Designing ‘In the Dark Spaces’

Connecting to a manuscript and channeling that emotion into a cover design, Astred Hicks of Design Cherry shares how the dazzling and dark cover for ‘In the Dark Spaces’ came to be. It went on to win Best Young Adult Cover at the 2018 ABDA Awards.


At a book design talk a quite few years ago, I heard Sandy Cull talk about her process during which she stressed that she read every manuscript for each book she designed. ‘Who has time for that?’ I scoffed. I was working for a small design studio and designing mainly commercial fiction covers, the briefs from publishers came with a blurb and a few extracts. The covers served their purpose and everyone was happy with them. Sandy no doubt continued to make time to read manuscripts, and continued to win every award possible (well done, Sandy).

My process

Some years later, and now with my own freelance business, I started to shift my creative process. Instead of illustrating specific scenes in a book I wanted to go deeper, I wanted the audience to feel a personal connection to the cover, to identify something within themselves and share a moment. So I started asking for the manuscripts.

As I expected, reading manuscripts dramatically increased the time it took me to create concepts. But it turned out that it was not just the reading that lengthened the process. Instead, 60 per cent of my time producing concepts is now taken up with thinking.

Finding that emotional connection within myself, and translating that into a bridge between audience and cover takes a lot of time and the first set of concepts don’t always work. I want covers to be emotive, lightning bolts that jolt the viewer. The message should be strong and focused, or abstract with a deeper meaning, but always that jolt.

The brief

When the brief and the manuscript for In The Dark Spaces came through I chased concepts down a rabbit hole and emerged completely lost.

This Ampersand Prize-winning book needed an impressive cover, one that would represent the many facets of the story: aliens, humans living in space colonies, kidnapping, war, horror, family, hope, bonds of love … rabbit hole.  So many directions, so many dead ends.

Initially the editor and I headed down the sci-fi route, trying to capture the crow-like nature of the alien race or the texture of their uniforms or the infinite loneliness felt by the protagonist.

Back and forth we went, and while I felt I was delivering gold each time (‘Yessss! This is it! Stick a fork in me I am done!’) the editor and publisher were unsure. It was a tricky book to place in the market and they were experimenting as much as I was.

So I stopped, reset and once again reassured myself that the cover didn’t need to tell the story, it needed to make people FEEL the story.

I packed my sketch books and my little family and took off to the Art Gallery of NSW. I stood in front of huge abstract paintings and let them wash over me. I chatted to my kid about colours and shapes and their dynamics. We spoke about how the size of the painting affected us, how the paint strokes and textures made us feel something in our stomach, and about the energy of some colours and the oppressive nature of others. And in the background my brain started ticking over…

This time I sent the editor rough concepts that tried to capture the essence of the book in a purely abstract form. Energy, conflict, life and heart. From there the final cover design was developed.

I hand wrote the title. I like uneven flawed type, to me it always represents humanity. We are not perfect. On this cover, the title represents the protagonist, a young stow-away trapped between two opposing sides, both of which are at times violent and nurturing. So the patterns swarm around the title, pressing against it, creating conflict as opposing forces squeeze the seemingly fragile, broken text. Gold is scratched into the patterns, glimmers of hope that shimmer on book shelves.

The final cover is cryptic, allowing readers to make their own interpretations. Sometimes they will only make the connection after they have experienced the story.  When they finally close the book they can appreciate the design once more with new eyes.