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Want To Make Something Novel? Start With an Idea, Not an Aesthetic

For book designer Jo Walker, good design is all about the thinking behind the image

As a ninth-grader in the early ’90s, one of Jo Walker’s teachers assigned her a project about rainforests. Walker had been reading about how McDonald’s was linked to the devastation of the Brazilian rainforests via their beef suppliers clearing land for cattle and feed, but rather than offer a staid, expected academic response to the homework, Walker thought bigger—namely, in the form of a humongous hamburger, beef patty, bun and all, which her mom helped her craft. Walker arranged some miniature cows on the burger and shot a series of photographs showing the burger slowly being obliterated bit by bit.

“Looking back on it now, that wasn’t the nicest thing to look at—but I’m always really interested in ideas rather than making any beautiful bit of artwork,” she says. “I wanted it to be interesting and to have an idea behind it,” she says.

As a kid in Oxfordshire, England, Walker was constantly moving around the country because of father’s job as a mechanical engineer for the Royal Air Force. Walker describes herself as the “black sheep” of her academic parents and siblings thanks to her lack of math skills and preference for visual learning. When she told her father that she was considering becoming an artist, he suggested an alternative career: hairdresser, given her skills with a pair of scissors.

Luckily, around the age of 17, she found her own future when she learned about graphic design, and she instantly seizing upon the craft. Walker headed to Kent to do a foundation course and then began working toward a degree in illustration and design at the University of Hertfordshire. At school, she wasn’t connecting with what she was studying and was close to dropping out when her professor Paul Burgess suggested that she look into book covers. Walker began working on a Sylvia Plath cover for a project and was elated by the freedom she found in creating a jacket—a joy she maintains to this day.

“You have all of these different methods of representing somebody else’s work and doing it justice,” she says. “That’s such an amazing thing to be able to do, and it excites me because every book is so different and so varied, and you can go about it in so many different ways. It’s just always interesting. You never get bored.”

After school she took a gig at Minerva Press, and then moved to Bloomsbury and Penguin Random House before landing in 2008 at 4th Estate (HarperCollins), where she showcases her wildly versatile skillset today, maths be damned. When it comes down to it, perhaps the goal with every cover is no different than it was with that giant hamburger so many years ago: She simply seeks to create something interesting with an idea behind it.

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie

This delightfully odd comedic novel documents a young woman in Palo Alto (Veblen), her fiancé, and their dysfunctional families … and includes appearances by a talking squirrel. In that squirrel Walker saw a metaphor for mental health and anxiety, but she didn’t want to detract from the literary merits of the story or overemphasize its role by featuring a basic image of the animal. Rather, she wanted to tip her hat to it, so she had a squirrel’s outline die-cut, framing the text “maybe yes, maybe no, maybe yes …” as a reference to the protagonist’s habit of typing the words out over and over as a child to work out her anxiety.

Walker sent the concept to the printer for a test, but when she got it back, she realized it wouldn’t work because the shape was just too complex (and a die-cut being a die-cut, it would catch and rip). The team liked the overall idea, though, so they retained the concept and instead debossed it on the cover. Still, she laments, “I just wish that squirrels were more of a basic shape. If squirrels could somehow evolve into just a blob, that would be great. I could do the cover again.”

Living & Partly Living, by Jiří Mucha

A testament to her varied talents, Walker’s cover for Living & Partly Living pays homage to the book’s Stalinist Czechoslovakia setting, where the memoir’s author was sentenced to hard labor in a coal mine. As she discovered in her research, the grim political goings-on of the era were a jarring juxtaposition with the design that populated it. Even the schoolbooks of the era, Walker reflects, were brilliantly designed. So she played off of the prevailing aesthetic of the times to create a macro view of the mine, and then opened up a big folder she maintains filled with old, random scanned fonts, where she found the perfect typographic accompaniment. (A practice that serves her well, so long as the book’s title doesn’t change as the book is being produced, as has been known to happen.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Around 2016, Walker took on the job of designing new editions of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. A publicist close to the novelist had an idea: Headscarves are a tradition in the author’s native Nigeria, and Adichie has been known to sport beautiful ones—why not design each book based on a Nigerian pattern? Walker seized on the concept. Walker thinks of the shapes on the cover as abstract representations of characters. Americanah is about a romance in tumultuous political times, so Walker decided to focus on sharp triangles to speak to the harsh setting. She created each element by hand, and then scanned them all in and arranged them, giving the book a tactile vibe that captures and complements the tone of Adichie’s writing.

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

In Goldstone’s novel, a swan kills a woman in a freak boating accident, leaving a husband behind. As the story unravels, he discovers that she had a secret life and he didn’t really know her as well as he thought—a concept that Walker sought to bring to the cover by removing and augmenting the character’s face. She pulled the image of the woman from Getty, and then found the illustrated swan. When she lined them up together, the result was an unnerving mix that seamlessly came together to become the cover. “It was just one of those happy accidents,” she says, noting that avoiding a photograph of a swan was key. “You needed that sort of illustrative feel just to really, really clash with the photo, rather than make it look like you’re trying to make some kind of swan human hybrid.”

The Place of Dead Roads, by William Burroughs

When Walker took on the task of art directing a series of Burroughs’ novels, it was a daunting assignment. Luckily, a friend working at Granta had told her about illustrator Owen Freeman—and when Walker looked at his portfolio, she was taken by the atmospheric work. She reached out to Freeman, who he said that he had always wanted to read the books, and they were off. Walker wanted a limited color palette, but the brief was otherwise open.

The sketches Freeman returned with were so striking that Walker says she offered to buy one. The Place of Dead Roads is the second installment in a trilogy that tells the story of a gay Old West gunslinger on a time-traveling quest. As Allen Ginsberg described it, “It’s a comedy … a nightmare … Bosch-like visions, extraordinarily precise vivid visualizations … outrageous ideas like mind bombs.” Freeman nailed that in this image.

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