Wide Angle

Sometimes You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover

Graphic designer Rodrigo Corral explains how he comes up with iconic book-jacket art.

A bearded, smiling man.
Rodrigo Corral Anna Kassoway

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with graphic designer and creative director Rodrigo Corral. They discussed his work designing book-cover art, where he looks for inspiration for designs, and how he corresponds with authors when creating a cover for their work. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: I’ve wanted for a long time to talk to someone for this show who designs book jackets. Just to establish for our listeners some of your work, because I think that a lot of people are going to know your work, I’m going to mention the cover of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which shows a hand covered in sprinkles against a pale blue backdrop; or I’ll mention John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which has a black cloud sitting on top of a white cloud with this lettering that looks like chalk on a blackboard; or I’ll mention Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a spray-painted silhouette that looks like graffiti, but it also looks like a Rorschach test.

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If you go to the bookstore right now in this country, you’re going to see paperback editions of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Transit, and Kudos which each have these arresting photographs on the cover: a seashell perched in the sand, a praying mantis trapped in a plastic cup, a view from an airplane window.

I’m only mentioning a few of your designs, but I think this gives a sense of what it is that you’ve done that really caught my attention, which is book design. What does the brief look like when you’re designing a book jacket, and how is that different than when the task is to design a hotel logo or an illustration for a magazine article?

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Rodrigo Corral: There are some overlapping qualities between a logo and a book jacket. There is a creative brief in publishing. We refer to it as either a tip sheet or a cover memo. It has the key elements. You have a title, author, is it a hard cover, a paperback, comparison titles—”comp titles” as they call them—and a brief description of the book, because that should give you a baseline to know what you can do.

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What we try to do is really dive into the text, almost naively reading a manuscript thinking, Well, why did the author pick this? It’s almost like a series of whys upon whys upon whys. All the covers you mentioned, as you’re listing them, I’m thinking you could line up 10 people in a room and show them those covers, and for most of them, they might not even register any of the elements. They may not even see the silhouette on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or they might not make heads or tails of what the bubbles on the clouds on The Fault in Our Stars mean.

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But personally, those ideas come from the content—responding to the content of the book, and it staying with me and feeling like it has power. It has lasting value. Readers want to go on a journey. They want to feel like in some ways they’re discovering something, they’re learning something, they’re gaining something. I think a jacket just gets to add to that story.

The jacket also has to do this other thing, which is to persuade the reader to take the journey in the first place. Because the jacket is sitting on a table at a local bookstore, or it’s sitting on the shelves at the library, and it has to communicate something.

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Presumably, the brief that you’re getting from the publisher—because every publisher wants their books to sell a million copies—is: “Give us the most arresting possible thing, really capture the reader’s attention.” Is that always the foremost in your mind, standing out on a crowded table? Or is that something that you leave that to the marketing people to worry about that?

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I think about it as far as this: Understanding that our lives are so much around a laptop, a cell phone, and today, more than ever, we’re seeing things for the most part digitally first. I try to take that into account.

Beyond that, I’m really trying to get to the most effective and impactful solution that is true to the content of the book. That can sound pretty naive, or earnest, but it’s really what I try to stay focused on. I’m aware of what’s out in the marketplace, but I’m not trying to get too wrapped up in that.

What’s so interesting to me about this is that you are an artist, you’re thinking visually, but you’re negotiating when you’re designing a book with a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily think that way. You’re dealing with an artist who works in words and not in images. You’re almost translating something, right?

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Do you have to like the book that you’re designing the jacket for? You said you need an emotional connection to the material. You designed the jacket for Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen, which is coming out this fall. What if you had hated that book? What if you had thought, I don’t get it. I don’t understand what this novel is attempting to do. I don’t know how to create a face for it. Has that ever come up in your work?

I’m sure it has. I can’t believe after the many years I’ve been working that I still think back to the days of school, but I still have the voice of my professors saying like, “You have to keep yourself open and as curious as possible if you want to have a career as a conceptual graphic designer—as a graphic designer, period. If you want longevity, you have to stay as open as you possibly can.”

To listen to the full interview with Rodrigo Corral, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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