The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Clare Skeats


Hugo Wilcken’s Colony (published in 2007 and mentioned previously here) is almost certainly the novel I’ve talked up most this year. The cover, something like a jaunty vintage travel poster to a malarial Heart of Darkness (nauseously appropriate for a postmodern novel about a French penal colony), was designed by London-based print designer Clare Skeats.

Specializing in book design and art direction, Clare has a a great eye for partnering distinctive typography with bold creative imagery. Her covers often seem to use elements from the past, but always feel dynamically contemporary.

I’m really happy to have had the opportunity talk to Clare about her work. We corresponded by email.

How did you get into book design?

After graduating in 97, I tried, and failed to get a job as a junior designer at Penguin. They did offer me work experience though — so I moved to London to do that, and basically never left.

Have you always run your own studio? Where were you previously?

No. I stayed at Penguin for 4 years (they did eventually employ me!), then during a brief period at Random House, an opportunity arose to work for UK clothing designer Margaret Howell. It was great to step away from books for a bit and be part of a completely different industry. I was involved in virtually all aspects of the company; from designing Fashion Week press invites to drawing up manufacturing specification manuals. During my time there I was also working freelance — so after two very busy years, I left Margaret Howell to become full-time freelance, which is where I am now.

Could you describe your design process?

I’m lucky in that a lot of my clients allow me to just read and then make all the suggestions. I work in a number of ways; completely independently, or collaboratively with an illustrator or photographer. If I decide that illustration is the most appropriate response, I spend time identifying the right style and finding relevant practitioners. I’ve worked with Kazuko Nomoto (aka Nomoco) a great deal, and I found her initially as I had Andy Warhol’s Vogue illustrations in my head for Lolita. I’ll suggest say 3 or 4 illustrators to the client, along with a rough idea of the brief and composition. I then refine the brief and collaborate with the chosen illustrator.

Whether I’m working on my own, or collaboratively, I spend a lot of time researching — it’s a process I’ve always loved. For Somebody to Love I had to research embalming as the book is about a transsexual mortician who falls in love with one of her, um… clients. I wanted the cover to reflect the surgical and beautifying themes so I started to research embalming tools which lead me to those 18th-Century engravings of surgical instruments. Also used to great effect on this Simian Mobile Disco record cover designed by Kate Moross:

I needed to commission illustrations of modern instruments but retain the engraving reference and I initially proposed a wood engraver to the client, but the idea scared them. So I had to find a vector illustrator who could approximate an engraving style. I found Fred van Deelen who did a brilliant job. What I loved about Kate’s record cover was the way the central black circle (or maybe its a die-cut?) was working as a device to hold the type. So I shamelessly adapted it to my own needs for my cover.

When I started working on Potty!, I read the author’s autobiography which lead to a fun afternoon poking around the posh country outfitters shops of St. James and Saville Row — I took lots of photos and produced a mood board which helped me to get the sample spreads and art direction approved. I teach on the foundation course at Central St Martins and I’m always banging on about research — mostly because I can’t understand why a student wouldn’t want to do it!

My client for Potty!, wanted an illustrative component to the design and I was wary at first as I think illustration can often look like a whimsical add-on in some cookbooks, which wouldn’t be appropriate at all with Clarissa. The book is about one pot cookery so I decided to make the pots the stars and commissioned scraper-board maestro Joe McLaren to produce them — there are 24 in total and this is my absolute favourite:

Do you prefer to use unconventional typography and hand-drawn lettering than more classic typefaces?

Not particularly — the enjoyment comes from finding the right type style for the job, and that could be making lettering out of cake decorations, or typesetting a whole book — each offers their own sense of fulfillment. Working with the wildly varying content of books offers wonderful opportunities to work with typefaces that wouldn’t normally get considered for most commercial print jobs. I hate snobbery in design — if Dom Casual is right for a job, go with it!

Do you ever create the type or letters yourself ?

I wouldn’t have the confidence to create digital type from scratch, its such a skill in itself — adapting existing fonts is about as far as I go. I’ve hand-drawn lettering quite a bit though — I like to use a dip pen and drawing ink which creates a really nice line. I used this for Lolita, Tom Bedlam and Just in Case, to name a few. Another Meg Rossoff cover I had rejected features lettering that I drew on damp paper to create a cloud-like effect when reversed-out of the sky.

I can’t walk past an art supply shop. The ‘STEINBECK’ stamp in Of Mice and Men comes courtesy of something called Fabfoam, which you’ll find next to the sequins and glitter in the ‘hobby craft’ section.

How do you approach designing a series of covers?

Find the longest combination of title and author, and then work backwards from there! If your design can accommodate One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn then you know you’re on to a good thing. I think a successful series style has enough consistency and rigour to be easily recognised but has enough flexibility within it to future-proof against unforeseen issues. If there are too many variables within a series style, it lacks identity — and if there are not enough, it looks dry and undynamic. The nice thing about designing the Vintage Classics series design was that I knew the images would be really diverse so I could make the rest of the cover quite restrained and structured.

What are your favourite books to work on?

Its always a thrill to get asked to do a classic. I did Animal Farm very early in my career at Penguin and I’ve always regarded it as a huge privilege — especially as I was so junior at the time. I recently had to re-do the artwork to fit the new Modern Classics grid, so I’m really honoured that it survived a series re-design!

I also like first-time authors (as there’s no baggage), and books about really odd subjects: invisible dogs, menopause, suicide, unicorns … bring it on. I’d like to do more books for young adults, but they usually get rejected!

What are the most challenging?

Without a doubt, it’s the BIG book. The one the publisher has paid huge sums for at Frankfurt as it’s ‘going to be the next … (insert name here)’. The amount of emphasis placed on the role that the jacket is expected to perform is enormous and yet if the book becomes a bestseller its widely regarded as being down to good writing and good reviews. But if it fails, its regarded as being the fault of the jacket. Its this widely-held belief that allows high street booksellers and supermarkets to assert so much influence on the design — so what should be an exciting job can turn into a fairly unrewarding experience for the designer.

Do you prefer working with illustrators or photographers? Or does it depend on the project?

I do enjoy the camaraderie on shoots — the Potty! shoot was great fun — but publishing cover budgets are usually such a feeble match for photographer’s fees that I find I’m constantly looking at ways to cut costs which just becomes a bit boring after a while. The preponderance of headless women on book covers is testament to the fact that there’s rarely budget for a model, hair or make-up. And yet, interestingly, the expectation from the publisher for a Merchant Ivory film still remains pretty high — even if the budget doesn’t.

I love the spontaneity of working with an illustrator — of making the most of their skills and seeing how they interpret a brief. When I saw the physical object that I commissioned from Helen Musselwhite on The Still Point, I gasped (in a good way)! Being able to hand-pick such talented people to work with is a huge privilege — it’s a part of my job that I will always love.

Do you see any recent trends in British book design?

Yes, I think production specs (particularly on hardbacks), have been steadily increasing in a bid to get the public excited about the physical objects again, so we’ve had a glut of cloth-and-foil, sprayed edges etc. There’s been a lot of patterns and a return to traditional typographic sensibilities, and a rediscovery of our British design heritage. Mid-century modern references are still enjoying a bit of a moment…

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

My earliest design hero was Charles Schultz. I was obsessed with Peanuts when I was a kid and copied the way that the characters wrote — I loved the way their handwriting appeared above their heads, I thought it was genius!

I was also a huge Roald Dahl fan and consequently grew up with the scratchy inky gorgeousness of Quentin Blake‘s illustrations.

No surprises here, but I greatly admire the work of designers like Saul Bass, Abram Games, Alan Fletcher, Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand — the wit and brevity of their work is so impressive. Slightly more decorative demi-gods include Eric Ravillious, Edward Bawden and Osbert Lancaster. Sorry for the lack of anyone female — or indeed, alive.

What does the future hold for book cover design?

Hopefully the impact of ebooks will be a positive; there’s a lot of books out there that really don’t deserve to see a printing press.

Thanks Clare!

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  1. beautifully insightful. Great body of work and insight into process. Keep bringing these on. Nothing nicer than knowing how a designer thinks about their work. It’s amazing to just read how one person achieves a certain as opposed to what I or anyone else would do to achieve the same desired result. The cloud effect on the type for The Dark Ages is a perfect example.

  2. Thank you for another great interview. Really enjoyed this, especially as I had just bought ‘Somebody to Love’ on the strength of its cover.

  3. Thanks Ian, JRSM. Clare is a real talent and the jacket of Somebody to Love looks amazing!

    I have few more interviews in the works. More to come soon I hope. :-)

  4. Pingback: Clare Skeats « Print and Culture

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