The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Ingsu Liu, W.W. Norton


Having spent a lot of my life in the UK, I wasn’t particularly familiar with venerable New York independent publisher  W.W. Norton and Co. until my stint at Toronto’s (now doomed) Pages Books and Magazines where their books were frequently on tables.

Although I left Pages a few years ago, I was recently reminded of the breadth and quality of Norton’s books — and, of course, their covers — by their decision to archive their book cover designs on Flickr.

In a roundabout way, the launch of the design archive also put me in touch with Steve Colca, Norton’s online marketing manager. He in turn, hooked me up with Ingsu Liu who kindly agreed to talk about the design process at Norton for this week’s Q&A.

Currently V.P. art director at W.W. Norton, Ingsu Liu graduated from the graphic design program at Pratt Institute in 1988 and began her career at Penguin, William Morrow and Vintage Books before accepting a position at Norton in 1997.

Briefly, describe your role at Norton

I oversee the hardcover jacket imprint.

How many designers are on your team?

I oversee two in-house art directors; together we collaborate with various outside freelance designers, illustrators, art researchers and photographers.

Approximately how many covers does Norton require each season?

About 55 to 75 books each season. We do 2 seasons, for a total of roughly 125 books a year.

Is there a ‘house’ style?

I certainly hope not. I believe it’s most beneficial to be diverse, so that each book jacket can have it’s own voice. This helps to keep the list fresh and my job more fun.

Do you approach fiction and non-fiction differently?

It really depends on what the book requires, but the basic process is the same. First I talk to the editor, publisher, and marketing… then drawing from those conversations, the book brief, the author’s writing, the current market place, the comparative titles and what the book is about, I then decide which direction the jacket should go and set out to assign the best designer or artists for that title. My focus is on what’s best for the particular title, everything else comes naturally after.

Which books provide the biggest challenges?

The titles that no one can agree how best to market the book and therefore what sort of jacket it should have. Also, big print runs where there is more at stake. Then, there’s the occasional book where the author’s 6 year old daughter gets to dictate the jacket design.

What do you look for in a cover design?

Craftsmanship, mood… but a strong concept will always rule the day. Also, the surprise factor is pure gold; nothing is worse than the “same design, different day” effect. A design should, at the very least, have its own point of view.

How are final covers decided upon?

After I have decided on who is best to work on the cover design, I start presenting the designs at our jacket committee meetings. There we narrow it down to one final choice. Then — when there is not a six year old involved — the author, the author’s agent, the editor, the marketing and the publisher all have to sign off on one final jacket design. Sometimes, after we finally get all these diverse interests on the same boat, a single book buyer can kill our jacket and we start the whole process all over again.

Do you think there’s a tension between producing creative covers and what will play in the market?

See the last sentence in my answer above. That said, we are constantly being subjected to various subjective opinions. It is my job, when I can, to filter through it all and to use the good advice and to discard the bad… and unfortunately, the folks with the bad advice often have the loudest voice. See Dick Cheney.

Have you any recent favourites?

Obsession: A History by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago)

Milk by Barbara deWilde (A.A. Knopf)

Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park by Leigh-Anne Mullock

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Mother (Penguin Classics)

Waiting For The Barbarians by Paul Buckley (Penguin)

Sedaris by David Drummond (University Of Minnesota Press)

The Paranoid Style by Brett Yasko (Vintage)

The list goes on and on, and on….

Do you discern any current trends in American book cover design?

Most obvious is the rebirth of interest in comic artists. Whether it is a whole book or just a jacket image, I never get tired of seeing great comic art. Growing up in Taiwan, I spent countless hours lost in thousands of comic books, it is what inspired my interest in art and has kept my fascination to this day.

Also it’s nice to see so many designers and artists collaborating so that hand-done art is being combined beautifully with all these hi-tech designs and applications. This mix of raw and slick often creates the most interesting packages.

Are they any designers whose work you particularly admire?

Sagmeister, Will Staehle, Evan Gaffney, Louise Fili, Peter Mendelsund, John Gall, Paul Buckley, David Drummond, Patti Ratchford, David High and Gabriele Wilson. The fact is there are too many to list…

Are there any book or design blogs you read regularly?

I mostly still enjoy going to the book stores to be inspired, but Eye Magazine, the annuals from Print, Communication Art, AIGA, and the Type Directors Club are the good old standby’s for me. For blogs, I like FaceOut Books, The Book Design Review, Design: RelatedThe Book Cover Archive, and most recently The Casual Optimist. And now that you’ve interviewed me, your blog is totally awesome!

With the growth in e-books, do you think cover design will continue to be important?

I very much hope so. I love holding a beautifully produced book in my hands. But the fact is that one must embrace the future — for it’s coming whether you want it to or not.

Thanks Ingsu!

With special thanks to Steve Colca, Manager of Internet Marketing at W. W. Norton & Co. for arranging the interview


Since originally posted on August 4th, 2009, some of the images accompanying this interview have been changed. The previous images were my selections from the W.W. Norton Design Archive on Flickr chosen to illustrate the work of some of the designers mentioned in the Q & A and to reflect the diversity of books designed and published by the team at W.W. Norton. To avoid confusion, all the current images were art directed by Ingsu Liu.

Design credit for the individual covers included in this post:

Flash Fiction Forward Design by Rodrigo Corral
The Meaning Of Night Design by Patti Ratchford
Busted Design by Jon Grey
What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? Design by Evan Gaffney
Stitches Design by Paul Buckley

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  1. Awesome post Dan. Would love to see more more Q&A’s with design types.

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