The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Paul Buckley, Penguin US


Photo by Erika Larsen. Design by Paul Buckley

It is not every day that I get an email from the Vice President Executive Creative Director of Penguin US, so it was something of a surprise when Paul Buckley sent me a note a few weeks ago about a book cover design mentioned in my interview with his wife Ingsu Liu.

I had been conspicuously unable to locate the image online and Paul was able to help. But it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so I asked the Brooklyn-based designer if he would be willing to do a Q & A about his work as well. Again, much to my surprise, not only did Paul say yes, he managed get his answers back to me in record time (with annotations and links included!)…

Of Mice and Men

How did you come to book design?

I went to SVA on an illustration scholarship, and was very intent on becoming an illustrator. While other parents were giving their kids children’s books, my father was giving me illustration annuals. But I supported myself during my college years working for various NYC design studios as a designer, learning through those around me… and at the same time pursuing freelance illustration assignments as well – basically learning both crafts simultaneously through different venues. Right after graduation I took a 3 month road trip spending my savings, and thus came home to Greenpoint needing an income. A studio manager at one of the studios I worked in during my early college years suggested me to her sister who was working at NAL/Plume/Dutton, as they needed a Junior Designer… I landed the position with a portfolio that was equal parts design and illustration. Though in the beginning I was very hardcore about becoming the best painter I could be, I quickly fell in love with designing book covers and never looked back… within two years we merged with Penguin. Though I’ve become far too busy (and lazy!) to pull out the oils and actually paint something, I did manage to get a few simple ink drawings in the Society of Illustrators this year. I realize these will pale in comparison to 99% of everything else done by the true working pros in the annual, but it was still a kick and an honor to have my work chosen for inclusion.

The World According to Garp

Can you describe your role at Penguin?

I act as a Creative Director overseeing a sizeable staff and many many projects. My Penguin publishing team is very open to me and my guys pitching ideas and we nicely act as an overall creative team, in a way that editorial and art together collaborate to create nice projects — most recently I’m directing a cover design book where we have the authors commenting on their covers, and a new series named Penguin Ink, where the world’s leading tattoo artist’s do covers for me. Recently in the stores is the gorgeous collaboration of Roseanne Serra with Ruben Toledo… this was all Roseanne’s brilliant art direction, and I had nothing to do with it — but it is gorgeous Penguin project that is very much worth checking out.

Art by Duke Riley
Waiting for the BarbariansArt by Chris Conn

How many imprints do you oversee?


Does each imprint have a particular design style?

Yes, each imprint is very unique unto itself, as each Publisher/Editorial team brings their own style, as does each Art Director. In my group, Roseanne Serra and I collaborate on Penguin paperbacks, and to a lesser degree, with the Viking imprint as well. Roseanne art directs Pam Dorman books. Joe Perez smartly art directs Portfolio and Sentinel, which are brilliant business and political imprints. Darren Haggar art directs Penguin Press overseeing the packaging for literary giants like Thomas Pynchon and Zadie Smith… and while not it’s own imprint per se, Maggie Payette Art Directs our gorgeous poetry series.

The Jan Tschichold Penguin paperbacks are design icons in the UK. Is there a sense of that legacy within Penguin Group USA?

Very much so. We all have quite a few Tschichold books on our shelves. The UK Penguin art department, under the Art Direction of Jim Stoddart and John Hamilton, does an incredibly beautiful job of keeping that legacy alive.

How is American book cover design different from the UK?

I don’t know that it is all that different. In fact, Art Directors over here, and Art Directors over there, are hiring the same art and design talents on each side of the Atlantic.

Do you discern any current trends in American book cover design? Yes… very nicely a resurgence of designers and illustrators who do both the design and illustration; the whole package. Jaya Miceli, Chris Brand, Jon Gray, Gregg Kulick, Jamie Keenan, Rodrigo Corral, Ben Wiseman, Jennifer Wang, Tal Goretsky, etc – these are the folks creating the personally unique covers of today that will be the design icons of tomorrow.

Art by Chris Ware

How did the Penguin Graphic Classics come about?

We do a handful of what we call Penguin Graphic Classics Deluxe packages every list, and when it was time do one for Voltaire’s Candide, I handed it off to Helen Yentus who was in my group at the time. Helen wanted to work with Chris Ware on it, and off it went with us all happy that he accepted the assignment. When Chris’s sketch came in, it just sort of blew everyone away… Up to that point we’d never had anyone grab editorial control of a cover that way… Chris had gone hog wild and wrote all his own copy and illustrated and designed the living hell out of every square inch of this cover from flap to flap. It took forever to make its way around the packaging meeting table with everyone grabbing hold of it, reading it and laughing out loud. A short time later, our Penguin Publisher Kathryn Court declared that we needed to do more of these. Kathryn really nurtures good art and design and is one of the reasons I’ve been here so long.

Cover by Tomer Hanuka with design by Paul Buckley and Tomer Hanuka

Art by Anders Nilsen
Art by Charles Burns
Art by Roz Chast

How did you match the artists with the titles?

The titles were given to us by the Penguin Classics editorial team, and Helen and I would sit in my office surrounded by comic books and simply have fun matching this artist with that title.

Art by Michael Cho. Design by Paul Buckley

Are their plans to expand the series? What new covers can we look forward to in the future?

We do about 6 a year and I think we are all comfortable with that number at the moment. I just finished White Noise with Michael ChoMoby Dick by Tony Millionaire just came out, as did Huck Finn by Lilli Carré, and Ethan Frome by Jeffrey Brown. In the near future, I’d really love to do something with Jim Rugg, Jeff Lemire, Mike Mignola, David Small, and I still hold out hope that one day Crumb will actually say to me “damnit you pesky bastard… ok, ok, I’ll do it”.

Art by Tony Millionaire

Art by Lilli Carre. Design by Paul Buckley

Do you still design yourself?

All the time… mostly in the evenings after everyone has gone home and I can focus without the constant distractions of the work day. My greatest hits are posted on my website.

Art by David Byrne. Design by Paul Buckley. 
Pigmented foil stamped on linen cloth
Art by Will Eisner. Design by Paul Buckley. 
Art direction by Ingsu Liu & Albert Tang
 Photo by Fredrik Broden. Design by Paul Buckley

Could you describe your design process?

I start each project with the hope that I’m going to do something unusual; and then I try my best to do just that — read the material and find a visually unique way to interpret it. I tend to go either very loud, or very subdued and moody. I do a ton of comps for every cover I work on — sometimes, 20 or more to explore what I’m thinking and all the tangents that come along during the process — I get nuts when freelancers send me two or three comps. I’ll show 3-5 of what I think are the best and receive comments and direction on those from editorial… when discussing why a designer did this or that, I think what people commenting on book covers seem to gloss over is that the publishers and editors have far more at stake than the cover designer — they have committed sums of money and must answer to the house and the author to make this book a success — so they are very strong about what they think the cover should be and nothing is being printed without their full consent.

Here are a few rejects from the pile… I’m not saying these covers are better for the individual book, than what got printed… maybe the books would have tanked with these covers… but they do illustrate how in-house visions do not always sync:

Upper left: art by Paul Buckley. Upper right: various stock.
Lower Left: art by Amy Bennett with descending placards by Paul Buckley.
Lower Right: painting by Keniche Hoshine with added stock image.
(see final cover here)
Various antique endpapers combined with altered ebay images
and antique portrait of feral child.
(see final cover here)

Do you approach fiction and non-fiction differently?

Often, yes. Fiction needs a more peripheral approach where I’m looking to capture a mood to reflect the book’s tone, whereas non-fiction often needs you to stare it directly face on and state precisely what the topic is.

What are your favourite books to work on?

Any title where the Editor and Publisher are open.

What are the most challenging?

Any title where the Editor and Publisher are nervous.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Everywhere. My staff blows me away daily. My wife shows me beautiful work constantly. Editors show me stuff. Blogs like yours so nicely showcase how much great work is out there. Friends deluge my inbox with artist links. Illustrators. Photographers. Fine Artists. Music. Furniture. All talent is inspiring. Cruising Flickr and the web in general has me bookmarking new people daily, and I can spend hours google imaging the most absurd things that always tangent me to the greatest places. I found and purchased an image for a difficult book cover project recently just because I decided to google “leucistic squirrel” after I noticed a few in Prospect Park. I have no idea how we all existed before the internet.

What do you look for in a designer’s portfolio?

A unique talent. Distinction.

Front cover art by Frank Miller. Design by Paul Buckley

What does the future hold for book cover design?

There will be a market that just wants/needs to download the material for reading purposes, and there will be a market that is looking for an object. What Penguin does with the Graphic Classics is a great example– some student will download Gravity’s Rainbow cheaply, while an older Thomas Pynchon or Frank Miller fan with a little more cash in their pocket will want the beautiful book/object. So I believe the cover design market will shrink in that way. Textbooks and travel guides will go digital first as there is no real reason to carry all that in your backpack or pay for all that book production. For digital readers, big budget fiction and non fiction titles will have moving covers, more like mini movie trailers. If Grisham were still with us, his future digital reader cover would be something akin to us looking at a murky black screen… the reader would hear running footsteps and ragged breathing… then a loud shot rings out, and a big red splotch hits your screen and drips to form the title type. Then one blurb after another flies across the screen and after a moment Grisham himself pops up in the corner thanking you for purchasing his new book and asking if you’d like to peruse his backlist titles… and click this link if you’d like to pay an extra dollar to help our troops in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq. Interior-wise, there will be tons of product placement… not necessarily for gratuitous reasons; but because people, places and things are mentioned on every page in every book be it fiction or non fiction; and if folks desire a more interactive read that really helps them get into the book in a different way, then it’s possible there will be quick jump links to everything – for instance… if in this book, the character is having lunch in Balthazar and then running off to the Standard Hotel for an ongoing affair… then why not have Balthazar and The Standard pay a small fee to the publisher to provide these links; this seemingly free advertising? Big money to had there. I reserve judgement as to whether any of this is a good thing or a bad thing… but as publishing goes more digital, I think it’s naive to think these things wont happen to books just as they happen everywhere else.

Thank you very much!

You bet.

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  1. What a colourful post! Well done.
    Reading your Q&As remind me of what I loved about publishing.

  2. Thanks Christianne. :-)

  3. Wonderful interview–thanks! I’m hanging out to see more of the Penguin Ink designs. Mr Buckley has said that one would have a Maori tattoo design, which should have a pretty amazing visual impact.

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