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Career vs. Passion—These Book Covers are Proof It’s Possible to Have Both

Designer Kelly Winton grew up around book publishing—it took her a few twists and turns to find her way back

Growing up, Kelly Winton did, in fact, judge books by their covers—they were everywhere around her. Winton’s father, Charlie, founded the distribution company Publishers Group West, and the ones with the best covers rose to the top for his daughter, even though she didn’t yet have a defined grasp on graphic design.

Rather, at Berkeley High School in California, Winton had discovered photography, and she seemed to be following more in the footsteps of her mother, who worked in film production. Winton pursued the craft at UCLA while simultaneously studying history—and working under her mentors, Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger. (Of the latter, Winton says, She taught me to stand by my choices and to really define my ideas and look at things conceptually. She was a great historian as well and exposed me to a lot of different artists and art movements.”)

In her senior year, Winton nabbed an internship in the photo department of Vogue’s West Coast office. While she was envisioning a future in photo production or becoming a photo editor at a magazine, the experience helped her define what she didn’t want to be—namely, a fashion photographer. While she admired the craft, she found herself much more naturally moored in landscapes, the gritty, or the unexpected.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether or not she was consciously trying to avoid it, book publishing remained a recurring undercurrent in her life. After school she’d worked at the Diesel bookstore in the Brentwood Country Mart managing the art and photography sections, and developing insights into what made the commercial world of publishing go round.

Alongside everyone else graduating in 2009, Winton entered the workforce in the throes of a crippling recession… and began to make a career out of internships. First, as a photo intern at the Fraenkel Gallery. Then, as an editorial intern at Afar magazine (where she’d gaze longingly at the art department). Then, as a photo assistant at 7×7 magazine, where she encountered InDesign for the first time. Finally, Winton took a gig as a production assistant at Counterpoint Press. As she rose within the company, things began to coalesce—she became more drawn to design, and with the cover process, in particular, she discovered a brilliant synthesis of her interests and passions: There was photography. Fine art. History. As she went about hiring freelancers for covers and doing some art direction, she wondered:

What if I actually just designed one?”

1
Ball, by Tara Ison

Ball is one of Winton’s first covers—and, she says, it’s quite possibly her favorite. The stories in this Soft Skull Press title are gritty and border on the disturbing and violent, so at first Winton explored cityscapes and other concepts. But then she began to ponder the book’s title, and how it offers an approachable, playful juxtaposition to the material within. Winton’s fine art background came to life and reminded her of the Argentine-Italian painter Lucio Fontana, who was known for physically slashing his beautiful canvases. It was an ideal pairing.

It looks violent, it looks a little sexual—there’s something a little unsettling about that, and I felt like it sort of perfectly encompassed what the book’s vibe is,”she says.

2
Bird, by Noy Holland

An early testament to her visual versatility, Winton created the cover for this debut novel around the same time as she was working on Ball. In the book, the protagonist, Bird, dwells upon a past relationship. The author was interested in artist Kiki Smith, and Winton tracked this painting down from Pace Gallery.

It almost makes it look like the paw is capturing a bird,” Winton says. I feel like it works metaphorically with the book in that it’s a woman who feels kind of captured in a domestic way, and is looking back on her life and thinking about what could have been.”

As Winton describes, with energy and perhaps a bit of romance and darkness, it is a visual mirror for the life told in the tome.

3
Belly Up, by Rita Bullwinkel

This book marked a first for Winton—she actually knew the author. Bullwinkel and Winton are friends, so when Texas publisher A Strange Object acquired Belly Up, Bullwinkel reached out to Winton to design the cover. The result was a collaboration: Bullwinkel sent Winton a medley of ideas and artists, including work by Geoff McFetridge. Bullwinkel liked the movement of McFetridge’s hand piece, and after experimentation with different comps, the two came back to it, Winton did some hand lettering, and the result is a Matisse-like cover that vibrates with energy.

It’s nice when an author has really great taste,” Winton says.

4
Black Sunset by Clancy Sigal

Winton has a love for boxed art—that design style of yesteryear in which a central image is framed off within a cover (she says her fondness has turned into a joke amongst her colleagues). Sigal’s book is a memoir about trying to make it as a Hollywood agent in the 1950s, and many of Winton’s first designs experimented with treatments involving scripts. She ultimately scrapped the idea because they lacked visual interest. As she explored the visual notion of Hollywood, she kept coming back to the work of pop artist Ed Ruscha, who she loves, and who has done numerous pieces exploring the culturally ubiquitous Hollywood sign. After identifying an image she wanted for the cover, Winton had the thrill of Ed Ruscha” showing up on her caller ID … and then she had the double thrill of Ruscha’s camp not wanting the image to run full bleed, as planned, but, rather, boxed.

I just like retro design, and that’s something I always gravitate toward,” she says. So any time I can kind of go down that path, I do.”

5
Open Me, by Lisa Locascio

Locascio’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story about a relationship and sexual awakening in Copenhagen. One recurring visual motif in the book: the color purple, which Winton says defines the protagonist’s sexuality. Winton headed down to a market and bought an assortment of purple flowers, and then created this composition directly on her scanner, with the flowers reveling in their own personalities as they come apart and move toward the viewer.

Winton loves art direction—but says that as she has become a better designer cover by cover, she’s grown more interested in creating her own solo jackets. Today, she is a senior designer at W.W. Norton, and there are some projects in the pipeline featuring her photography that she is hoping will get approved—creating a poetic full-circle to her career.

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