Interview by Indi Davies

How Penguin Random House’s book covers are born: Meet the Vintage design team

As one of almost 250 creatively independent imprints and publishing houses owned by Penguin Random House worldwide, Vintage Books is a name that graces many household bookshelves – whether it’s a popular classic from the likes of Virginia Woolf, the Brönte sisters or Shakespeare, to recent bestseller Sapiens. Penguin Random House was formed in 2013 when the iconic Penguin Books merged with Random House, and now employs more than 10,000 people across five continents, including 2,000 in the UK. We travelled to the sixth floor of their offices in London’s Pimlico to meet Vintage’s creative director Suzanne Dean, who has spent the past 20 years designing covers for them. For Suzanne, a great visual should capture both the text and a reader’s imagination in equal measure – and this includes plenty of group trips to galleries and events for inspiration. But it’s not all print and paper samples: Suzanne’s team are now embracing new formats that catch the eye of contemporary audiences, such as animation to be used at events or on social media. From futuristic texts to scaling east London walls with giant posters, we find out how Vintage are using whatever means it takes to give time-honoured classics a modern twist.

Outside Penguin Random House’s Pimlico-based office

Overview

Our role is to help sell an author’s book by designing the best book cover possible – something that catches the eye and engages a potential reader as creatively as possible. All of our work is book-covers related, but occasionally we’ll design the text of the book, or help with marketing on big animation projects.

Every month we have a meeting where titles are briefed in by the editors of the books. I then run through all these briefs with the design team. A brief might go to a certain designer because they are best suited to the genre, or they may have a strong relationship with a certain author, but I believe that a designer will produce their best cover when they are inspired by and passionate about their work. The rest of the briefs in that month are divided amongst the designers.

A designer will be juggling about 30 covers at different stages of this process at one time. They have five months to produce a visual, which is shown at the cover meeting with the editorial, sales and marketing teams. Once approved in-house, the cover then goes to the author and agent for their approval.

“I believe a designer will produce their best cover when they are inspired by and passionate about their work.”

Inside the Vintage design department
Inside the Vintage design department
Inside the Vintage design department

The Work

Recently we designed campaign posters for Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny, which offers a comparison of present-day personality politics and the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. I approached the head of the Graphic Design course at Kingston University, Rose Gridneff, to see if the students were willing to get involved. From that point, both the students and the in-house designers were then briefed and given a few days to complete their posters. For the Vintage design team, we suddenly had a very different proposition in scale from our usual book cover; when a poster was printed out to actual size it covered the wall of my office.

Together we published the book in its entirety as a row of posters in east London – 28 in total, 20 of which represent individual chapters. It was the sort of project that benefited from different voices, so each of the chapters were interpreted by a different designer to imbue every poster with its own ‘visual character’.

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Cover designs for Virginia Woolf

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Campaign posters for Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny, designed with students from Kingston University

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Campaign posters for Timothy Snyder’s new book On Tyranny, designed with students from Kingston University

Every six months, the design team also get given nine titles from the Vintage Books backlist. These will be put into groups according to their editorial teams, for example Vintage Futures or Vintage Past. We then have an open brief to do as we please within a tight budget. Not long ago we produced our lenticular series for Vintage Futures. Every edition could be animated with a sheet of acetate (attached to the inside cover of each title), and each featured striking, graphic front cover imagery to suit the futuristic nature of the series.

We also produced an animation for Penguin Random House Presents (our annual conference). Animation is being used more and more as a way of publicising book titles, and is always a huge learning curve for us. This year we celebrate ten years of Vintage Classics, so we chose this as our project. Just as we started discussing our approach to the project, we went on a team trip to visit an exhibition of William Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery, which was amazing. It became the inspiration and starting point for our approach to the Vintage Classics animation project.

Designs for the Vintage Minis collection
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Suzanne worked with artist Marion de Man for Dybek’s short stories covers (which used over 60 pencils)

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The design for ‘Baltimore Girl’ used an old botanical drawing of a peony to give the impression of springtime in Baltimore

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Cover artwork produced together with woodcut artist Vladimir Zimakov

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The Vintage Futures series, featuring lenticular covers that animate when acetate is moved across the surface

The Team

On the team we have one deputy, four senior designers, one designer, one part-time designer, one junior designer, one picture researcher and a studio manager. We commission freelancers as and when we need them. This is usually when extra projects get added last minute to an already very busy schedule.

When recruiting, I look for someone who is talented, passionate about books and loves reading. They need to be resilient and calm (a lot of visuals get rejected) and fit within the existing team. In the past we have taken on interns, and every year the winning student in our Student Design Award also secure a month’s paid placement in the design studio.

“When recruiting, I look for someone who is talented, passionate about books and loves reading.”

I would say our picture researcher, Lily Richards, has the most unusual job role at the studio. She finds pictures for some of the covers and can find herself on a quite a detective hunt, trying to track down a photographer. This has got harder recently, as many pictures on the internet are not credited.

The team at work
Inside the office
Inside the studio

Environment and Culture

Our studio is on the sixth floor of our offices. The sales, publicity, editors and marketing teams are all on a different floor. This means we won’t get distracted while working through cover ideas, which is great, as I want the designers to feel they can experiment freely. While it’s certainly not flash or modern, the office itself is light and airy – we have space and our own desks, and a great library of reference books on the shelves around us, which is essential.

I am a great believer in the importance of the designers getting out of the office to see exhibitions, talks and student shows. Inspiration is so important when you have a high turnaround of projects. The team take it in turns to suggest an event or exhibition they feel the group would benefit seeing. It might be months later that a designer will use what they have seen as inspiration for a cover design, but these visits are useful. Input leads to output.


If you’re currently studying, you can apply for The Penguin Random House Student Design Award 2018 before March 6, by entering here.

The team at work
Photographing the finished covers
Inside the office
Inside the office
The team at work

Photography by Sophie Stafford
Interview by Indi Davies
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Mention Virginia Woolf