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The Book Cover Designer We Almost Lost to Professional Gymnastics

”I wanted to be a part of things that were bigger than me alone.”

Janet Hansen could have wound up working in a number of fields outside of design. IT, like her father. Finance, like her mother. Gymnastics, which she pursued competitively six days a week in high school—until she discovered fine art.

She went on to study it in college at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), but she realized that when it came to performing off the mat, she wasn’t comfortable being the center of attention. “I wanted to work on bigger ideas and be a part of things that were bigger than me alone,” she says. “And that’s when I decided to give graphic design a shot.”

A few years after she graduated from SVA, Hansen was a party where she randomly met Penguin’s longstanding book design guru, Paul Buckley—and he offered her a conceptual illustration project for a cover on the spot. Though her cover was later killed, Buckley offered Hansen a job as a junior designer. She took it, having never designed a single book cover. But at Penguin Random House she found her calling, and her creativity came into focus.

“At first I was overwhelmed,” she says. “But cover design is such an amazing space—I can dive into so many different ideas.”

When it comes to her output today as Penguin’s senior designer, Hansen says she’s inspired by cultural institutions and galleries, and her covers do tend towards the clean and minimal side. She’s also up front about the vital nature of marketing and the role of the book cover as advertisement, and seeks to create work that doesn’t overpower that purpose, but coexists with it. She pursues a strong sense of object quality in her covers; the challenge to create a book that wouldn’t look out of place on display in one’s home is what keeps her inspired.

Voices in the Night, by Steven Millhauser

After a few years designing for The Penguin Press and Riverhead, Hansen moved to the legendary design-forward Knopf imprint. After her interview with Peter Mendelsund, she got her first assignment—Steven Millhauser’s story collection Voices in the Night. Surrounded by her design heroes who were now her colleagues, she read the book twice—there was zero margin for error.

“I was absolutely terrified,” she says. “I definitely felt an immense pressure to do this book justice because I loved it so much. Steven Millhauser is amazing. He’s a master of illusion, dark humor, and magical realism.”

Rather than focus on imagery from any one particular story, she sought a central visual that would embody the book in its entirety. Voices in the Night deals with struggles between rational logic and magic—with magic often debasing the former—so Hansen began researching op art, seeking a cover that could show illusion throwing something off of its course.

Her research led her to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where says she looked up—and in Frank Lloyd Wright’s swirling Nautilus-inspired atrium, found her cover.

“I saw it and just sketched it out. I drew it in Illustrator. I played around with the type a few times to get everything to work. Even though I did probably 50 other covers for this, it was the only one that we showed the editor, and it was immediately approved. It was the best experience.”

Stay With Me, by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

This novel is a portrait of marriage that challenges notions of masculinity, femininity, identity, and tradition. The two protagonists in the story are unable to conceive, so the husband’s family surreptitiously arranges for a second wife to birth their children. As the story progresses, it features childhood folktales that the female protagonist reinterprets in new ways.

To honor and embody the resounding clash of tradition and modernity in the book, Hansen sought to pull something from a previous artistic generation and give it a modern twist—and so she seized upon a Matisse-like aesthetic in creating the cover.

“That felt like it could be both old and new,” she says.

Avoiding cliche literal imagery, she brought the pregnancy to the abstract figures on the cover, which she cut by hand. After handlettering the title and author’s name, she finished the design in a striking color palette that creates a disjointed effect—further underlying the central clash within the story.

Album for the Young (and Old), by Vera Pavlova

Russian poet Vera Pavlova’s work often features musical influences, and her collection of microverse plays off the title of Tchaikovsky’s classic, Album for the Young. Pavlova’s poetry also tends to draw on her youth, and so very early in the cover process, the author sent Hansen some drawings that her daughter, Lisa, had made as a child.

While imagery from clients often does not work out for a host of reasons (as Hansen notes, “It basically never happens”)—in this case, she was smitten.  “They were just so great, so young and playful” she says. With her cover direction in place, Hansen moved on to handlettering the title.

“There was a rhythm in the writing, and I wanted to take advantage of that and make it feel childlike,” she says. “You know, to have music in mind, and to have that flow in the illustration.”

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray

The design process of Hansen’s cover for The Lost Time Accidents took shape subconsciously. The novel is about a man in a Spanish Harlem apartment who realizes that time has stopped. As he begins to write a letter to a lost lover, he brings the reader into the world of his great grandfather, whom he believes discovered the theory of relativity before Einstein did. As Hansen perused Wray’s book, which is 500+ pages long, she began to think of it as an onion—layer by layer, it continually revealed itself, an image that is not unlike the cover.

As for her direct inspiration, “Time goes back and forth, and I wanted to show the parallels of time and relativity on this one character—so that’s how I came about the idea of that spiraling burst [featuring him].”

The biggest struggle? Finding the right face that would for the character. One option was seen as too young and sinister; others simply didn’t fit with how the team envisioned him. But even once they had it right, for Hansen there was still the pressure of working with Rodrigo Corral at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which hired her for the project. “He’s amazing,” she says of the creative director. “He’s another one of my obvious design heroes.”

The Bed Moved, by Rebecca Schiff

The Bed Moved is a collection of stories that Hansen describes as young, playful, sexual, edgy, and funny. Moreover, Hansen notes, Schiff’s prose “is sort of erratic and playful; she plays with language to the point where, to me, it became like another character in the book. I thought it would be really cool to somehow express all of that with just the words of the title.”

The resulting typographic swing dance perfectly captures the mood of the stories (Hansen even anchored the word “bed” in the composition as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the sexual themes in the stories). As for how she achieved balance with the repeated letters, Hansen leaned on the vowels in the title, reasoning that it allows the eye to skip through things and piece the image together a bit easier.

While her editor loved the design, the sales department loomed large in their minds. To preempt any legibility issues they might have, Hansen repeated the title smaller, in white—turning the rest of the imagery into, well, a cover image, versus a title.

Hansen says the author loved it, but was a bit nervous, so Hansen worked up another five or six covers. Eventually, however, everything circled back to the original, which went on to win praise and acclaim  in the design industry, and was a winner in the 2016 50 Books | 50 Covers competition.

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