Nathan Burton is a London based designer and illustrator. He left Penguin in 2008 to set up his own company, Nathan Burton Design. He now works for a variety of publishers in the UK and abroad. You can see his work at www.nathanburtondesign.com and follow him on twitter @buronint
How important is the clarity of a brief, or do you prefer to have more freedom to design a cover based on your interpretation of the book?
I’ve worked with all types of briefs, from incredibly specific projects to ones which are completely wide open, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. With a lot of the literary titles I work on the brief is very open: ‘here’s the book, have a read and come up with ideas’. There’s usually a panicked feeling of ‘what the hell am I going to do for this?’ at the start of the project which is followed by lots of head scratching, rejected ideas and finally a looming deadline which forces you into action. Because no-one has any preconceived ideas of the final design you can (hopefully) come up with something that surprises and excites the publisher and author. Also, book cover briefs aren’t set in stone so there can be a lot of back and forth between the designer and publisher before you get to the end solution. What the publishers think they want at the beginning isn’t always what the cover ends up looking like, but that’s all part of the creative process.
Are you aware of a greater emphasis on well-designed covers coming from self-published authors?
This isn’t something that I’ve noticed but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Being noticed in a crowded marketplace is always going to be a challenge, so having a well designed cover is sure to be a bonus.
With the increasing move to digital, do you think more emphasis is put on having a cover that is eye-catching as a thumbnail on a screen, or in trying to make a book an attractive and covetable physical possession?
When I start to design a cover I don’t really worry about the thumbnail issue. Usually, a nicely designed cover will work as a thumbnail, so I wouldn’t advocate designing one based solely on its ability to be shrunk down. I don’t see why a cover can’t work digitally, as a thumbnail, and also as a beautiful object that uses the same design.
Who has most influence on cover design? The author, the publisher, or the sales and marketing team?
It really depends on the book, how big the author is and how much the publisher has paid for it. The cover needs to be initially approved by the art director who then puts it into a meeting with various people including the editor and sales and marketing. If it survives that then its off to the author for approval. It’s always a relief when covers make it through this process, but quite often it can be back to the drawing board.
In your experience are more publishers now using consumer insight to test covers?
I’ve had this happen on a jacket I’m working on at the moment but I’ve not had the feedback yet, so I’m not sure what the effect will be. I can’t see it improving creativity in book cover design.
What 2013 cover do you wish you’d designed?
One of my favourites from 2013 is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, designed by Jon Gray. It’s a beautifully simple idea that’s perfectly executed. Another book, or rather series, that caught my eye is the P. G. Wodehouse redesign by David Wardle/Barnes & Noble. They are a lovely balance of modern and retro. Printed in eye-popping neon, they really stand out in the bookshop.