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Jason Ramirez Wanted to Become a Doctor. Now He Brings Stories to Life

The Viking Books art director came to cover design late, but he's made up for lost time with a prolific portfolio of titles

Jason Ramirez didn’t always have grand creative ambitions. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, the designer, illustrator, and current art director for Viking Books wanted to go into medicine. “I remember how thrilled I was to receive my first toy doctor’s kit at Christmas when I was six,” says Ramirez, who, despite a lifelong love of design, never considered a career in the arts even a possibility. One of the first in his family to attend college, he studied biological sciences and later religious studies at the University of Rochester, and after graduation he began taking night classes in typography, color theory, graphics, and web design. At nearly 30-years-old, he applied and was accepted into Parsons School of Design, where a course with cover designer Gabriele Wilson opened up a world of possibility. “Pretty much from the onset of the class, I recognized that book cover design was a career I wanted to pursue,” he notes. “Or at the very least, attempt.” 

This month, Ramirez will celebrate eight years at Viking. Though a far cry from the ER, his work is critical to sustaining the life force of any new release and continues to feed his inquisitive mind. “When I first started out, one of my art directors imparted that I would become a more informed designer if I worked with various genres and editors, rather than sticking to my comfort zone,” says Ramirez, who as an art director is thoughtful of how he matches covers with designers, pairing projects with those whose skills set best suit the project, rather than by subject interest alone. This has frequently led to dynamic and unexpected collaborations—and to richer results. 

While a cover brief can be definitive, frequently, Ramirez’s process requires in-depth storytelling and conceptualization. “As I read a manuscript, I often underline portions of the text that seem significant or evocative,” he says. This often means scribbling notes on imagery, typography, color, emotion — even scratching out the initial thumbnail sketch of a cover idea. Once finished, Ramirez distills the story to its essence and how it might be visually translated on paper. “My sketchbook becomes the primary canvas on which ideas and associations are hashed out and refined,” explained the creator. “Whenever concepts may not pan out as expected, or I am uncertain how to best move forward, I always return to these notes to help me regain my bearings.”

1
Know My Name, by Chanel Miller

For years, Chanel Miller was known to the world only as “Emily Doe,” the anonymous woman who brought a sexual assault case against Brock Turner. In her recently released memoir, Know My Name, Miller reclaims her identity, recounting her story for the first time in a beautifully written, honest exploration of the trauma of sexual assault, and the tumultuous reality of healing. For the cover, Ramirez and Nayon Cho, an associate art director on Ramirez’s team, wanted to explore the fracturing nature of Miller’s experiences, and her ability to rebuild as something stronger. “The jacket is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi or ‘golden repair,’” says Ramirez, referencing the craft in which broken pottery pieces are mended using lacquer and powdered gold. The technique illustrates that although an object cannot be returned to its original state, it can be made whole again and even more beautiful. To develop this effect, the metallic gold foil was applied across the book’s jacket to represent the golden veins of kintsugi and symbolize the totality of the author’s recovery and the closure of the trial.

Credit: Design by Jason Ramirez and Nayon Cho

2
Bunny, by Mona Awad

In this new fiction release, a reclusive graduate writing student is invited to an exclusive salon hosted by a clique of girls who call each other “Bunny,” and is thrown into a world in which writing and magic, reality and fiction, are seemingly entwined. “Instinctively, it is difficult not to want to feature a rabbit on the jacket of a book eponymously titled ‘Bunny,’” jokes Ramirez. “Fortunately, the author felt the same way.” From the outset, the team agreed that the jacket would predominantly feature the hare along with bright accents of colors. “The black background was created to evoke the dark nature of the narrative,” Ramirez adds. “The color pink is prominent throughout the story as it comes to define the clique of Bunnies and the ‘saccharine-sweet’ world they inhabit.” The type, scrawled across a flesh-colored silhouette of a rabbit standing upright was illustrated to signify a moment of hesitation and observation among its frenzied surroundings. The neon pink color and texture of the title and author name evoke the gritty nature of scrawled lipstick, further emphasized with the application of dimensional spot gloss on the printed jacket.

Credits: Jacket design by Jason Ramirez; hand Lettering by Grace Han

3
The Rationing, by Charles Wheelan

For The Rationing, a sharp political satire that centers around a White House struggling to quell a global health crisis under mounting pressure, Ramirez chose the repeated use of a pharmaceutical capsule in free fall, tapering in color against a background of medicinal green. This urgency, according to Ramirez, is meant to represent the “depleted supply of the life-saving drug needed to combat the pathogen crisis as well as the race-against-the-clock to contain the pandemic disease.”

4
Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi

The contemporary retelling of the Frankenstein myth, set in U.S.-occupied Baghdad, is about local scavengers who collect human body parts from war-torn streets and stitch them together to create an unlikely monster. A photographer-slash-reporter ultimately encounters and interviews the creature only to discover its surprising humanity. To create a sense of the contemporary, newspaper clippings are used as the primary vehicle to reinterpret the monster. “The dark background is meant to evoke a sense of menace and mystery,” says Ramirez. Illustrations of body parts, along with English and Arabic typography, are superimposed on torn pieces of paper. The title and author name are composed of bold display typefaces inspired by headlines and reproduced in bright neon green, a color that has come to define the Frankenstein myth in the popular imagination. “Together, the jagged pieces of paper symbolize not only the body parts that compose the monster and the story of his remarkable existence,” says Ramirez, “but also the explosive setting in which this retelling of Frankenstein takes place.”

5
Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years

A comprehensive biography charting the remarkable formative decades of writer Gabriel García Márquez, The Early Years covers the time leading up to the publication of the surrealist classic One Hundred Years of Solitude through an image-driven approach independent of any one rendering of Márquez. “The vivid color and illusionary landscape of the photograph conveys the mood and spirit of magical realism, the literary genre for which Márquez was best known,” explains Ramirez, who chose to print the cover on uncoated paper, marrying the fantastic and literary characteristics of the subject and the genre. The image and production value create a unique and relevant package for a biography without using the ordinary recipe of an image of the subject.

Credits: Jacket design by Jason Ramirez; photography by Jo Whaley

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