100 steps to designing a book cover

We talk to Random House art director Robin Schiff about designing the US cover for Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: A Novel, which went through 100 different versions and was worked on by seven different designers, illustrators and letterers.

Publisher Random House has released this video, which shows the 100 different designs that were considered for the US cover of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s new book Hausfrau: A Novel. Seven different designers, illustrators and letterers worked on different versions and a series of designs – wildly different in style – were created before the final version was selected. We spoke to Random House executive art director Robbin Schiff, who led the project, to find out about the design process and the reasons it took 100 attempts to get to the right cover.

Design Week: What was the process for designing this cover and who was involved in it?

Robin Schiff: I began by reading the manuscript and gathering information from my editor and publishers in our initial concept meeting. We discussed who the audience might be and how we wanted this literary novel, with the suspense of a psychological thriller to be received. We described a potential cover that would feel restrained but ready to explode. I initially worked with two very talented and cerebral designers to come up with a range of ideas for my first presentation. Through the use of type and image we tried to convey the tension between the protagonist Anna’s transgressive behavior and her ordered and suffocating life.

DW: Is it usual to go through 100 iterations of a cover design or was this more (or less!) than usual?

RS: Many jackets for targeted books can be as time-consuming but this was exceptional for the numbers as well as the fact the final cover is very close to a version we looked in the early stages. The inspiration for the video we made was the sheer number of designs and variations of those designs that we eventually went through. All told we worked with seven different designers, illustrators, and letterers.

DW: What were your main reasons for rejecting the proposed covers?

RS: There were several covers that were acceptable to the author, sales, editorial, publishers and marketing departments but not all at the same time. There were so many different interpretations of the book by readers and many felt that certain designs left out a particular aspect of the book.

DW: Why did you decide to go with the final cover design?

RS: The final cover image with crowded flowers was selected from an early sketch by Gaby Bordwin and came very close to being approved throughout the process. In the video you can see that it circled back several times with variations of colour and font and different production effects. The final version of that design was the authors favourite because it was closest to her vision of the book. The final design was enhanced from an earlier version 4C image and became flowers printed over an azure matte foil background.

The final US cover design
The final US cover design

Hausfrau: A Novel, by Jill Alexander Essbaum, is published in the UK by Pan McMillan priced at £14.99. The UK cover design is by Jo Thomson and features a hand-stitched cover. You can find out more here

Hide Comments (5)Show Comments (5)
  • Matt Baxter March 23, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I’m not clear if the 100 covers thing is being shared as good practice or bad. Because it seems pretty bad to me. An unclear creative brief? Some poor decision making? Lots of lovely choice in there and clearly lots of energy has gone into the work, but is something not a bit broken if you’re sharing such a quantity of wildly varying stylistic choices with the client? I guess if everyone was paid for their time and energy, then it’s a *way* of working. Interesting.

  • Michelle michelle@aloof.co March 23, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    My first thoughts are echoed above. Certainly best practice to pay each and every consultant for their time spent on the project.

  • Niels Reynolds March 24, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Agreed Michelle – would be interesting to know whether all of the artists/designers were paid for their contribution. Sadly, all too often, that is not the case.

  • Garrick Webster March 24, 2015 at 10:57 am

    I agree. The video looks very nice and will be a treat for crime fiction readers. However… while jobs are going to go through a certain amount of visual variation when you’re reaching 100 iterations of the same cover it would seem that something was missing from the start.

    Still, the finished cover looks great.

  • Carol Mackay March 25, 2015 at 2:10 am

    I agree with the comments above – the proliferation of designs suggests that there was no real objective decision-making process. While aesthetically pleasing, many of the design iterations follow the ‘moving furniture in a loungeroom’ process of design to me.

    I’d like to know how the chosen cover illustrates the ‘suspense of a psychological thriller … (or) feel restrained but ready to explode’.

    Perhaps, like Matt suggested, the process kept everyone ‘busy’ and therefore happy.

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