I enjoy working across all genres. 

Is there anything that surprised you about your role that you did not realise before? When starting as a Junior Designer, it was fascinating to discover how much effort from so many people went into publishing a book. That's always stuck with me.  What are the main skills needed to work in Design? Ingenuity, persistence, patience, diplomacy, an attention to detail. I should add that my job is a lot of fun - the above sounds daunting but it's really not! Simply, if you can produce good covers and be nice while you do it, you'll be grand.

What are some software/programmes that you’d recommend to hopefuls looking to get into Design? All the usuals like InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. I suppose there are others such as motion and web applications which could now be handy, too.  For your bookish question – what book cover do you wish you had designed yourself?

There are many, many covers I wished I had created, but a recent favourite is Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police. A brilliant jacket by Tyler Comrie. 


A massive thank you to Alex for participating, and be sure to follow him on his Twitter here!

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