Designing ‘The Gulf’

A winning combination of collage, paint and hand lettering resulted in this year’s design for Best Literary Fiction Cover at the 2018 ABDA Awards. Designer Emily O’Neill talks us through her process and shares some designs that didn’t make the cut.

The brief I received for the cover design of Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Gulf was exciting, but also daunting. The novel is quite grim at times and as the Publisher cautioned me, deals with some heavy topics: domestic violence, family breakdown, drug abuse and poverty. It’s a family living on the margins of society and at the centre of it all is 16-year-old Skye and her 10-year-old brother. But the novel also has so much warmth, especially between the siblings, and a great deal of wit. I knew right away it was going to be tricky balancing these elements. I hopped on the usual roller coaster of emotions as soon as I agreed to the job, only as time was very tight for first concepts, this rollercoaster was suddenly condensed into “Oooh how exciting, great brief, this is going to be fun!” “OhmygodwhatamIevengoingtoputonthecoverrrrrrr”.

Thankfully along with a general outline of the book the Publisher had sent the manuscript and a list of symbols referenced in the text which might lend themselves to the cover. The brief had suggested: a tortoise, train tracks, a hills hoist. The book is set in Adelaide and a fictional town in the Gulf of St Vincent, and the Publisher certainly wanted to communicate this location specificity somehow on the cover.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Publisher gave me a great deal of confidence in that first email after all the necessary information when he wrote: “Please feel free to follow your own nose – I trust your instincts!” That certainly saved me during a few wobbly moments of doubt!

I started to read as much as I could of Anna’s writing to see what else I could glean, and ended up happily reading the whole book. As I read, I made notes on concepts I could start to see working in my head and techniques on how visually I could flesh these out. Usually I might sketch these up in thumbnails but this time I didn’t stop to do that, but unromantically made notes on my phone.

I always try and present a range of approaches in the first round on concepts, hoping even if there isn’t a clear winner in there initially, there’s a direction that we could work with. There is a touching image in the book of Skye comforting her brother over some corner store hot chips and I really wanted to see if I could make that work somehow.

I quickly mocked up the hot chips on some greasy butcher’s paper using stock imagery, with the intention that if we went ahead with this cover I could photograph some hot chips myself to get those chips working much better around the type. Now with the benefit of hindsight, what was I even thinking with that thick, ink brush type?! Way too heavy. I did quite a few variations of hand lettering as I felt it needed that individual, naive feel to help communicate Skye’s voice, rather than a stuffy, neat typeface. Shout out to my daughter’s crayons for the final title type.

Third concept I sent was the eventual cover, the coastline held together by haphazard tape with two very isolated figures, and pretty much remained unchanged which is very rare, and very lovely! The only major change was the figures walking along the beach. I used a stock image to mock-up the concept but ended up painting them for the final cover. I also tweaked the type slightly as I can’t help myself.

Rough (left) and final (right)

I also sent these concepts which is veering down the YA road and probably way too abstract. I guess there’s a mood here but not much else.

Ah and that symbolism I spoke about earlier? I’ll give you symbolism! Hills hoist? Check! Turtle? Check! Movie ticket stub? Macbeth passage? Kids at the pier? Check, check, check! Here’s where I obviously struggled to get those other elements working and when in doubt – collage!

I still have a soft spot for this last concept I sent of the cracked plate which was a composite of about 1000 stock images (plate, table, crack, stains…). I had a lot of fun ageing and dirtying up that plate.

For the final full cover I carried the paper sand over the spine and onto the back cover, and painted the dog (which I promise is relevant to the story) onto the back cover. The only other change was to the tear at the bottom back cover, with the Publisher having the inspired idea to introduce a river of blue underneath the crack. And off to print!

Select imagery used in draft cover concepts is shown here for the purpose of education and review only.