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.”