The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Nate Salciccioli


Thanks to blogging and Twitter I’ve been lucky enough to connect with a group of people in the book trade that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. Their enthusiasm and willingness to share their experiences is in stark contrast to the traditional reluctance of people in the industry to talk meaningfully (or positively) about what they do (without being three sheets to the wind).

Book designers in particular have an amazing online dialogue about their work and so over the next couple of months I’m planning a series of interviews with some of the designers whose projects have recently caught my eye.

First up on the docket is Nate Salciccioli. Nate is a graphic designer at The DesignWorks Group — purveyors of fine book covers since 1996 — and the chap behind the excellent Paradox of Awesome (it’s a long story and you probably had to be there…).

Even though he is only 23 (according to his website), Nate’s work has already been recognized by Print, Graphis, CMYK Magazine and elsewhere.

What attracted you to a career in book design?

Like many things, my career in book design was accidental. I’ll admit that, while in design school, I had neither considered nor seen many book covers. It certainly hadn’t entered my school-addled brain that I would (or could) pursue it exclusively. That all changed when I landed an internship with The DesignWorks Group, which I deem one of the most providential events of my life thus far. Everyone here is such a blast to work with, and I think falling in love with what they do here led to my love of book cover design.

Briefly, could you tell me a little about The DesignWorks Group?

Surely. Our little studio has been in the industry going on 14 years. We work almost exclusively in book cover design, with a few identities, websites, and movie posters thrown in for good measure. All told, there are 6 designers who call DWG home, and some amazing production and management people. From what I’ve gathered in talking with friends, the atmosphere at DWG is pretty unique; we love to collaborate, love to have fun, and LOVE the Shat (for those of you who are uninitiated, that’s William Shatner).

Something interesting is that none of our clientele is local. We work with publishers in NYC, Chicago, Nashville, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Boston, and lots of other equally spaced out locations. This creates an interesting disconnect, which I think actually has helped our studio reach out through the internet with platforms like FaceOut Books, design:related, and Twitter.

How long have you worked there?

I’ve been working here since July 1, 2007. Has it really been over two years? I’m still waiting for two 30 inch monitors, if anyone is reading this…

Is there a ‘house’ style?

Thankfully, no. Our range of clients is so diverse that I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice to aim towards anything as unified as a ‘house style.’ All the designers working here are deathly afraid of repeating themselves (in a good way). I do have to make a concerted effort to expose myself to lots of different kinds of design aesthetics to avoid getting a NATE look. Which reminds me, I need to stop using Futura…

Is there much collaboration between designers at DWG?

We’re always talking to each other. Many times a day I’m showing different people what I’m working on, and in turn taking a look at their screen. I can’t tell you how valuable this is in keeping my brain from fizzling. As a team, we’ll have brainstorming sessions when someone wants help in coming up with concepts. These concept generation sessions (CGSs??) always enrich the thinking on any given project.

Could you describe your design process?

Ah. You had to ask. Can I plead the fifth? Does ‘Plead the Fifth’ even make sense in Canada?

To be honest, my process varies from project to project. Sometimes I’ll read the book, do some sketches, find something I like, find a great image, create some brilliant typography, and get an ecstatic response from the client. SOMETIMES. More often, I’ll read and reread the given material from the client, roll some ideas around in my head for a while, and struggle for about an hour in Photoshop until I gain some momentum. If that doesn’t work, I run to the local convenience store for an ice cold Coca-Cola. I can’t stress enough the role of caffeine in graphic design.

What are your favourite projects to work on?

I love digging my teeth into a good fiction title. To me, fiction affords the most open-ended challenge: design something unique that gives an insight into the story. It’s more than problem solving. The art director I’m working with at the publisher plays a huge role in setting the tone for the project: Are we going for something brilliant, or for something palatable by Danielle Steele fanatics?

Some of my favorite projects lately have been a book about zombies, a reference series for Barnes and Noble, and several university press projects. I can’t get enough projects for university presses, by the way. Always a fun challenge.

What are the most challenging?

The biggest challenge is trying to continue innovating after several rounds with a project. When your ideas keep getting shut down, you have to find the place in your head that refuses to give up. On the flipside, it can be very rewarding to emerge from a bout like this with a cover that makes everyone happy (including me); it happens like that, sometimes.

What do you think makes a good cover design?

I’ve discovered that a good cover is more than just “oh wow, look at that neato type” or “shee whiz, no title on the cover!” It’s about communication in the end. I’ve admittedly produced designs that I thought looked great, but didn’t speak to the audience at all. If a cover can effectively introduce the book to its intended audience while still looking like a million bucks, it’s a good cover.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I have a morning routine that runs me through the gamut of book cover design sites (of which, happily, there are PLENTY), design inspiration sites, and blogs. I also have a running folder of lovely bits of design I find in different places. FFFFound is a great resource for visual stimuli, as are sites like and The Book Cover Archive. Just walking into a Barnes and Noble is a wonderful way to build enthusiasm for book design, as you can actually TOUCH them.

Who else is doing interesting work right now?

Some of my favorites to watch right now are Brian Chojnowski, Jason Heuer, Megan Wilson, Ben Wiseman, Christopher Brand, Jacob Covey, Helen Yentus, and Adam Johnson. There are so many talented designers working in book design, it boggles my mind.

As a young designer, what do you think the future holds for book cover design?

Some older and MUCH smarter people have told me there will always be a market for book cover design. I guess I’ll have to take their word for it. For me, the skills I develop working in books could translate easily to many other graphic design facets, which brings some comfort. I don’t expect to be holding a cardboard sign that says “Have Mouse, will Kern for Food” any time soon.

Thanks Nate!

You can find more of Nate’s work at his website and design:related portfolio.

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    Nate along with The DesignWorks Group are creating some of the best cover designs out there today.


  2. Nate the Great. Solid eye. Strong, concept driven work. I do not think there is a cover I have seen come out of the guy that i do not like. I am glad that there are young designers out there giving some of the old-timers a run for their money. It means that design is doing well and good.

  3. Loved the interview–wit, humor and widsom expressed.
    The growth in the talent of this designer is crazy. There is a good element of traditional and creative design in so many of his products.
    Loved hearing of the atmosphere of the team at DW. This is a rare commodity.
    I look forward to seeing more of Nate’s work.

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  6. Hi Nate and to all involved in this interview. Nate the great, so is this a nickname? He is also really kind and helpful too!

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