Designing ‘The Student’

ABDA member and vice-president Alissa Dinallo takes us through the design of her award winning cover for ‘The Student’,  joint winner of the Booktopia Best Designed Commercial Fiction Cover at the 2018 ABDA awards.

The process of designing The Student was incredibly smooth sailing. When I came to write this blog post and looked back at the concept stages for this cover, I was shocked to realise we only went through one round of cover concepts, and the final cover was in that pile.

Just magical. And pretty rare!

Originally, this book was titled Black Days, and we switched between the two titles during the design process, until The Student was decided on to be the final title. The book was described by the editor to me as ‘James Ellroy meets Donna Tartt’. It covers some incredibly dark and gritty subject matter. Set in 1994 Queensland, the novel is masculine, dusty, gritty crime. There are drugs, drug dealers and exploitation. A lot of boredom and nothingness. There’s a missing girl on a videotape and a character spiralling out of control.

The author, Iain Reid, summarised into a bullet-point list what he thought the book was about – which was insanely helpful to my design process. The list given to me was:

  • The train
  • The suitcase full of video tapes
  • Student cards
  • Caravans
  • His hatchback
  • Iris  / seeing (Iris is the only person who correctly sees everyone for who they really are)
  • Homemade bongs

This gave me an excellent framework for my concepts (expect I was pretty sure a homemade bong wasn’t going to make it very far on the cover in the approval process).

The two main feelings I wanted to evoke from my designs were:

  1. The feeling of nothingness (a vibe I feel is perfectly captured and I get whenever I look at the cover for Columbine designed by Henry Sene Yee), as well as
  2. a sense of loss of self or loss of identity associated with drug use and drug dealing

I explored all the points listed by Iain (except the bong), but what really got me excited was the idea of using student cards. Originally I thought it would be great if the book cover could be an actual student card, with the face of the student completely scratched out. I started picture researching student cards, and that’s when I stumbled across the black and white school portrait that is on the final cover. I loved the grainy, authentic quality to the image, and thought it really fit the ‘nothingness’ mood I was trying to evoke.

This was the first round of concepts, which explored the use of both potential titles:

The covers were well received by the editor and author, and were narrowed down to the following:

And eventually, the final cover was chosen by the publisher, Echo. I was thrilled as it was definitely my favourite in the bunch. The only change I made before it went off to marketing, was to change the author name from a font to hand written text. And just like that, the final cover for The Student went out into the world.

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