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Friday, June 06, 2008

How Does One Become a Book Designer?

I've been getting an increasing number of emails like this one, from reader Brandy:

hey joe,
how does one become a book designer? please discuss...


Anyone care to offer Brandy some advice?

PS: I'm in love with all of you right now. Thanks for the great comments.


marcc said...

i'm also curious about this. i've wanted to do book design for years.

Nick said...

I have no idea, but I've been building my portfolio by publishing my own (and my friends) books through an online service. It's great for producing just a couple at a time, and fairly inexpensive.

neal said...

If you are still in college - investigate the university press. At my school, Carnegie Mellon, most of the work was done by students for course credit (proofing, layout, cover design, promotion) etc. It was a great way to get some extra credits and add to my portfolio.

Sam, B.A. Arch ‘06 said...

I started as an intern at a book packager that does specialty non-fiction books, and now I’m a junior designer. While I was in architecture school I used every opportunity I had to work with print media, including designing and managing school publications, which helped me build a portfolio of different kinds of design work. If I had to guess, I’d say that even though I have a degree in architecture, and work experience in urban planning, she hired me because of my solid design skills, and because I told her I wanted the job and I wanted to learn while I was here.

The Book Designer said...

Don't do it people. It's not worth it. Suck you dry and leave you for the wolves.

But if you insist—go to school for 4 years, do a lot of experimentation to try to find your voices and comfort zone and then barge into as many cafes, design conferences and publishing houses with your portfolio till you meet the right person. Make a fool of yourself, ask dumb questions and above all—ask for work. If you ask, you WILL get it. Sure you'll work on some self help titles by an emerging nobody for a few books in a row, but once people see what you are really capable of, they may start to throw something else at you. But always ask for what you want to work on. Be bold and honest.

Otherwise, don't bother.

jean said...

I'm under the impression that the traditional route is to go to design school and learn graphic design stuff (composition, layout, color theory, typography, etc.). Then when you are putting together your portfolio make the focus of the body of work towards book design. Try to get relevant internships if you can afford the low pay. Hit up publishing houses you want to work for (Chronicle Books is my personal dream) with your resume and portfolio. Keep your fingers crossed and hope they hire you.

Alternatively, you could apply for work as a designer at a general purpose graphic design firm that has done a goodly amount of work in publications. Then make sure that your art director knows that you have an especial interest in book design projects. If your portfolio has a decent amount of book cover designs, they'll see that you have an interest in it too.

As far as job hunting goes, I think there are a bunch of tips and ideas that everyone stands behind. Probably all the adages that apply to any sort of job hunting also apply to graphic design gigs and book design gigs.

Good luck!

Chris said...

In addition to the above comments about a formal design background (which are spot on), it's important to also understand the unique attributes of the publishing industry and how book design is different than other areas of graphic design. One option is to go into production if you can't get a G.D. degree and laterally move as you get more comfortable with your work. Also, start working at small publishers and independents in a freelance capacity, or even in an intern capacity, so you can get our connections in the industry.

Also, don't settle.

Robert Schumann said...

Be a brilliant graphic designer. Be cheap. Work hard. Then, after years, try to design a book (read it before). Try it again. Stay cheap.

Anonymous said...

I got in to book design straight out of design school. I had maybe one book featured in my entire portfolio. Other than that, it was a lot of logos, print projects, and miscellaneous school work. But for an entry level designer at a publishing company, they're not expecting to find someone who's got a lot previous book experience. They're just looking for someone with creativity, passion, an eagerness to learn, and good time management skills.

I've advanced through the ranks to art director pretty quickly, mostly because I'm able to handle a large workload, and also because I always pushed myself to try new techniques and materials, and develop strong concepts for each title (all this in an environment where a passable design is acceptable). You definitely have to be a self-starter in this industry.

But having said all that, I agree with The Book Designer's post. The giant workload and fast pace can really suck you dry fast.

jayface said...

Assuming you have art school training...

Have a style... that can grow.
Fill your book with conceptual thinking.
Understand and practice good typography.
Research publishing houses that do the same.
Target the Art Directors for evaluations of your book.
Except and understand their feedback.
Be candid in your interviews.
Ask for a project.
Then do it again.

Anonymous said...

1. Get a graphic design education (you don't have to get a BFA or MFA, just take night/summer classes at good local schools). Build a portfolio focussed on book design.

2. Find out if/where your favorite book designers teach. Take their classes, ask lots of questions, let it be known that you want to go into their specialty.

3. Apply to general production/jr. designer jobs at agencies that do book design along with other types of design. You'll get your foot in the door easier this way. You wont be designing books 100% of the time (you'd be lucky if you did it 1% of the time), but you will learn a lot about the industry and make contacts.

Jason said...

Somehow I ended up at a university press and I love it here. I have full creative freedom and I'm learning so much about book design and publishing. It's surprising that I'm learning so much about typography as well, something I felt I was comfortable with after graduating from a BFA Graphic Design program.

I worked previously in environmental graphics and while I loved it (previously studied architecture) it wasn't the right place for me so I just applied for an open position and got it.

Can't imagine being anywhere else right now, even though I saw myself in more of a print/branding design studio. It's also allowed me to pursue other design projects on the side.

If you're still in school get an internship at a publisher, it's the best way to find out if it's right for you.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

interesting comments so far.
i am a senior designer at a publishing company and my 9-5 consists of designing covers and interiors for trade books. if you are just out of school and willing to enter publishing at entry level, that's ideal. to jump into book design once you've worn the marketing/promo/agency hat is a little more difficult- start with soliciting freelance cover work first.
yes, go to design school. get a bona fide degree and know your typography and current trends in publishing.
also- here's the soul shatting part- be prepared that most covers are morphed by countless meetings into a diluted image/vision barely recognizable to the designer. despite this, nothing makes me happier than to see someone at B&N picking up a book i designed (maybe watching them take the book to the register would make me even happier!)

Anonymous said...

I must be the maverick of the group. I started designing book interiors nearly a decade ago because I had the right software. I design freelance, am almost always booked solid. The job may seem easy, clients do not really understand all that is involved, but I do work about 16 hours a day. Having an artist's eye is important, but also having the right software, and knowing how to use it, makes a big difference too.

The Book Designer said...

Software has little to do with it. You can be a great illustrator and use other more traditional methods and still break in to the industry with great work. But a good grasp of production and having your work properly prepared for print production is important. Very very important if you want to look at your shit years later and say, "damn that is nice..."

roguescholar said...

I've been working as an art director for 10 years now, at various small agencies (the ad world is nothing but office nomads these days, thanks to recessions and what-not)

Someone mentioned you should be prepared to see your work diluted (or as I like to say bastardized)

that's going to be true of any design work you do for anyone other than friends, family or yourself. Your designs will ultimately be judged by the clients...

Seems to me the best way to become a book designer is to get lucky and find yourself hired by an agency that works with a publishing house, which is quite a daunting task, as unemployment is sky high right now...

I mean, really how do you get any design job?

Work hard, design well, and relentlessly seek work.

Or, get a lot of plastic surgery, kidnap Chip Kidd, and assume his identity.

That might be the easier way.

alan said...

After years of exploring my options and stopping and restarting my academic career as a fine artist, an English major, and a graphic designer, I stumbled into a publishing program at the state school (Portland State University) down the street from me. I took the publishing core as my focus for a Professional Writing minor, with English as my major. Unlike a traditional academic press, our program was coupled with an independent press ran fully by the students (with faculty guidance, of course). We decided what we would publish and how we would go about it. I was able to focus on book design and start building my portfolio. By the end, I had three book covers, a lead designer title on one book, and a slew of marketing materials and newsletters and the like.

Since then, I've been working a day job while looking for something in my field and building my freelance business. I've got a couple of jobs under my belt, and I'm learning a lot about how the business is conducted (some things that weren't covered in my classroom setting).

Anyway, yeah — hard work & perseverance, right?

Rachel said...

Make a portfolio of 10 or so awesome book cover designs and send it to art directors at publishing houses. If your designs are good, you WILL get hired to design covers as a freelancer - I don't think anyone will care if they're published designs or not as long as they rock. If a full-time, staff position's your goal, STILL make that portfolio, and also (see above) try breaking in to the industry through an internship.

nick said...

To Alan: Did you enjoy the program at PSU? I have been looking at the program for some time and I'm curious what program alumni think of it in retrospect? Do you think it was worth the two years and the tuition, or do you think it would have been better to follow some of the other paths mentioned here. I want to run my own small-run publishing company, and the program at PSU is the only one I have seen that, at least in its description, takes you through the entire process of what goes in to publishing books. Was there a lot of opportunities for jobs/internships in Portland while in the program? How have employers responded to your degree/portfolio since graduating?

anauel said...

After all being said, I must add that, first of all, read a lot! And I don't mean graphic design/typo/layouts and grids/how to/hype and type books. I mean books books, novels, history, poetry, science fiction, Freud, whatever.

I too design freelance but I had a prior experience (for a few years) working inside a publishing house. That experience was quite good, especially because I did a lot of others functions there, like production, proof reading, you name it. And I must say it's quite good thing for you to try it out. Books aren't exclusively covers. They have an entire history before they get to your hands...

By the way, J. Sullivan, great blog and great way to launch an important issue.

Anonymous said...

im a designer and from my friends that are book designers (and myself), this is the route they (and i) have taken:

go to a design school and get a BFA/MFA in graphic design or a related degree. or just take classes where u can build a portfolio that caters towards the book publishing industry. then basically just start sending your link (portfolio) to publishers and hope that one will take you as freelance or full-time (or even part-time). publishers dont really like taking risks on newbies so ur portfolio really has to be superb.

also, alot of publishers have (design) internship programs as well. some give a stipend, some dont. again, u still need a portfolio to apply to these programs. (taschen and chronicle books have a program).

anyways, u really have to be sure u want to do book design. out of all the design professions- interactive, environmental, web, branding, print, design IS the lowest paying (according to my teachers who have designed books for major photographers, architects, and museums around the world).

Anonymous said...

This is a great discussion!

roguescholar said...

I'm of the opinion that it's fine and dandy for a designer to have a specialty, but that one shouldn't limit themselves...a good designer should enjoy the process, be it book design, a promotional poster, or a website for a beer company.

of course, I still think you should just go for the kidnap Chip Kidd/steal his identity route.

kellyr said...

After 4 years of art school studying graphic design and a 6 month internship at a museum's design department I moved to NYC. I made a zine and sent it off to my favorite designers–got a call back from one. Started as freelance, 1 month later working was designing an artist book. It's been 3 years now and 5 books I've worked on are published. Even got my best friend hired! I am a lucky but definitely was determined to 'make it'and find a lovable job in the design world.

If you really want it, go get it. Or make books on your own. All you need paper and scissors.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I am in disagreement with the individual who said that to be a book designer you should work cheap and stay cheap. Sure you could do that, but all you will be doing is devaluing your own work the work of others in the business and general graphic design practices. Look up general pricing for freelance and charge that amount. The below link is a good guide (though there may be a more updated version).

alan said...

to nick:

when i started the program, it was in its infancy. it's growing by leaps and bounds, though, with more classes being offered each term, it seems. i've found that you get out of it what you are willing to put in (cliché, yes, but true). there are a few different workgroups to join, including the design group, and that hands on experience is invaluable. a few of my classmates have gone on to start their own publishing houses (Ink & Paper Group), editing firms (Indigo Press and Declaration), and a writers agency (Baker's Mark).

portland is a hotbed of indie/small to mid-sized press. as such, there aren't as many jobs that pop up as, say, in new york, but there are opportunities for internships, for sure. the folks at the publishing program keep you abreast of these possibilities. i've been looking for full time employment for a while now, and i have a couple of prospects. in the meantime, i'll sling some coffee and do some freelance work on the side.

Anonymous said...

-4 years GD degree
-solid portfolio
-uber passionate about book design, however no connection in the publishing industry
-rare job ad on being a book designer of a major publishing house

that's for a junior book designer...

i'm in australia and publishing industry is quite "exclusive" here, not many doors to knock... and they don't really offer internship... i think to be a full-time book designer in a good publishing house is once in few years opportunity here...

and i'm not sure if it's a myth or reality... but i do hear people whispering that being a freelance book designer will require you to go cheap... seems like happening everywhere else in the world...??

-Anonymous #9

janine+ said...

I got to be a (book) cover girl by working in a graphic design studio. Find your design style, express your dream projects, and wait for the right project to come. Mine finally did, and I still love staring at (my) book cover all lined up in the bookstore.

On the other hand, you can also try the old school route-- cold calling publishing houses just might get your foot in the door. This technique have yet to work for my cover, but they did get me to work on some editorial illustrations.

The Book Designer said...

Pricing between $700-1500 for a cover is pretty normal (these type of cover you simply have to do a nice job—but don't bust vessles over it). Most respectable publishers who know anything about design and understand it's vital role in book sales will pay $2000-3000+/cover without blinking an eye—but they have to love your work to pay you that. Usually a designer will ask (and should) 50% down. Sometimes a client may stipulate terms—stick to your guns with in reason. If you can muster 3-6 covers a month as a freelancer you are not doing too bad. Supplement that work with a few CD's, posters and brochures, and you are doing just fine.

If you have a studio then the amount of work you bring in has to reflect the mouthes you need to feed. From experience, a 4 person studio with an accountant needs to bring in a minimum of 10 covers a month with extra income coming from websites, consultation and identity development and full book layout projects.

Leigh said...

This is all great advice! I'm sort of halfway in through the back door (writing major with several years in publishing, ended up at a University Press in marketing, realized designing books was my true passion, and convinced them to let me I have seven under my belt.)

Anyway, I like my day job, but I'm looking to start getting some freelance design jobs on the side to expand my portfolio, paycheck, and time spent designing. Do you think it would work to make a web site with examples of my work and email various publishing houses? Is a printed portfolio necessary or preferred? I already read constantly, live in bookstores, and stalk every cover design blog I can find on the internet for insight and inspiration. Any further advice for a self-taught young wanna-be with a small portfolio of work?

Marcos said...

I'm having a lot of fun designing textbook covers right now. A lot of it consists of searching for perfect stock photographs. It helps to know what Spain looks like for the Spanish textbooks, what is iconic vs. cliché about France for the French textbooks, that architecture requires trigonometry, etc. So I recommend a lot of traveling and reading as well.

Anonymous said...

To Leigh:

You can always expand your portfolio by doing made-up projects and mix them up with real projects when being ask to present your portfolio...

I still think printed portfolio is necessary, especially when you'd come in for interview. Emailing your website is a good but very random way.. unless you hit the right person in a studio/publishing house it will just be ignored.

Another way that I see a lot these days are actually sending mini version of your portfolio in a really engaging packaging to places you wish to work at. Sounds fancy, but works better than any other ways.


anonymous #9

jean said...

I agree that having a print portfolio is a good idea. You're designing for a print medium after all. As convenient and useful as a website link may be, I would hope that you would be allowed to interview and present your work in person and in portfolio form. Often there is a big difference in how the project looks on the computer screen and how it looks printed up (mocked up even) and held in the hand.

If already you have some knowledge/experience and pieces in your portfolio, then you should approach this as any job hunting venture. Internships have been mentioned a few times. Cold-calls or blindly shooting emails off to various companies with your links can only generate a limited amount of success, in my opinion.

Think about it from their perspective. They (the people in a position to make hiring decisions) are probably busy and don't have time to read emails or take calls from people they don't know. Maybe they don't even have positions open. And if they are looking to hire a new person, they are most likely to hire someone they know. If they don't have anyone in their pool of acquaintances that they can hire from, they go through resumes and judge how much experience the applicants appear to have (which isn't always reliable cause some people lie on their resumes) and choose from them. Students with little experience are often the last tier of applicants that are hired. (Exceptions: entry-level/internship type positions where they want to groom you to become a full fledged designer.)

So really the best bet is to try to go through people you know. Get an internship if you can. Network through that experience. Hopefully they have a full time position open up in the near future or they will remember you later on and hire you as a freelance. Or they can refer you to someone they know who is hiring.

If internships aren't possible, go through everyone you know and see if they know someone who works in the field. Or if they know someone who knows someone who works in the field.

At the very least, try and see if you can talk to someone at a studio/firm whose work you admire and ask for information interviews. You are in a desirable position being a student. Studio heads and/or creative directors are more likely willing to provide some sort of mentorship to students than to joe-schmoe who wants to change his career. See if you can get a meeting with an art director or creative director or owner of a design firm and ask them for some advice on your career track.

Be professional. Design yourself a business card and have them printed up so you can leave them behind after your interview. Create a "leave behind" that you can give to them after your meeting to further promote yourself. Send hand written thank you notes/cards after the meeting to thank them for their time and information.

Sorry for hijacking the comments.

Cathi said...

I learned layout and design on the job (my degree is in English and Psychology) and now I work as a freelance book cover designer. I started out working mostly for self-published authors, but now my client list includes some of the larger publishers and I've done designs for several well-known authors.

In response to another poster's remarks about keeping prices "cheap" — don't. That was my biggest business mistake. I'm by no means expensive in this business, but I now quite a bit more than I did a few years ago, and I have more clients.

Being cheap does two things: First, it leads people to believe you're not worth as much, or your work is not as good as that of someone who is more expensive and second, it seems to attract a lot of non-professional people who make the job difficult.

It goes without saying that you'll also be working a lot more for less money.

Kelly said...

Has anyone been through or know about the Book Arts & Printmaking Graduate program at UArts in Philadelphia?

Yvonne Parks said... story is less thrilling.

I'm artistic by nature...a musician mainly. Never went to University, because I married so young and was happy to make my living teaching music, and designing jewellry.

I had my first child, had alot of time at home to kill during long long Canadian winters. Got into Photoshop and blog skin design (for friends...all for free). After the second baby, a Self Publishing company found me, and offered me the job just by browsing through my blog-skins.

It started with a dozen covers a month...and now I do around 200 a year. (It's been doubling every year) I also now do logo design, billboards, and some creative directing for some ad campaigns.

I'm curious how many covers other designers do per month? or per year? Am I on the low end? or average?

Puddle Jumper said...

For the portfolio business:
1) I branded mine, the cover replicates the business cards and other pieces included in 'the kit'
2) 'the kit', now this has not been tested yet, but it is about to launch this friday, anyhow. A full nicely bound print portfolio (if you want your designs to be put on a shelf, the head designer at a firm should be able to put your portfolio on their shelf), a cd pdf version of your portfolio, a simple sheet resume (i have heard many times to leave this out of the branding sceme, it can be risky), and finally drop a buisness card inside.
3)Use a standard, durable black portfolio book to take to interviews, then leave 'the kit' behind, or you can send a 'kit' out to cold calls or requests.

the idea behind it is they can remember you by what everything looked like, that is the name of the game right? also, old timers get their trust print version and the young guns get a disc version. either way they can get passed around the office for comments.

im just a student now, an unemployed one at that, so take that at risk. but it seems like a pretty damn good idea to me.

Anonymous said...

to puddle jumper:

I'm with you on this...
"the kit" definitely worked for me


-anonymous #9

Anonymous said...


are you doing 200 book projects a year or 200 comps? 200 book projects a year is a ton. That's almost 4 projects a week not figuring in vacation and holidays. I have known in house designers who only do 40 to 60 a year. freelancers usually have to do more than that to make a good living. It's an interesting question though. I get the impression in house designers have more time to spend on projects than freelancers.

How many book projects do people do a year and how much time on average do they spend on each project?

Christian in NYC said...

I'm a senior designer at a major publishing house. I design about 35 titles a year. I got to New York from a tiny "boutique" publisher in the midwest. Got that original job from a want-ad. I came to NYC [because no one will talk to you unless you live here, and now I'm the same way] with a portfolio that I thought was good at the time -- now I don't show a single piece from it. But it got me jobs. I don't have any "name" school under my belt, didn't get an internship. Straight up persistence and the random online job posting. That and a project I got into Comm Arts that I was totally passionate about.

There are easier ways to do it -- we hire a lot of our design interns, and those junior designers become designers who then leave to go make their fortunes designing laxative ads for real money. And if you go to some real school, hopefully you'll make use of the big-time networking hookups that your tuition affords you, because you know, why else are you going there?

But basically, if you can design at all and you're not pathologically lazy, you'll get a job. All you have to do is keep at it. Hackneyed advice, yes, but true.

OH! You can also send away by mail for your free "Book Designer Correspondence Course" booklet so you can learn how to design books at home in your spare time! All you need to do is send a check or money order to. . .

alan said...

"ha!" to the correspondence course. i'm not buying it. yet, i mean. freelancing doesn't allow me such luxuries at this point.

Ika Natassa said...

i'm a writer and i refused to have the designers at the publishing house do my book cover and opted to do the design myself (although graduating from a business school, i've always loved graphic design and mac can do wonders with your imaginations and creativity) so far it's working out just fine, i've published two books and the reviews always mention the fetching covers.

Anonymous said...

As someone who both designs and hires book cover designers, I would say you could do this without a formal degree, but a portfolio showing good design is imperative.

I graduated with a BFA in ad design, but ended up as a jr designer in a medium pub company. The art director also taught book design at a local school, so took me under her wing and gave me the same basic instruction others paid for.

Then I went to work for a studio whose clients were mostly publishing companies and learned even more...did so many different kinds of books that I had experience in everything when I left there.

Eventually, I ended up at a textbook publisher in charge of their covers.

Still, a good designer must learn the "vocabulary" of book design before they can get work. Much of it is the same as general design, but there are a few that can vary even from house to house. Bound books, pub dates, in stock dates, galleys, first pass pages, spine bulk, case bound, saddle stitched, perfect bound, pica page, running heads, gutter margin, thumb room. get to know what all those mean, and more.

Something to consider is that there has been a great reduction in the number of staff designers, and it continues with every cost-cutting review and company merger. If you want to do this job, you may well spend most of it as a freelancer, constantly looking over the hill for that next job. Unless you already have a Rolodex full of contacts, be prepared to spend a good portion of your time selling yourself by preparing and sending out snail mail sheets of your work, or email portfolios.

And on that note, be sure to send it to the relevant person in the company, otherwise it will just be trashed. If you need the name, call the company's main number and the receptionist will give it to you. (Hint: The position will most likely will be Art Director, Creative Director, Design Director or Manager).

BookDesignStudio said...


I applied for a job at a big publishing house in New York from an ad in the NY times and became the assistant to the creative director. She took me under her wing and taught me many things about book design. I did not study much design when I went to art school—mostly illustration and fine arts, so I really learned everything on the job. Keeping a fresh eye, looking at new things and trying different approaches to the design problem at hand is the way to keep developing. Keep current with what is in the bookstores and keep looking at covers. Refine your senses so that you know what you like. Sometimes the work can be exhilarating and sometimes it can be frustrating. You will need to be able to be objective about your work, be highly flexible as well as being creative and have a good eye. It is fun to see your book covers in the bookstores, and to celebrate when books you have designed do well in the marketplace. But it does require a certain amount of tenacity when you have one of those days where you feel you cannot please everyone (which happens to all designers sometimes) and you will have to be able to be rather thick skinned and really learn to use constructive criticism to push your work out further. But nevertheless, twenty years later I still love what I do.

The advice I would give to someone starting out today is to find 10 book covers you do not like in the bookstore...redesign some great portfolio very up to date with your computer skills and apply for everything in sight including internships. We did hire young talented designers who first came in as interns.

Yvonne Parks said...

It's been a while...but to answer your question: I do 200 actual printed books per year. (Since then it's gone up to 250) Each of those gets 3(ish) samples, so that's 700 comps a year. Ish. (Sometimes I do only 1 sample if I'm confident I nailed the cover, sometimes I do more than 3 if I know the client needs variety and is choosy)

Wow...okay. So I do alot of book covers then! (around 750 in total in my portfolio) Cool then. Thanks for the answers guys!!