David Wardle is one of our winners of The Unsung Heroes of Publishing 2018. We asked him a few questions about his work as a freelance designer, today’s book covers and his favourite project so far. For a complete list of #UHoP18 winners please see more here.
Tell us a bit about your background. Did you always want to be a designer?
Both of my parents were Art graduates, my dad specialised in printmaking and my mum in fashion. Growing up we were always actively encouraged to make things and draw, so I spent a lot of my childhood drawing or making things from old shoe boxes and scraps of cardboard.
How do you see book covers having evolved in recent years? What in your eyes makes a successful cover?
When I first started as an in-house cover designer at Harper Collins the vast majority of covers were photographic or used an existing illustration, so the picture research department played a large role in cover design. We sometimes commissioned illustration but it was quite rare for the designers to produce covers from scratch themselves, such as drawing the type or coming up with ways to create the imagery. That started to change during my time there – working on a mac and no longer having to send letraset, transparencies and physical artwork was still relatively new. I guess a successful cover is one that gets picked up without the buyer having previous knowledge of the book.
Do you see certain themes emerge when you are being briefed by art directors or editors?
There seems to have been a big move away from formulaic covers over the last few years. The book industry has had to change and many more of the covers are beautifully produced with unusual packaging or print production. That allows the designers to produce work that is much more individual. I think it’s possible to recognise certain designers work in stores before you see the credit. So art directors and editors have a good idea of what they are going to get from a particular designer. Websites, Instagram and other social media sites allow artists and designers to showcase their latest work and keep people who might commission them up to date.
You’ve worked on a number of exciting projects. Tell us about one of your favourites.
It was a long time ago but shortly after I went freelance Julian Humphries at 4th Estate commissioned me to repackage the J.G Ballard backlist. After they were released, I got a hand written letter from J.G. Ballard saying how much he liked the new covers – that was really great. It’s still quite rare for authors to take the time to get in touch. In recent times my wife and I have diversified into other areas through our company Bold and Noble. For me, it’s been exciting to work on some projects outside publishing and I think it helps with my cover design.
What advice would you give to young people interested in print design? Are some skills achievable without a degree?
I think things have changed a lot in the last ten years. Designers are graduating with a much wider set of skills and are fluent in all of the digital software and many of them can also programme. They are much more accomplished than my contemporaries were on graduating but maybe they need to continue to do some work by hand – it’s almost always something produced by hand that makes me stop and pick it up.
Some of the best designers I have worked with did not go to university but were really passionate about becoming designers. They were just really determined to learn and improve and maybe approached things differently. A lot of degrees aren’t very vocational. I was lucky in that, as well as being encouraged to be creative, the degree I did had strong links with industry.
What do you regard as the most gratifying aspect of book design?
I think the fact that a lot of people buy books without prior knowledge of the book they are buying – that has to be driven by the cover design to a certain degree.
What are you reading at the moment and what’s next on your to-read list?
I don’t read a lot of fiction. I’ve just finished reading Etape by Richard Moore, and before that I read Blitzed by Norman Ohler. I don’t have a planned list of what I’ll be reading next… I’m a bit of a bookshop browser.