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Afraid to Ditch Your Job and Pursue Your Passion? It Worked for Holly Ovenden

The U.K.–based cover designer brings an artful blend of instinct, illustration, and impact to bookshelves

Holly Ovenden was exhausted. 

Having graduated college with a degree in physical therapy, she’d spent four years working on the admin side of medical practices. The hours were long and dull. The work was stressful and unfulfilling. Moreover, nothing about it was creative in any sense—so Ovenden’s natural inclinations toward painting and drawing were relegated to evenings and weekends. 

Growing up in East Sussex in the U.K., Ovenden was a creative kid, but when university rolled around, a science-based major seemed like the safer bet. So she went for it. And after graduation, the years went by. 

Until one day she randomly came across an ad. 

“It was for a design course that was really intensive and full-time,” she says. “And I thought, this is my only way out.”

She quit her job. She sold her car to pay for the course. 

“It was just one of those massive risks where you either sink or swim,” she says. “The minute I went on the course, I kind of settled in and it was waking up to the realization that I should have just done this from day one. I absolutely loved everything about it. To realize that design is all around you … it was like an awakening.”

After graduating from the course, she came across a posting for a book cover design job at Bloomsbury by chance, which triggered her next awakening: That book cover design was, in fact, a job. She designed her first cover during the interview process, and got the gig. Ovenden eventually wound up at Penguin before going solo in 2020—and today remains as enraptured as she originally was by the art of the form.

“There’s so much that you can do with just one rectangle,” she says. “I feel like there is a pure creative freedom that you can get with book covers—and really connecting to an author via their text.”

Here, the designer riffs on five covers from her body of work. 

Lemon, by Kwon Yeo-sun

This novel centers around a murdered teenager and how her sister and others deal with their grief and its long-tail impact over time. Lemon straddles the categorial lines of thriller and literary fiction, so Ovenden wanted to avoid any obvious genre tropes on the cover. She found her solution in the way that death can profoundly alter or delete the memory of a person—and the yellow dress the character was wearing on the day she died.

The cover came down to the art of subtraction.

“I found this perfect image of a Southeast Asian girl with this dress on, and I experimented in cutting it up. I just took the face away and it was as if … the memory of her had gone,” Ovenden says. “I never quite know what my final results are ever going to look like—it’s sort of a trial and error.”

She experimented with different textural backgrounds until she arrived at the clouds, which give the final cover a removed, dream-like quality that captures the essence of the storytelling.

Sour Heart, by Jenny Zhang

For this collection of dark, funny, and gritty stories that address race, gender, and class, the publisher’s brief specifically requested a New York skyline and a pair of young girls, representative of characters in the book who were growing up in the city during the 1990s. Ovenden tooled around with different iterations of the idea, but couldn’t help pondering alternate concepts. And then, as she was heading into work—

“I nearly trod in some chewing gum,” she recalls. “I was just walking along, and it was like somebody had freshly spat it out. I hovered my foot over it, and I was like, Ah!

Ovenden thought the gum felt evocative of ’90s nostalgia and New York City, and she hustled into the office to begin researching images of it in various states. Tonally, it was a fit—and the editor and author agreed.

“I was so thrilled to get that one through because it just felt like it moved the genre on a little—a bit unusual compared to the other things at the time [2017].”

Same Same But Different, by Various

Whereas many designers feel most at ease being boxed in with a tight brief and constraints, Ovenden loves the freedom (and challenge) that comes with a blue-sky “just see what you can come up with” brief. In this case: designing the cover of an anthology of stories about solitude and life in lockdown, with no manuscripts to reference, as they were still being written.

Ovenden seized upon the chorus of writers taking part in the effort. The shapes and different constructions eventually evolved into smoky lines representative of voices emerging from the darkness.

Somebody Loves You, by Mona Arshi

This story centers around a girl named Ruby who gives up speaking at a young age. Her mother suffers from acute depression, but finds solace in tending her small garden plot. The garden serves as a veritable character, at times overflowing with weeds and insects as the story progresses—and Ovenden utilized the elements referenced throughout the narrative for the cover. Ovenden illustrates her covers in a variety of styles, and while there is a pink variant of the final shown here, she prefers this original one; the story unfolds in a suburban atmosphere, and she wanted the cover to depict the jarring juxtaposition of plants and life against concrete.

Against White Feminism, by Rafia Zakaria

Zakaria’s book builds a case that feminism has long served white women at the exclusion of everyone else—and how its foundations need to be rebuilt to truly be inclusive. “It’s a really powerful book, and they really wanted it to stand out on the shelves and be impactful and sort of unignorable,” Ovenden says.

She focused on typography and hierarchy, developing a system of blocks, and explored notions of how they might suggest progressively building toward a new future. “They’re sort of lines that look like arrows pointing up … so it’s kind of a net positive change in a graphic form,” she says.

And, ultimately: “You wouldn’t be able to just ignore it, walking past the book.”

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