The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with David Gee


I am somewhat in awe of Canadian designer David Gee. Not only does he fashion stylishly left-field book covers for independent publishers and major houses, he is also willing to scorch individual business cards by hand using vice-grips and a blowtorch (see above).

And he does it all part-time. While holding down a day job.

To an aspiring generalist like me, knowing that David manages to work in more than one creative field is incredibly inspirational. And, as most of us struggle to do to even one thinking well, it is simply breathtaking that David’s work — in both his chosen fields — is brilliant and apparently effortless.

David and I chatted about his designs — and the day job — over email earlier this month…

How did you did get into designing books?

A friend of mine, Jason Anderson, wrote his first novel a few years back and he asked if I would be a ‘careful reader’ and give him some feedback on his manuscript. He later dropped a bomb on me asking if I would design the cover, too. Anyway, the publisher, ECW Press, loved the final cover and they eventually asked me for more and it all kind of snowballed from there. This cover ended up in a Quill & Quire article, an Applied Arts design annual and even GQ Italia. After a year or two of doing freelance stuff for ECW, I just started emailing other publishers and I got a lot of “Yeah, we loved that Showbiz cover!” responses.

What are the pros and cons of designing part time?

Well, the upside is that I don’t burn out too easily. Since my inbox is rarely overflowing, I can take my time with projects and make sure they get the attention they deserve or in some cases, might not deserve. Also, I find that I can still bring a bit of an outsider’s approach to my work. The cons include not being able to build up my portfolio as quickly as I’d like or log the hours that certain jobs end up requiring.

Approximately how many titles do you work on a year?

Roughly twenty or so titles a year. I don’t turn down any work at all, if I can help it. There are the usual pre-catalogue rushes but, for the most part, it’s manageably and workably steady, all year long.

Who are some of the publishers you’ve worked with?

My Main clients include ECW Press, HarperCollins, W.W. Norton, Penguin and Hamish Hamilton, to name a few. I should really try to add to my client roster but, at the end of the day, I’ve little time left for self-promotion since I’m doing this on the night shift. Add that to the “cons” list.

Do you work more on fiction or nonfiction titles?

It balances out a bit but my meat and potatoes seem to be in non-fiction work. In addition to the fiction titles I’ve been doing for Penguin, they’ve been sending me a bit of science fiction work too, which has been a lot of fun. The Hamish Hamilton titles have been a big boost to my ego and hopefully my skills as a cover designer, too. HarperCollins is mostly non-fiction and ECW sends me just about anything you can think of from abstract poetry to scandalous wrestling bios.

What are your favourite books to work on?

Every job creates its own unique set of challenges, so it’s hard to say if one trumps the other. With fiction I approach the conceptual end of things more laterally and obliquely whereas with non-fiction I try to approach the execution laterally if only in order to separate the book from similar titles on that particular shelf.

What are the most challenging?

I haven’t the breadth of experience required to provide a quantitative, scientific answer to that. They’re all challenging since the last thing I ever want to do is just phone it in. I recently finished a cover for a book on the history of beer in Canada, which for a hoser like myself was just so ominously and ridiculously huge and daunting a task I think I actually lost sleep over it.

What is the “day job”?

I’m an advertising copywriter working in television and radio, mostly. My business cards say “Senior Writer” actually, even though my family still doesn’t understand what I do for a living despite the awards. (I’m required by a secret and arcane advertising edict to mention that I have won awards. Many awards.)

Does working in advertising influence how you think about book design?

I think what my day job has trained me to do is recognize a good idea in its purest, raw form. My own personal barometer goes something like “Is this actually an idea or is it just acting like an idea?” which means does the core concept have an element of truth to it, doing service to the product/service/book cover, or am I just relying on flashy execution alone?

Could you describe your design process?

It usually begins with an immediate gut-reaction to the brief, scribbling this idea down and then entirely forgetting about the project for a few days. Most of the hard work is purely mental, trying to formulate concepts and visualize their treatments. Executionally, I don’t really do a lot of back-end tinkering, making the type one-point bigger or smaller, etc. I’m pretty rigid at the mechanical stage but overall, I tend to “play it where it lies”, to borrow a golfing term (for some reason). I think this comes from my vocational history of working in lead-type print shops and sign-painting shops when I was a young lad, onto my get-your-hands-dirty fine art schooling and my Letratone and line-tape design background, all of which predate computers and their sinister ability to allow you the chance to second-guess yourself every step of the way.

Where do look for inspiration and who are some of your design heroes?

I like different designers for different reasons. I respond to David Drummond’s thinking. I always assumed he had an advertising background (which I later found out he does), as his ideas are right on the money and need little in the way of window-dressing. Peter Mendelsund’s covers have a weird quality; seemingly equal parts glib and fussy. Henry Sene Yee’s covers are quietly dignified. The usual suspects, I suppose. I’d be remiss if I didn’t doff the proverbial to my online chums Jason Gabbert, Kimberly Glyder, Ingrid Paulson, Nate Salciccioli, Christopher Tobias & Michel Vrana.

Inspiration is always in the brief. You just have to find it yourself.

What does the future hold for book cover design?

Not a clue. Same strategies, different tactics? If my own personal future of book cover design affords me the opportunity to continue to do this (and maybe work with Eric Hanson on a project or design some Donald Barthelme books), I welcome it with open arms.

Thanks David!

You can see more of David Gee’s work on his blog.

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  1. Great and creative designs. My favourite concept is the Canadian beer cover, and my favorite design is the Subverting The Lyric cover. David, keep up the great work, and Dan, thanks for the interview!

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  4. david did two book covers for me via my publisher and they’re both incredible. i’m thrilled with them. the first one won a design award in 2014 and the second one won’t be out until next spring but i think it’s outstanding. that’s how i found my way to this interview — i came in search of more info on david gee. thanks for meeting my need.

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