Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being - cover design process

One thing I didn't realize as a young art-student book enthusiast is that cover designers don't get to choose the books they work on. For some naive reason I had assumed that the job consisted of reading great books all day and then simply making them look as beautiful as possible. In reality, each time a designer is assigned a new book, it's kind of like walking into a bookstore blindfolded and picking up whatever you bump into first. As somewhat of a fiction-snob, it's not too often that I get to design a cover for a novel that I would actually buy for myself.

But every once in a while, something really interesting shows up. This was the case with Ruth Ozeki's latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, which came to me while I was working at Viking/Penguin. As soon as I started reading the manuscript, I realized with a pleasant jolt that this was something I would actually enjoy reading.


The story begins within the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl named Nao, which is found inside a gutted copy of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, which is found inside a Hello Kitty Lunchbox containing several other mysterious objects, which is found inside a plastic bag washed up on the beach, by a character named Ruth Ozeki. After that, things branch off in different directions as Nao and Ruth try to make sense of each other from across the ocean (and the ambiguous amount of time) that separates them.The heart of the story revolves around Nao and her startlingly frank yet vulnerable thoughts on time, language, family, suicide, and culture. Bullied at school and neglected at home, Nao's only real mentors are her 104-year-old-Feminist-Anarchist-Zen-Buddhist-nun-great-grandmother and a prostitute who works at the local cafe. On the first page Nao casually declares her intent to commit suicide, the reasons behind this choice being the biggest and most interesting mystery in the book. 

I decided to run with the first concept that popped into my head: a very simple and tactile facsimile of the red Proust notebook, embossed with an illustration of Nao, floating spectrally above the rocky coast of British Columbia. I think this design is all about questions: How did this book get here? Was it lost intentionally, or by accident? Is Nao alive or dead? Is she even real?

Minimal designs like this is always a hard sell in cover meetings, and it was immediately rejected as too quiet and precious-looking. Loud, colorful, and commercial are popular adjectives in modern book marketing, but it's always fun to start off negotiations with something a little more obscure.


Round 2:

These were still considered a bit too reserved and ethereal, so we decided to change directions completely for the next round, and focus more on the Japanese pop-culture element so prevalent in Nao's diary. I think someone even went so far as to suggest that I put a "Hello Kitty" on the cover. That should give you an idea of how badly I missed the target with those first few designs.

I came across these wonderfully weird patterns, which gave me the idea to make a disjointed collage with pieces from all the interlocking stories, kind of like a chaotic japanese comic book. I especially liked the bizarre floating head (?) pattern, since the young girls and the old lady reminded me a little of Nao and her great-grandmother.

This design might be a case of the pendulum swinging a little too far in the opposite direction, but it's definitely getting closer. One thing that went over very well was the young girl's face. She looks just a bit too young to be the main character in the book, but the sales team loved her, so I kept her in the design.


Round 3:

Things are getting pretty close here. We have the big type, bright colors, and just enough pieces from the story to intrigue a customer without giving too much away. The waves at the bottom are from a beautiful woodcut by Uehara Konen.

Eventually the final design came together. Different parts of the story peek out from layered horizontal windows, each one interrupting and obscuring the next. The further you read into the book, the more they begin to fit together and make sense. 

In summary: the book is very good, and I highly recommend it. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this process... really interesting to me as a fellow designer!

  2. I'm in love with your work! I wish I could have all of the covers you design. <3

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I love the first cover concept and execution but the final piece really captures the spirit of this wonderful book.

    The strange doll's head and bus pattern is delightful. I'd love to have it as wrapping paper!

  4. Having never read Ruth Ozeki before I chose the book solely based on your cover (okay, and that intriguing title), and I think your final design very aptly conveys the spirit of the book. I've looked you up specifically because of your cover design and I'm thrilled your blog has so much about your design process. As a creative person myself I know sometimes you have to take several runs at an idea to get what you want, and you learn at every stage. I wish more artists and designers shared things like your 'killed sketches', it might let people who think of themselves as 'not creative' expand their idea of the possible for themselves. PS - I love the first red cover, too ~ that's a book I'd buy just for it's beauty on the shelf.