A Penny's Worth

Book Cover Designer, Kirk DouPonce

Kirk DouPonce is an award winning book cover designer who has designed for some of the largest book publishers in the United States including Simon and Schuster, McGraw Hill, Harper Collins/Zondervan and Thomas Nelson and notable authors such as Max Lucado, Charles Swindoll, R.C. Sproul, Tony Campolo, John MacArthur, John Piper and Billy Graham.

» Quotes by Kirk DouPonce» Straw poll votes by Kirk DouPonce

Book cover design is one of the more obscure fields in the design arena. How did you find yourself designing book covers and how do your clients find you (and are there any jobs which you would decline)?
I remember as a kid, maybe junior high age, reading through the copyright page of a Robin Hood book and being excited to discover who the cover artist was. Weird I know, but true. That’s actually how many of my clients find me today. You can usually find out who designed a book cover simply by looking at either the inside back flap, back cover, or copyright page. Free marketing! That’s not the case with most other areas of design. Mom was always impressed to read my name on the books, as were the dates I would take to B&N for that very purpose.

I originally got into designing book covers just out of art college. I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town that happened to have a couple book publishers. I met an art director from one of them at a community college night class. He was gracious enough to give me my first cover assignment. After that, I worked in-house for a publisher, and then for a studio that focused on book cover design. I went solo with DogEared Design six years ago. A scary jump, but not one I regret.

I've turned down a few jobs over the years, and have taken some I probably should have turned down. The ones that bother me the most are the pseudo spiritual psycho babble books. I do a lot of books for Christian publishers so some of the bigger publishers have come to me with their spiritual books. Some are fine, some are pretty weird, the universe is your personal genie kinda stuff. I've had mixed reactions turning down covers. Some art directors respect it, some may never call again. It’s always a difficult thing to do.
The exhortation to avoid judging a book by its cover exists precisely because people do just that. Can you describe the mission of a book’s cover and the extent to which it contributes to a book’s ultimate success?
As much as I would like to say that book covers are purely art, they’re not, they’re marketing. The mission of the cover is essentially an advertisement to sell the book. But they’re art as well. They literally give the book a face. As far as the extent to which a cover contributes to sales, that’s a hard question to quantify. If any publishers are reading this, I’d say that the cover is the most important part of the book, much more important than the author or the actual contents. Thus designers should be compensated accordingly.
Designers aren’t granted the luxury of being judged by effort, but solely on the merits of the final product. Can you describe the process of designing a cover from briefing to delivery?
I’m usually given about three weeks to provide the client with three to five completely different comps. They’re called comps but they’re actually finished covers with hi-rez art in place. The project begins with a brief which could be one or two sentences to include a title, subtitle, and author name, or it could include a full blown manuscript. I used to have to print out manuscripts in order to read them, now however, I can upload them to my beloved Kindle. A lot of trees have been saved by that devise which could eventually replace the physical book... and put me out of job. I hate the foul gadget!

Ahem. I digress.

The process is somewhat different for each project, but generally I start by researching the topic on the net. I love photography, so depending on deadlines and subject matter, if I can, I’ll do the shoot myself. But in many cases that’s not possible so a lot of time is spent going through stock sites looking for imagery. Even when stock is used it’s never just a matter of slapping a photo on the cover and calling it good. Usually images need to be manipulated and merged with other images as well as doing some digital painting on them. It’s very rare to find an image and bam, I’ve got a cover. An example of this is the cover for “Scared” by Tom Davis. It’s a fictional story of a young African girl with AIDS. In this case there was a lot of available info on the web to research and no lack of photography either. When I stumbled upon the image of a young African girl with dry tears in her eyes I knew it was the magic image. When you look at the final cover, however, you’ll see a lot more went into the imagery than just using the photo, as perfect as it was.

As a cover designer, to some degree you’re responsible for translating a thousand words into one picture. Can you describe the design brief you’re given and the degree to which you’re given control over the direction and substance of the final product?
Each publisher works a bit differently, but most don’t give too much specific direction as to what they want on the cover. Some will give examples of covers in the market that they like and also give the general mood they’re after like “dark”, “light”, or “edgy” etc. So at the beginning there’s usually plenty of freedom. I’m only a hired gun, so I have no say as to which comp will be chosen. Often the Frankenstein factor occurs, a client will ask for different parts of different comps to be merged into one. That happens a lot. If I’m at a book store and don’t like a cover on the shelf, I always give the designer the benefit of the doubt, they may not be happy with the final product either.
Leonardo Da Vinci famously conceded that “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. Do you agree with this sentiment or is there a point at which, like a lock picker, success is heralded by a click?
The cover is ultimately finished when it’s approved and sent off to the printer. Sometimes when I see my work, say in a book store a couple years later, I cringe and wonder what I was smoking.
Professionals are encouraged to avoid entangling themselves emotionally in their work because it clouds the clarity of their judgement. Having invested a good deal of time and creative energy into designing a book’s cover, how do you accurately and objectively gauge the merit of your work?
Book covers aren’t fine art, they’re commercial art. Designers and illustrators need to develop a thicker skin. Having said that, it’s difficult to not be emotionally attached to your work. Since I generally have to create three comps, I’ll try to create at least one to make me happy and the rest to make the client happy. That’s not to say that a cover can’t fit within both categories. Life seems worth living when that happens. Many of the covers on my site aren’t the final covers, just the comps that I preferred. If you want clients to keep coming back, it’s important to give them what they ask for without trying to push your agenda upon them. Ultimately the cover belongs to them. Which answers the second part of your question, one way a book cover designer can gauge the merit of their work is by the number of clients that continue to come back to them.
A prized finger painting from Kindergarten doesn’t shine so brightly with the passage of time, nor do children’s cartoons from the 1980s. Looking back at your previous work with a fresh set of eyes, how do you rate your work and how has it changed with time?
Some have held up over the years, others, not so much. The crazy thing is that it seems like I could knock work out a lot faster back in the day. Now, however, it takes me longer to get a cover to where it should be. Hopefully it’s because I’m pickier and not because I’m getting rusty with years. I think my work is more illustrative than it used be. I’ve put a lot more time into doing my own photography and digital painting. I used to hire that stuff out, but now that’s my favorite part.
Beauty is described as being subjectively in the eye of the beholder, but golden ratio in mathematics purports to quantify the objective basis for that beauty. Can you talk about the practical and aesthetic factors which cause a book’s cover to work and give some examples of covers which do just that?
There’s actually a secret formula for creating successful covers. A marketing VP taught it to me back in my in-house days, it’s called “bigger titles guys, bigger titles”. If a cover had big type he loved it. Sometimes big type works. A good example that caught my eye is the cover for Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall designed by Lisa Fyfe. But sometimes, call me crazy, small type works. A good example of that is is the cover for Steven James’ book Story designed by Chris Gilbert. I’m typically drawn to covers that are simple like the cover for Dave Cullen’s book Columbine designed by Henry Sene Yee. But sometimes complex covers are the way to go like the cover for Dexter Palmer’s book The Dream of Perpetual Motion designed by Ervin Serrano. Okay, so there’s not really a secret formula, it’s all about the mood you’re trying to create.
Creativity is more often likened to an involuntary rain storm than a commodity on tap. Can you describe the source of your creativity and whether being inspired is more like cultivating a garden, wooing a bird or hunting a boar?
I typically work six days a week, so I can’t wait for creativity to strike while projects pile up. Sometimes it’s gotta be forced out of its hole and wrestled to the ground. Hunting the wild boar seems the most appropriate analogy. As far as a singular source of inspiration, I may not be a young earth creationist, but I do believe in the biblical Creator from whom we get whatever talents and inspiration we have... and everything else for that matter.
Athletes refer to the mental and physical sharpness which comes with grueling training and match practice. How do you ensure that your design wits remain sharp?
Obsession. Any artist, athlete, realtor, you name it, who wants to be at the top of their game has to love what they do and think about it constantly. When not creating, I’m looking through book stores, both brick and mortar and online, or I’m looking through trade magazines or watching tutorials. Gnomon Workshop and Massive Black are amazing resources for expanding artistic ability. Another good resource is a web site called DesignRelated.com, lots of talent to be inspired by there.
Behind the scenes, makeup artists work to sell performers and book cover designers likewise to sell books. How much feedback and interaction do you have with with an author and are you given copies of the books whose covers you design?
It’s unusual to work directly with an author, and it’s also unusual for an author to have the last word on how the cover ends up. My interaction occurs mostly with an art director. I used to be an art director, so I know how difficult their job can be. They act as buffers who get direction from in-house committees, the authors, the author’s spouses, and the publisher’s dog. They then condense the sometimes contradictory information and funnel it to me.

As far as getting copies of the books, some publishers are great about sending copies. Or I may find them at book stores.
As an abstract piece of a larger puzzle, how is the quality and success of a book’s cover measured by its stakeholders? (eg. some books are released with different covers)
One example of changing the cover is what the industry calls repackaging or repacks. It’s actually a fairly large part of my workload. For one reason or another a publisher will change out the the cover of an existing book. It’s often done with successful backlist books who’s sales have begun to fall off over time. Even though the content may not change, a fresh look can reinvigorate sales. It can be very intimidating when asked to repack a cover that’s already very successful and looks great. My friend Charles Brock did this when he repacked Henry Sene Yee’s cover for “The Resurrectionist”. Henry’s cover was beautiful, I don’t know what Charles was thinking when he accepted the job, but he pulled it off.

Books sometimes have different covers for different formats as well. The hard cover jacket, paperback, and mass market versions will often have separate designs. And sometimes a book that was expected to do well but doesn’t, will be given a facelift. If a book does well it’s because of the content, if it fails... maybe it was the cover.
The age old question regarding leaders can be asked of designers as well. Are they born or made (and is design aptitude bred or learned)?
I’ll defer to Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours rule on that one. I’m not sure which is more important, talent or time, but to be good at anything certainly requires both.
A picture is often described as being worth a thousand words. How much is a book cover’s design worth?
The price range is fairly broad. It mostly depends on the publisher you’re working with. Independent publishers and self published authors usually pay less than the big dogs but will hopefully allow for more creative freedom in return.
The paradox in your line of work, much like screen writers, is that while your work features prominently, you remain relatively obscure. Can you describe seeing your work on bookshelves, store shelves and websites?
I still get a kick out of seeing my work at book stores, websites and every now again on television. I admit whenever my wife and I are at someone else’s home, I scan their bookshelves looking for my covers. And I’m usually not humble enough to keep it to myself if I find one or two. My poor wife.
The irony of overweight doctors and bankrupt accountants is often made light of. As a person who designs book covers, do you find yourself reading much?
I’m not bankrupt at the moment, I am a bit pudgy, and I love to read. When schedule permits I like to spend an hour plus every morning reading, but usually not books I’ve designed. I wasn’t much of a reader until my late 20’s so I’m trying to make up for all the books I should have read in college. I can now say I’ve finished War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. Biographies are a favorite as well.
Technology has long been seen as both a threat to, and opportunity for, the book publishing industry. How will the popular advent of digitization, ebooks and self-publishing affect the cover design field and designers?
Back to the blasted Kindle huh' I actually don’t know how ebooks will affect the design industry. Like I stated earlier, the cover gives a book a literal face. Even when you buy a digital book, it still has a cover image. As far as self publishing, there’s certainly been an explosion on that front. I’m actually kind of scared of self published authors. My friend and fellow designer, Chris Tobias, posted an article in his November 2008 blog entitled “Five Reasons you Might Want to Avoid Self-Publishers”. He said it better than I ever could. I’ve had wonderful experiences with SPAs but I try to be pretty careful before accepting those jobs which have become more and more numerous.
Straw Polls at strawpolling.com
Kirk DouPonce's responses to straw polls at strawpolling.com / See how they compare to the consensus.
Would you rather a double portion of luck or a double portion of courage?
a double portion of courage
Would you rather a time machine or a teleporting machine?
a time machine
Which do you prefer? Raindrops on roses,  whiskers on kittens,  bright copper kettles,  warm woolen mittens or  brown paper packages tied up with strings.
warm woolen mittens
Would you rather have a flower, an insect or a library named after you?
an insect
If you were a professional athlete, would you rather be bad enough to be famous or average enough to be anonymous?
average enough to be anonymous
Would you rather be stuck in a booby trapped elevator with MacGyver or Batman?
If Superman and the Incredible Hulk were to arm wrestle, who would win?
the Incredible Hulk