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Five questions for Oxford World’s Classics cover designer Alex Walker

Judging a book by its cover has turned out to be a necessity in life. We’ve all perused book shops and been seduced by a particularly intriguing cover–perhaps we have even been convinced to buy a book because of its cover. And, truly, there is no shame in that. It takes skill and artistry to craft a successful book cover, and that should be acknowledged. We sat down with one of Oxford University Press’ designers, Alex Walker, and asked him about the process that we often take for granted–or even deride in an idiom.

Where do you get your ideas for the images you use on the covers?

The design team considers a broad array of possible images, including paintings, photographs, and artwork: everything from intricate close-up photographs of period jewelry to patterns and fabric supplied by the V&A. When designing covers for books by prolific authors such as H.G. Wells and Jane Austen, we also try to link all titles by the same author together visually, so we draw inspiration from past books in the series. On the flip side, we also look at other books in the same area, previous titles, and competing titles, so that we can be sure to set each book apart from what has come before.

Can you take us through the process of designing a cover for a book in the Oxford World’s Classics (OWC) series?

Sure—to understand this process as easily as possible, imagine a pyramid. Our ethos, which is to make each design the best it can be, is the gravity that will hold our pyramid to the ground. With that in mind, let’s get some building blocks and lay out the first row in our pyramid by compiling as many possible cover images as we can think of. Working with editorial and picture research teams, we propose ways to represent the book in a single image; at this stage, there is no such thing as too many options.

To move onto the second row of our pyramid, we need to begin to narrow down our choices. Our designers will compile all the relevant visuals into a single document that can be presented to multiple teams for review: editorial, production, and marketing all get a chance to express their opinions. There can never be too much feedback as we work together to reach a unified resolution. After initial thoughts and suggestions, any changes will be made or other avenues will be explored. Sometimes a certain design will already be favoured, e.g. artistic over photographic, so the photographic options will fall away as more artistic images get introduced to the fold and we investigate the initial idea further. As the pyramid grows, each row is shorter: possible designs fall away, leaving only our best options.

When we get down to a handful of visuals, anywhere between five and seven, we begin to play with the images a bit more, doing colour correction, making minor edits, and experimenting with interesting crops and layouts. At this stage, we might return to our colleagues in other departments for more feedback, to see what the group’s favourite is. Eventually, a single visual will be selected and we’ll have our cover, the triumphant capstone upon our pyramid.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Is it hard to design OWC covers? What difficulties do you encounter?

The OWC covers are often relatively straightforward to design. There is usually a wealth of visual material to consider over the brainstorming process, so if there’s a problem, it’s usually that we have too many ideas, not too few. We might also encounter obstacles to using some images: some will fall outside of our budget, some will take too long to arrive from the supplier in time for our schedules, and others look great on their own but don’t work well when on a front cover.

Do you have a favourite OWC cover that you’ve worked on?

War of the Worlds for the upcoming series of H. G. Wells titles is a personal favourite of mine. The picture research was really striking, and it was difficult selecting a favourite.

How did you become a book jacket designer? Do you have any for aspiring designers?

I chose to focus on design a lot at school so I have an A-level in Graphic Design and a degree in Illustration, and I chose to top that off with an MA in Publishing as well, so naturally I was drawn to book cover design. I would say a command of the software, a well of ideas and originality, and a platform to display these is worth a lot more though. To help myself get experience I would redesign my favourite book covers for my portfolio—I’m currently working on redesigns for the recently announced Man Booker Prize shortlist.

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