A design can be thought of as a set of constraints or parameters. In book design, these consist of things like the conceptual literary content of the book, what makes the book unique in the context of other similar books or all books, how the author is (or is not) known, the expectations of the book from the point of view of the author/editor/sales force/readers, the context of book jacket in the contemporary moment, the context of book jackets in the last 10 (or even 20) years, visual pop culture. Or something that is obvious and not obvious is working with type is very difficult. And it perhaps the most specialized thing that graphic designers bring to that general problem solving into form.
Jason also describes how he approaches a book cover:
There’s a combination of reading the manuscript, and listening to the editor talk about the book. As an art director, I have to dip into almost all the of the books to see what they are like before deciding to whom to give each title. As a designer (if I’m working on that title’s jacket) it’s always different with every book. But as a general process I will read the book, and think and sketch, and sketch, and reread, work though a number of ideas, throw most of them out, stay with others, reread, take a walk (much harder when you are also the art director), try to come up with something new. Those are the first steps.
And how he works with other designers:
When I work with a freelancer (as well as with my in-house designers), I like to see what they come up with without any input from me. Not only are you more likely to get something special and surprising, something you couldn’t have thought of yourself (which is why art directors work with a variety of freelancers in addition to their in-house staff), but you are sending a signal of trust. If a designer knows what “kind” of design they are expected to deliver, they might not push very far or hard. But if they take ownership of being the first arbiters of what the package of the book might be, there is more of a chance for something brilliant. I’m just trying to maximize the talent I have working with me.
With my in house staff, it is similar but there might also be a concept that is floating that we will work with. Or occasionally I’ll work with one designer or my whole team to come up with ideas together. That’s an exception though, and cover design is generally a sole enterprise in the initial stages. Then it becomes a collaboration when I see comps, and goes from there.
Read the whole interview here.