These days, the screen is king. So it’s a (delightful) surprise when designer Jason Booher says, with zero hesitation, that “being a book cover designer is possibly the best job in the world.” Booher is the art director of Blue Rider Press, one of Penguin Book’s imprints, and the mind behind many of its most inventive book covers.
It’s easy to see why Booher is so enamored of his profession. Novels naturally lend themselves to illustration, so coming up with the best solution for a few square inches of real estate must be an especially savory visual challenge for a designer. Booher is especially suited to the job. As a kid, he wanted to have a career as a high school English teacher, but when that didn’t pan out, he found his way to design by way of graphic novels. Then a lucky break landed him a stint at the art department at Penguin, and things came full circle. It became his job to read manuscripts and analyze them—for cover designs, not a captive lit class.
The key to creating stellar covers, according to Booher, is to first throw out the tired adage about not judging books by them. “Graphic design is really about selling things,” he says. Lest that sound soulless, the good news here is that Booher is selling other people’s creative ideas. And while every book is unique, Booher says he starts by reading the six or so manuscripts he gets per season, and then mentally digests them all. “You read it, you try and find the soul of the book, something that makes it special, and make it come alive,” he says.
Booher offers a case study, for Mary Jo Salter’s book of poems, Nothing by Design. “Poems are sometimes harder. You have more free rein but not a specific story, characters, or a world you’re reacting to. It’s more like trying to design from music,” he says. But in this instance, “She’s dealing with separation from her husband. There’s this devastation in her life. This idea of her life coming apart. The poems are about this sense of finding a way to deal with your world after being ripped open, where something completely changed in the way you see everything. She’s looking out a window and she sees a bird somewhere. So what if I had this scene that was about keying in on the nature around her.” The result is a botanical illustration of leaves with an Audobon bird set against a blue sky.
As for the future of publishing, and therefore the design of publishing? “It always comes up, for the last five years,” says Booher, who isn’t worried. “People are always going to buy books. It’s clear now.” In fact, the move towards Amazon shopping or reading on tablets has liberated Booher’s work more than it’s threatened it. Because those formats show tiny images of book covers accompanied by text about the title, there’s actually less that Booher is beholden to. As a result, there’s a push in the industry towards “more iconic” jackets. “Something that feels unique and big in a way that when book starts to take off, that little rectangle tells you exactly what that book is. If someone’s reading it, you know it right away.”