Our very own Beth Ralston on designing the Napier Big Read cover 2020/21…
I am a prolific over-thinker.
As the people who love (and tolerate) me know all too well, I am incredibly cautious and ridiculously risk-averse. Frankly, if writing exhaustive pro/con lists were an Olympic sport, I’d take the gold every time.
This particular trait of mine has its benefits. When the time comes to make a big career or life decision, I can be pretty sure I won’t regret my choice (pro/con lists have that effect). But it has its downsides, too.
When embarking on a new opportunity, my brain will happily translate excitement into fear, robbing me of my self-confidence (and as my fellow publishing hopefuls will know, self-confidence can be hard to come come by).
But this year, through my MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University, I am trying to be better at embracing the unknown. I am trying to be braver.
When my acceptance email for the course landed in my inbox last spring, I made a promise to myself; I was going spend the year taking chances, learning new skills, and volunteering for everything that crossed my path. Fear be damned!
I made a promise to myself; I was going spend the year taking chances, learning new skills, and volunteering for everything that crossed my path. Fear be damned!
Live book project: choosing a specialty
For our live book projects this trimester – in which my group has been managing the entire publishing process for this year’s Napier Big Read book – we were asked to choose a department in which to specialise: Editorial, Marketing, or Design.
My love of language has always been my greatest motivator – and nothing brings me more joy than working with words. In 2014 I graduated with a First Class undergraduate degree in English Language from the University of Glasgow; and I have since worked in academic research and editorial roles, and more recently as a copywriter. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to be an editor in trade publishing.
Naturally, my gut told me to stick to my strengths and choose Editorial – and that’s exactly why I chose Design instead. (There may or may not have been a pro/con list involved in this decision, but give me a break. Old habits die hard.)
New programs, new perspectives
This decision has allowed me to put InDesign skills learned on the course into practice, and has given me cause to teach myself the basics of Photoshop and Illustrator as well.
But more importantly, it has encouraged me to step back and consider the project’s big picture; to think hard about how to encapsulate the ethos of the Napier Big Read and the essence of the book into something visual and vibrant.
From concept to cover
Back in January, I developed an initial cover concept for the book, which I then finessed over several months leading up to our recent cover reveal. Lots of design decisions (big and small) were made in this time, and I’ll share a whistle-stop tour of that process here.
But before I do – the work below represents a team effort. I worked on this cover as part of a design duo with Kai Holmström, and we also couldn’t have created it without the input and support of the entire Napier Big Read team.
The creative hook
We knew from the very beginning that we wanted the book to reflect the highs and lows of lockdown; to express the relatable difficulties, and the unexpected joys.
We also wanted to show glimpses into the lives of students and staff from across the university, whatever form that might take; prose, poetry, photography, and any other form of creative expression was most welcome. A word that came up a lot in early brainstorming sessions, which seemed to summarise this intention, was ‘snapshots’.
This became the creative hook that informed my cover concept – which shows a sunny block of flats, where each window is a ‘snapshot’ of the stories taking place inside.
[Image description: the front cover of the 2020/21 Napier Big Read book; showing a yellow, cartoon-style block of flats on yellow background. There are nine windows that look like polaroid photographs, in a three-by-three layout. The text in the image reads: You’re on Mute! And Other Snapshots of Lockdown from students and staff of Edinburgh Napier University.]
Bold and bright design
I created the cover using (semi) flat design – a minimalistic style that uses bright colours and two-dimensional images, without attempting to show perspective. This approach, along with the bright yellow colour scheme, aligned with the ultimately positive outlook of the book. Not to mention, this was an accessible style for two first-time designers – and it didn’t require any expensive outsourcing!
Our title typeface was another crucial decision, as it would have to stand out on a shelf, and on a screen when promoted by our Marketing team on social media.
The chosen typeface is shaded with a hand-drawn look, which adds some depth, draws the eye, and dovetails with the playful style of the cover. This is complemented by a soft sans serif typeface for the subheading, to ensure legibility at a smaller scale – with subtle flourishes like the asymmetrical upper-case ‘U’ and the long descenders on the lower-case ‘f’ adding a bit of character.
[Image description: this is a cropped version of the image above, showing only the three central windows. The window in the middle shows a person sitting behind a computer. The text in the image reads: You’re on Mute! And Other Snapshots of Lockdown from students and staff of Edinburgh Napier University.]
Bringing the submissions to life
Something I was very keen to do was to represent the submissions on the cover, bringing out key symbols so that each window references an individual story. The examples in the image below allude to diary entries, photographs – and, of course, no lockdown anthology would be complete without at least one mention of therapeutic lockdown baking!
It is this element of the design that I think truly captures the spirit of the Napier Big Read, which strives to enhance the sense of community across the university through shared reading. My hope is that in recognising these symbols on the cover, students and staff will feel shared ownership of the book as a whole, as well as of their own personal contributions.
[Image description: three windows that look like polaroid photographs, against a yellow background. From left to right the windows show: a camera with some photos; a mug of tea next to a stack of books; and a steaming loaf of bread.]
We’re coming to the end of this project now, and I’ve been reflecting on the choices I’ve made and the things I’ve learned.
Do I think my new-found design knowledge will lead to a prosperous career as a cover designer? No, not quite. But do I think I’ll be a better, more well-rounded editor for it? Absolutely.
It turns out, taking risks isn’t so bad after all.
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