One Book, Two Covers

For this post, ABDA committee member and designer Hazel Lam has brought together local book covers and their international counterparts with insights on their design processes.

I have always enjoyed going overseas and seeing how different the book covers are compared to what we do here in Australia. I’ve been struggling to come up with an idea for a blog post and was prompted by the lovely Imogen Stubbs to do a post about UK covers vs Australian covers. It started out as a comparison piece but the more I thought about it, the most fascinating thing to me is how different designers can interpret the exact same story in a completely different way, so this is what this post has ended up being.I chose three quite different titles. 1984, a classic that has been rejacketed multiple times. Boy Swallows Universe, a very Australian literary title and Bridge of Clay, a highly anticipated commercial blockbuster.

I left it quite open and just asked the designers to describe their process and design choices. A giant thank you to all six designers, David Pearson, WH Chong, Darren Holt, Claire Ward, Sandy Cull and Jo Thomson for taking the time out and contributing to the fascinating read below.


David Pearson (UK edition)

With a book like this you tend to start by making a list of what you can’t do. So many memorable and well-designed jackets exist for it already and so very quickly your options become greatly reduced (eyes, pipework, ominous-looking billboards and brutalist buildings are all valid starting points but al- ready exist and often in abundance). Therefore I didn’t come up with too many ideas! In fact, the other notable one was essentially the same idea, but with the title and author name die cut from the cover (as if they had been removed by scalpel). There wasn’t the budget for this however, so we* pursued a redacted alternative.

There’s not too much more to say really. I knew the cover wouldn’t work if the Penguin livery wasn’t in place. There would be no ‘way in’ and nothing familiar or comforting to play against the hardness of the redaction. The ‘complete’ and ‘unabridged’ lines were of course knowingly included, making Penguin look somehow complicit in the spread of misinformation. I have to be incredibly grateful to them for allowing such abuse of their brand!*myself and Penguin Press Art Director Jim Stoddart


W.H. Chong (Australian edition)

Such a famous title, so much to avoid repeating. The clock arrived because circles and year, ie Time, and the famous beginning: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ 1984 is fantastically retro.


Sketches of a camera lens in a concentric circle design. A die-cut peekaboo cover. A smartphone lens hole. A rat in a corner. A wall-mounted surveillance camera. 1984 numerals, calendar page.
Notes: Red, die-cut hole, 1984, big brother, rat, surveillance, mac/phone camera.
1984 numerals becoming binoculars, or scope sights. Concentric circles. A scribble of clock with ‘13’ instead of ‘12’.Clock with 13 and title year, on brick wall. *IDEA* — The 13 clock with bold numerals reading left-right, anti-clockwise 1, 9, 8, 4. Orwell as brand name of clock. Scribble of spine and back layout. Notes: Red, London tube graphics.

Boy Swallows Universe

Claire Ward (UK edition)

As I was reading the script, I noted down any elements or scenes that I thought were either important or made for good visual images and then I just did loads of picture research until a cover formed in my mind. I think designing is intuitive so I just go where it takes me. I’ve attached a selection of covers which we considered. For me the relationship between the boys was important, or using an image of just Eli seemed a route to go, but when I looked at these visuals I was concerned that they looked a bit YA, especially with such an unusual title. I picked out the line from the story YOUR END IS A DEAD BLUE WREN and decided to try exactly that on the cover to make it feel a bit more intriguing and less YA. I would have liked to have kept that line on the jacket but I was over-ruled! The moon pool, the rope, the drugs were all other bits from the book that I picked out as being interesting images. I also looked at the red phone but that didn’t work for front cover so I have included it on the back board ( see attached)

Personally I think designers should read the books they are designing because if you rely on an editor they can miss really good visual elements in the book that you will only discover if you read it yourself. In this instance it really helped because I loved the book!


Darren Holt (Australian edition)

Boy Swallows Universe is a novel about a boy growing up amidst drug dealing in the surburbs of 1980s Brisbane. It sounded pretty raw but then the author sent through this description of how he imagined the cover …

‘But the cover I see in my head, for what it’s worth, has the words “Boy Swallows Universe” in big bold yellow upper case letters across a scene of deep universe events… galaxies… supernovas… comets …meteor showers …celestial events … But, much like parts of the book, things aren’t always what they seem…. and when you look closer at this scene you realise the galaxy in the corner of the scene is actually spattered blood and the comet flying by is a shot bullet and the supernova exploding is actually heroin powder and a blue planet spinning in the distance is a Serepax pill … And – this is likely impossible – but when you look closer still you realise this scene is happening on the textured surface of a 1980s linoleum kitchen floor….’

I read the manuscript and it is raw, it’s ugly, violent, hilarious and full of surreal odd occurrences yet totally believable situations. I made notes of objects, phrases and reoccurring motifs which I used to collect images used in early roughs. Using objects straight and literally wasn’t working at all, everything ended up messy, too fragmented and so the story felt just confusing rather than intriguing.

Half way through the manuscript there’s this paragraph which evokes something similar to the authors original description, but it’s more abstract and less specific.

‘“Boy swallows universe,” she says. And she turns her head and she casts her eyes across what was once the Pacific Ocean but is now a vast galaxy of stars and planets and supernovas and a thousand astronomical events occurring in unison. Explosions of pink and purple. Combustive moments in bright orange and green and yellow and all those glittery stars against the eternal black canvas of space. We are standing at the edge of the universe and the universe stops and starts here with us. And Saturn is within an arm’s reach. And its rings begin to vibrate. Buzz. Buzz.’

So thinking about this I took images and parts of images, swapping them out for shapes or alternative abstract images.

For the final version of the cover an old red rotary phone became just a dial, then just a hole and may- be at a stretch could be a reference to the moon.

I thought about die cutting the hole so a finger could fit through, (an unfortunate event happens to one of the the main character’s fingers) though I didn’t consider the damage that could occur by tempting readers to squeeze their finger through the hole. The hole as illusion works well with the authors initial description: ‘But, much like parts of the book, things aren’t always what they seem.’

In the space of a black background Nebulas and galaxies became an explosion of coloured paint.

Eighties pixel text was dropped in favour of straighter stacked type overlapped by the paint. The  only literal object – the blue bird – helps give some order to the chaos. Two of the most reoccour-ing phrases remain. One is the phrase in the hole which also operates as some kind of cryptic subtitle and the other, luckily, is the title.


Bridge of Clay

Sandy Cull (Australian edition)

I was first approached by the Pan Macmillan publisher several years ago, when MZ was due to send through the manuscript. As has been reported recently, there were several false starts before I did finally receive the manuscript early in 2018. This came with a date for a ‘global cover reveal’, for early March, which was determined by Knopf in the US. I would begin my year with Bridge of Clay.

A manuscript of such calibre, and so anticipated, came with some friendly security warnings. The publisher and I felt we were handling incredibly precious treasure; nervous to download it and worried about leaving a printout in the back of a cab.

I read BOC over my summer holidays, after which MZ gave the publisher an insight into his thoughts for the cover; an email I still have.

From this publisher, there is never a formal brief. It’s a back-and-forth over email and some phone conversations discussing potential scenes and key themes, a reminder of the need to straddle both YA and adult markets, and an expectation that it will need to have mass appeal. There’s also definitely lots of effusive admiration and awe for the story we’re working with. It’s totally organic.

I sent through some themes and images that came to mind during my reading. I ran these by the publisher before I began work, who then ran these by MZ for his initial response. Then I began putting them together.

In the first round, I sent 7 concepts with variations on each; many more than I normally send. The publisher discarded anything that didn’t immediately resonate for her, and gave me feedback on developing the concepts that did.

The boy on the roof was in that first round. It’s a strong image that also resonated with my own up-bringing. (One of my sisters was always on the roof.) I also included a mattress, some night views (from the rooftop) of a city in the distance, a typewriter and shots I’d taken of a friend’s Hills Hoist clothes line.

For the next round I supplied four concepts updated, all with type variations.

The boy on the roof was chosen with the more conservative serif type, and the typewriter chosen as a back-up for a different edition. The former is a composite of 3 or 4 photographs: the boy, the roof, the trees and the clouds. We had several more weeks of fine-tuning: fonts, size and position. I embarked on several more pic searches for new roofs and clouds, and even a different boy who was less well-fed than my original. The finer details had to be just right, for MZ, and for us all.

I designed the text too, which I love to do. We didn’t realise until late in the ‘pages’ process, that MZ had already briefed an illustrator. I was asked to design these retrospectively into the part titles. It wasn’t until I went to have my books signed months later, and well after I‘d received my copies, that I remembered these illustrations. They had been dropped before going to print. I am rarely involved in the pages process once my text design has been approved and the book has been typeset. Dropping the illustrations was the right decision. Apart from being an unnecessary distraction, I felt they weren’t stylistically as strong as the writing, and thus detrimental to the overall production. They also could have positioned BOC too firmly in only the YA genre.

We sent both the paperback and hardback editions to press in late June.


Jo Thompson (UK edition)

When I was asked to do the cover for Bridge of Clay I was thrilled – I’d loved The Book Thief and was excited to read and be involved in Markus Zusak’s latest novel.

The brief was to create a sophisticated package that said ‘Big Book’. It was Zusak’s first adult book and the cover needed to convey this without looking too dry or staid. The novel has a lot of warmth and ten- derness so it couldn’t look too stark or cool, there needed to be a human touch to it.

I started reading the manuscript, it was a great experience as I was still living in Sydney and had spent a fair bit of time in the inner west where the novel is set. It was really nice to be able to relate to the book and feel part of it. It was a very different reading experience to The Book Thief, but very visual and descriptive. It didn’t take long for a few ideas to creep into frame. I tried a couple of versions in a photographic approach, showing Clay and his brothers or Just clay by himself. I was keen to really push the cover and make it special, so I looked at using elements such as a belly-band and half jacket, as well as foils and debossing.

I was pretty nervous as I sent off my visuals, this novel was a big deal and it was my first cover design since being hired as a Senior Designer at Transworld (I would be moving back to London the following month). No pressure…

Thankfully the feedback was positive and the cover meeting picked one of my favourites, the type led cover with the cascading foil river. This idea had come from the paragraph I’d loved: “And Clay looked back one last time, before diving – in, and outwards – to a bridge, through a past, to a father. He swam the gold-lit water”.

Once we had a cover design in place (and once I’d joined the team in London) I began working with the Marketing team to help draw the whole campaign for the book together. We decided to create two book proofs, one wet-look with the river illustration and the other dry with the cracked earth. Each would only have foil and debossing on the front cover to give the cover depth and texture.

We decided to include a set of 6 stickers in the back of the book, each featuring an animal, object and the title. I was asked to illustrate these in the graphic style of the novel of the cover, it was great getting away from the computer and doodling with pen and paper. As well as the stickers, I also created 3 sets of end-papers for each edition of the book, using the wet and dry theme from the proofs.

The end result was 3 sets of books with different ribbons and endpapers and even sprayed edges.

For me this was the perfect brief, I got to work with a great team of people (including a lovely and accommodating author) on a whole range of collateral alongside the actual book cover, ending up with a book that hopefully met the brief I was given.


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