Hi and welcome to Throwback Thursday. Today I’d love to take you back to one of favourite posts of #Orentober 2019: my talk with Mark Swan a.k.a. kid-ethic, a.k.a. the brains behind the unique, sometimes quirky but always beautiful Orenda book jackets:
Hi Mark, welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove!
I’ve had a few authors over, and I’m meeting Karen Sullivan a.k.a. Momma Orenda here very soon, but I’ve never had a designer here and I’m truly chuffed that I get to pick your brain!
You run kid-ethic, a design studio. Your website tells me that you’ve been in the creative industry for nearly 20 years and that you work predominately in the publishing, film and music industry. Have you always wanted to do what you do now, is this a childhood dream come true?
I always loved drawing as a child and collected comic books. Creating images was always how my brain was wired so I went to art college and then became an illustrator. I soon realised that I wasn’t a strong enough draftsman to cut it as a comic book artist so moved more into photography and montage to create illustrations which was very liberating. After graduation I worked in a few different creative fields but found that book cover design was a way for me to explore many different styles and mediums in the same industry. As far as living the dream goes I think that if I went back in time now and talked to my younger self drawing in his room and explained that I’m doing the same thing he is doing now and being paid I think the younger me would be pretty happy with that, as indeed the old me is now.
That’s wonderful! And I do feel the love for what you do is reflected in your work. So let’s say Orenda need a cover design for a new book. How do they go about that? Do you get a blurb, a few key words, the entire book, is the author involved? Or is it different for every book?
I usually get a quite a small synopsis for the book before I start designing. This can come from Karen, the author or both. This seems to work for us as I do not get bogged down in details that may not be relevant to the reader at first glance and just concentrate on the core of the story. From here I start sketching out ideas and doing picture researching. I then ‘take a cover for a walk’ as I call it. One idea spawns another then another. It’s a creative flurry until I have enough designs to send to Karen. From here Karen will send it out to authors, agents and marketing to name a few. This will then lead to discussion and feedback and we will go from there until a cover is approved.
Do you always make various designs at once?
On the whole I always make at least 3 designs. There have been a couple of instances where I have produced only one and said that’s how I see it but this has been for covers that follow an existing series style. Hydra and In the Absence of Miracles are two of these that spring to mind. I read the brief and hopefully images form in my mind or I will start designing with a vague direction and see what happens. These images can be very specific such as when I first read the brief for Kjell Ola Dahl. The circle with his name designed itself in my head as soon as I saw his name and then I made it. Sometimes this is not the case and covers designs will be less immediate.
You also work with other publishers. Is the process the same?
I would say there are similarities but there is no one like Karen out there with her passion and trust in the people who work with her. I say with her because that how you feel as part of “Team Orenda”. You work with Karen not for her. It can be quite hair raising at times but you know you are part of something very special. Something that everybody feels proud of and passionate. This extends to the reader.
It sure does! There are similarities between covers in a series, for example the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy, Johana Gustawsson’s Roy and Castells series, they all have matching covers. Do you have a different process for books in series?
A design format that will work across several books is always in your mind when you know you are doing a series. You need something identifiable to that author but also something that fits with the Orenda style.
What kind of work do you do for the film and music industry? In what way does it differ from your work in publishing?
90% of my career has been diluting stories into single images. When I left university I was an illustrator for magazines and newspapers. Turning the article into a single illustration. I then moved into book cover design and after that film poster design as it seems like a good fit. Film poster design differs as you will usually be given stills from the film to create your design with. Obviously you also have the directors aesthetic to guide the style of the poster. With book covers you are creating a picture inspired by words and genre. This will give me more room to explore imagery and give the design more of my own stamp. Music packaging is a whole different beast and there is seldom an intended narrative to work to unless it is a concept album. Here you are reacting to sound and how they make you feel and what pictures they conjure in your mind. What journey they take you on. This is a much more subjective process. Much of the music I design for has a soundtrack like quality to it so this makes this more natural for me. It’s a whole new way for me to work and think. One of which I’m still getting to grips with and building confidence in which makes it very exciting.
I’m not a creative person at all in terms of drawing and design etc. but as a translator and a blogger I am creative with words (or I hope to be anyway ?). I’ve noticed I have to be “in the zone” to be able to write something that’s worth reading. How does that work for you? Do you have a routines, rituals, a drink, music, … to help you get the creative juices flowing?
I am a lucky enough to be a full time designer working for many differs publishers. There are indeed times when the mind can grind to a halt or the creative drive fails you. There are many ways to help the process along. Indeed, as you mentioned, music is one. I listen to music all day everyday. Sometimes stepping away from a project and working on something else can give prospective or going for a walk. Watching a film, just taking yourself out of the project for a time. I am very lucky to work 5 mins from the beach so a stroll in the fresh air away from the screen can be just as important to a covers development than staring at a screen hoping for something to stick. Like most creatives I never truly turn off, the brain is always ticking, even when I’m asleep.
Can you estimate what the average duration is from start to finish, assignment to finished book cover design?
It really does differ from project to project. Sometimes you nail a brief in the first round. Sometimes not. I’ve had project for publishers take anything from a couple of hours to a couple of years to complete.
Wow, okay! What do you like most about your job? Are there any disadvantages, or parts you enjoy less?
That’s a very interesting question and one I’ve never really thought about. It sound obvious but I like designing. Seeing something in your head and making it a reality. Or not knowing what to do and surprising yourself. A big one for me is getting positive feedback from an author. That really makes a huge difference to a project. Authors can put a huge amount in to writing a book. Not just from the creative process but things that are happening in their lives during the books production that seep into the books and their memory of writing it. It’s an amazingly personal journey. To know that you have done the book justice in their eyes is a real joy. What I like least is the days you don’t want to design but have to. The days you don’t want to sit in front of a computer. Those can be hard but this is a natural thing in any job I would imagine. Some days you just aren’t in the mood. There are also occurrences when a majority of people in the process of approving a cover are on board but 1 person isn’t so a cover gets killed. That can be frustrating but you have to hold onto the idea that you have done a cover design you are proud of and that’s enough for you.
Have you created all the Orenda Books covers? Do you have a favourite?
I think there are 4 or 5 I’ve not done. It’s a very rare privilege for a designer to have such a creative stamp on a publisher and one I am very grateful for and proud of. Favourite wise, Six Stories is one. I can still look at that now and not want to change anything. I’m really happy with the whole series. Attend is another one I really like. I took the photograph for that one myself and I always get a real kick out of designing a cover from scratch. Also knowing it was for West made a difference. He’s a real talent and I loved how he submitted it to Karen with her not knowing it was his novel.
I had a little poll a while back, asking people what their favourite Orenda cover is and for most people it’s one (or more) of the Six Stories books. I love the cover of Attend, it’s so simple, yet striking! And I had no idea you took that photo! Are you a reader yourself?
Strangely not really. Or not enough of one. It’s not through a lack of desire or trying. I find it hard to make the time and also when you have been staring at tiny pixels all days the swap to tiny words at the end of the day usually results in me nodding off after about 5 pages. The last book I read was Lanny which I very much enjoyed. That said I am a massive consumer of literature in the form of audio books. I love them. I find I can do even the most mundane task with a smile on my face if I have someone with a great voice reading me a fantastic story.
I’ll have you know that listening to audio books counts as reading, Mark! Well, some might disagree but I’m a fan myself! To round up our little chat, is there an anecdote you can tell me? Something weird or funny or memorable during your years with Orenda?
Not sure if I can tell this story but I’m sure enough time has passed. Somehow the first print run of Six Stories was printed without Matt’s name on the front cover. After the initial shock myself, Karen and West had a meeting to see how best to handle the situation. This involved a fair few ideas including handwriting Matt’s name on the cover ourselves or applying stickers with his name to the covers. In the end we correctly opted to go with it, or ‘Style it out’ as West put it, as it really fitted with the theme of the book, a story told from the perspective of six different people and not knowing who was telling the truth. By not having the author name on the cover really seems to elevate that concept and even made the cover more sinister. I also feel that being the phenomenal talent that Matt is that having the first print run with this unique error would make the books a great collectors item when he becomes to top selling author he deserves to be. I did have the pleasure to meet him after the books printing and he was lovely about it. He even requested that I sign his copy of the book which I did where his name should have been.
Okay, so there are some readers out there with a limited edition Six Stories copy who might not even realise it! Thanks for this little look behind the curtain, Mark!