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Interview with book designer Emily Mahon
6/5/2023 9:06 am
Emily Mahon is an Art Director for Doubleday Books based in New York, New York. She spoke with us about her process and projects in an interview ahead of CHQ 2023.
1. Tell us about your creative journey. How did you discover book design?
I studied at Penn State University and majored in graphic design. Penn State’s graphic design program, headed by the late Lanny Sommese – a renowned graphic designer, poster maker, painter, artist, and educator – included just 22 students annually. So, it was a small, specialized program in a university with more than 40,000 enrolled students.
Lanny’s program was extremely challenging and taught me to focus on producing strong concepts, with the form/style being secondary to the idea. After a summer internship at Harper’s Bazaar, I knew I didn’t want to work in magazines but instead wanted to design book covers, and so I pursued this path after graduating. I landed my first job with St. Martin’s Press and been working in books ever since.
2. Can you walk us through your process of designing a book cover?
For fiction, I read the book, and jot down some notes as I am reading. I think about the tone of the writing, the feel of the story. I look for visuals, research images, or consider using an illustrator, letterer, or photographer. Every cover demands a novel approach, and my process varies with the job. For non-fiction I normally just get a synopsis, or a few book chapters, and I then endeavor to produce a simple iconic solution that conveys the subject matter.
3. Under the Skin by Linda Villarosa was a book that you designed, what inspired the final
For this cover, I had been looking at many pieces of fine art. I found many wonderful paintings that represented black and brown bodies, which were at the heart of this book. In the end, I found this beautiful painting by Sean Gerard Clark; it was unique and spoke to the book’s narrative. The author wanted me to crop in on the face so that it felt less gendered, and I remember she specifically wanted to make sure that the stitches on the neck were clearly visible as well.
4. In your opinion are there any aspects of book design that are particularly important for
writers to consider?
Design is an intricate process and writers should be open to the time and effort it takes to reach a final cover. It takes a lot of back and forth, and art direction, to reach a final “look,” and so it is important for authors to know that we will eventually get to an appropriate cover for every book.
5. Have you found a difference in design strategy when designing a book cover for print
versus designing an ebook cover?
Normally, whatever I design for a hardcover gets picked up for the e-book, so I do not consider that aspect too much.
6. Since you started working in the publishing sector, what are some of the key changes
you’ve seen happen over the years?
I think the biggest change over time has been the budget for covers and jackets. Things are much tighter these days. While this has been a gradual change, the pandemic created higher supply chain issues, and printers’ paper and production costs. Employing special effects used to be routine, but that’s changed. Yet I consider it a fun challenge to find ways to make things “pop” without special effects.
7. What about looking forward; AI is the hot topic right now, do you see auto-generated AI
graphics as a hindrance or a help for your craft?
AI is a new world for me, as it is for most graphic designers. I am old-school about the way I create images and I am sure I will continue to create for some time (forever, I hope?) without employing AI graphics.
8. What other designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
I love The Jealous Curator on Instagram; it has opened a world for me, one populated by gifted artists and illustrators. I also admire Pablo Delcan’s work. He used to work in my department at Knopf and now has his own design studio. He consistently creates rich, smart imagery for editorials and books. I always keep my eye on his wonderful work.
9. What is your proudest career achievement to date?
I just finished the cover for a novel by Percival Everett, out next spring for Doubleday. It is a retelling of Huck Finn from the eyes of Jim. It’s such a powerful and beautifully imagined book and we all have great hopes for it. I was incredibly pleased that I was able to work on the cover design for such an important book.
10. What’s on the horizon for you?
More covers, of course. I love my job and my journey working on books from conception to seeing them introduced to the world.
Emily is an Art Director at Doubleday Books. Her work has been honored with awards from AIGA, The Type Director's Club, The Art Director’s Club and The New York Book Show. She has been published in 50 Books/50 Covers, TDC Annuals, Communication Arts, Graphis, and Print, among others.
Hours in Season
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