The work of Welsh designer James Paul Jones for has featured regularly here in the past few years. A versatile cover designer and one of the co-founders of Vintage UK’s design blog CMYK, James was recognised as a ‘Rising Star‘ by the Bookseller in 2014, and recently moved to independent publisher Oneworld Books in the role of art director. This Q & A has been quite awhile in the making, but I’m very grateful to James for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth, and I’m glad for the opportunity to showcase his talents again.
Do you remember when you first became interested in design?
Growing up it was all about sport and design. From an early age I used to drive people mad (mainly my parents and teachers) spending hours perfecting my hand writing, and adorning basically everything I could with doodles, designs, and patterns. Which is ironic, as I can barely understand my own scribbles these days. I somehow knew back then that is was more the Design in Art & Design I was interested in, I think mainly because it took me so long to finish anything remotely ‘still life’. My art teacher Islwyn Williams can vouch for that, and he was one of the good ones. I remember him saying when he saw me walking down the corridor in full-on teenage mode to ‘Look up. Not enough people do and you don’t know what you’re missing’. That’s stuck with me ever since. Things progressed quickly once I got hold of my first bondi blue iMac. From there, I used to ‘borrow’ my Dads record covers, scan them and proceed to add my own finishing touches. My first ‘effort’ was giving Paul McCartney some shoes on the Abbey Road album. I’d then print out everything and plaster my walls with the output. I wish to this day I could do this in my new workplace.
Do you come from a creative family?
I used to think not. My Dad was a self-made business man running a wholesale food company in North Wales and my mother working alongside. But I realised over time that my Dad had a special way with words and he wrote poetry in his spare time. I was certainly the only one who was a bit obsessed with the visual side of things. My sister was definitely the words. I was proud to work alongside her whilst working at Vintage Books. As I’m sure was our Mum.
Were there a lot of books in your house growing up?
There were plenty. And they were all owned by my sister. I can’t pretend that I’ve been a book buff all my life, because when I was younger I didn’t read enough. But I did grow up on Roald Dahl and other children’s classics of my time. What I thoroughly enjoyed reading (and my mother still has a pile of these ready to give me back home) was the ‘how to’ guides. Cartooning, watercolours, different print processes. Cross hatching, you name it. I had a guide on it. A recent ‘Punch’ exhibition at the House of Illustration in London focused on the work of Shepard and it reminded me of my love of a good cross hatch shadow. Now my house consists of ‘why’ books. Why do people see and think in certain ways. Different triggers, autobiographies and non-fiction is what I devour outside the daily manuscripts. Plus I love a good quote I can draw inspiration from. It continues to amaze me how much you can learn from others.
Did you study design at school?
I was lucky enough that when I got to secondary school there was a graphics GCSE course which I snapped up. There began my obsession with drawing rectangles using 4 points, which later in life has translated to all forms of typographic sketches. Earlier I studied Art, but grades wise I was let down by my inability to follow suit and show my workings. I always had the final idea in my head and wanted to cut out the middle man. Although now, one of my prized possessions is my A5 moleskin which doesn’t leave my side, which would amuse my Art teacher to no end. Later on, I did an Art Foundation course in North Wales, which was easily the most creative, fulfilling and enjoyable year of my life education wise. We worked on everything from woodworks to 3 dimensional life size sketches using charcoal. I thrived on the atmosphere there and at some point I’d love to go back and enjoy it for a second year. I was honoured to be invited back this year to showcase my work, helping to hopefully inspire the next generation. Anything I can give back there I will in abundance. Following foundation, I studied Graphic & Media Design at London College of Printing. It was a great college, and to be taught by one of my design heroes Hamish Muir was priceless.
I can’t pretend I did my best work there because that wasn’t the case. But what I did learn, and something I realised early on, was that I needed work contacts by the time I graduated. I started calling in favours, taking work experience here and there and this all helped to build up a roster of freelance clients. I started my own design company (Here & Now – my exercise book ‘tag’ from my teenage years) toward the end of the second year where I was doing websites, record covers and 1-day-a-week freelancing with the Orion Publishing Group.
Where did you start your career?
I started my career at Orion through work experience in the marketing department. Working on posters, bookmarks and other promotional materials. Then one day I was asked to work on the back cover for a Harlan Coben novel. I was fresh out of 2nd year at University and still obsessed by Müller-Brockman, which meant I spent the rest of the day typesetting the copy on crazy angles. Vertical barcode. The works. I can still remember it to this day. I thought it looked bloody brilliant. The Art Director thought so too, but obviously it was a bit out there for a mass market crime novel… Although she asked me to come back the next week and that was that. Her name was Lucie Stericker and she is the brilliant Creative Director of Orion, and one of the key people in my career. She gave me the opportunity to show what I could do, at a time where I didn’t really know what I could. At one point I nearly quit to head down the big design company route, but I’m glad I stuck it out and I have Lucie to thank for that.
At Orion I learnt it all from the bottom up. Starting off as a freelancer, before joining the company on a 4-day a week basis. After that I started to get my own briefs to work on and from there I kicked on. I always wanted to try and push the boundaries of each genres, as I was young and I didn’t see any reason not to! You had to get noticed somehow. I worked my way up to a Junior Designer level, and then to Designer. My work started getting noticed after working on the Keith Richards autobiography Life and the award winning The Tiger’s Wife, before Vintage offered me an opportunity as a Senior Designer 4 ½ years in to my Orion career.
Over at Vintage I began to hone my craft, and was soon art directing my own photo shoots for Bradley Wiggins fresh from his Tour De France and Olympic wins and working on titles such as Virginia Woolf, Sebastian Faulks and Chuck Palahniuk. I was in my element. The team pushed each other every day, some of the group projects we worked on such as the James Bond classics were a joy to be a part of. As was the creative atmosphere of the design department.
I spent 4 ½ very happy years at Vintage, working across all genres and imprints. Whilst there I was humbled to be voted as one of the industries rising stars, one of the only designers on the list. My work was also recognised with some awards, one of the highlights being my award winning collaboration with Pietari Posti on our Arthur Ransome series. Vintage and Penguin Random House were such an inspiration to me design wise, and I thank the whole design team, and the Creative Designer Suzanne Dean, for that.
When did you start at Oneworld?
I started at Oneworld as their new Art Director just over a year ago, in September of 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed my time over at Vintage, but I was looking for a new challenge and really wanted to experience the life of an Art Director. Oneworld came about because of that ambition, and I was intrigued by the company as a whole. They had such fantastic books, yet I felt the covers could reflect that better. It was a big change for me, going from the biggest publisher in the world (Penguin Random House) to an independent, but I really wanted to get stuck into something that I could put my mark on. At Oneworld it’s just me heading up the design department, and while that can seem quite daunting at times I like to think that I thrive on that responsibility. I have instigated a design internship recently, and I’m thoroughly enjoying mentoring young designers at the start of their careers and giving something back to the design community. It’s a privilege, and design-wise my goal is to make Oneworld’s books known for their looks and production values, of which having a cracking production team by my side helps. Along with a company willing to try something different. Since I joined the company, we’ve won the Man Booker Prize, been voted Independent Publisher of the Year, had another one of our books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker, and the company is going from strength to strength. It’s not easy, I don’t think any Art Director job is. But I really do love it. And I want that hard work and passion to come across in the work we put out there as a company. I’m also involved in the creative direction of the company as a whole. We recently re-designed our website, logo and branding. Which has all been a fantastic and invaluable experience.
What have you found to be the main differences between being an art director and a designer so far?
That the bucks stops with me, which is both a good and a bad thing. What I have enjoyed most is working alongside artists, designers and illustrators that I admire. Pushing them as far as we can go with each design. We might not always see eye-to-eye but I enjoy working with other designers who want to make something great, and not just another cover to tick off their to do list. Our job is to represent the spirit of the book. To find out what makes that book unique, and communicate and celebrate it visually on the cover.
Are you also working on freelance projects?
I am. I was always rather envious of the US model of Art Directors who also freelance for other companies. It really appealed to me. So when the Oneworld position came up, it was a part time position and it suited my ambitions to explore freelancing. I took a leap of faith, and now I work 4-days-a-week in-house at Oneworld and do my freelance work on the fifth day. Although as every freelancer knows, my weekends are often taken up working, and one of the hardest aspects is trying to find that work/life balance. Having a young family has forced me to work that out from the get go. I’ve been lucky enough since I started freelancing last year to work with some great publishers around the world. I still love getting that first initial ‘making contact’ email from a new publisher who has seen my work and wants to know if I’m available. I thoroughly enjoy having the best of both worlds, even with the extra hours it can demand. But I’m really happy with the freelance side of my career, and I hope it keeps growing and growing.
What are your favourite projects to work on?
Ones that I can throw myself into. They’re both a blessing and a curse. I like to get really immersed and find it hard to switch off, but having a family has definitely helped me be more ruthless in that sense. I consider what we do such a privilege. I have to put my all into each cover. I’m a big believer in that if you leave nothing behind, your work will connect in the right way. I thank my Dad for that work ethic, and also my many different sport coaches along the way. Leave nothing behind. Design hard. But most of all have fun with it.
Which ones present the greatest creative challenges?
Interesting question. I guess the briefs that ask for the norm for that genre. But you know there’s an opportunity to push the envelope a little… Then the challenge is executing the design in a way that will embrace that idea, rather than alienating people. Then getting the sales teams on board with the idea. I’m constantly pushing my editors to really think about their briefs. Look what’s out there, and how can we make our book original. I’ve just finished working on a cover for Ebury called Originals by the brilliant Adam Grant. As he mentions ‘Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better’. That’s what I’m aiming for in my work for Oneworld and in my freelance work.
What’s your ‘go to’ typeface for a book cover?
I think due to my design education I’m a big fan of the classics. They are that for a reason. Too gimmicky and it just looks lazy. I’ve actually been trying to experiment more with my typefaces. Altering more by hand and creating my own here and there to see what I can get away with. I’m a huge fan of typography, and boy do I still have a lot to learn. You have to know all the rules, so that you can then push them as far as possible, sometimes break them and really have some fun along the way. One of the most rewarding and memorable exercises our tutor at LCP Hamish Muir set us was to photocopy strips and individual pieces of typography, blow them up to different sizes, re-arrange them and produce our own grids to lay out the information for each poster. Hand laying and sticking each letter and word. I learnt more in that day then I did over the course of the following three years.
What do you look for in an illustrator’s portfolio?
Something I could never create or imagine myself. If I’m working with an illustrator it’s because I can’t create what I’m after and I think they would be perfect for expressing the authors words to the reader. Like most Art Directors, when commissioning I secretly want to see the routes I’ve asked for in my brief, along with a curve ball interpretation that throws a huge creature spanner in the works. If they can do that, then I’ll keep coming back for more.
What advice would you give a designer at the start of their career?
Get yourselves out there. And just keep designing. There is quite a lot of competition out there at the moment, but at the end of the day it comes down to the quality of your work. That will only improve as you work more and more. Get yourselves out there, because otherwise people will never see your work. And take risks with your work. The first thing I did was create my own Tumblr. I figured it was an easy program to use, one which would allow my work to reach a wider audience. There are so many blogs and social media accounts dedicated to book design now it’s hard to keep up. But the cream will always rise to the top.
You were very involved in the CMYK, the Vintage Books design Tumblr. Why did the Vintage design team decide to start blogging about their work?
We wanted a platform where we could launch our designs to the world, to share the first words on our designs and communicate our influences and working methods directly. We wanted to share the back story to the designs, how they were created, what processes were used, and information about the illustrators, photographers and designers. At the time, there weren’t really any art departments doing anything similar, and so we decided to create something that we as an art department would be interested in reading. The reaction and success was huge, at one point we were one of the most viewed sites across all PRH platforms. It was a really big team effort, and one we needed to structure at the beginning of each week to keep on top of. I’m still proud of everything we did, and it’s great to see so many other art departments follow suit.
At Oneworld, I’m looking into Instagram and seeing what fun we could have on there. I’ve only just joined Instagram for my sins, and I’m aiming to show off all the good work we’ve been doing here at Bloomsbury Street in London. It’s also a great platform for spotting talent and keeping a close eye on the competition. I’ll also be showing my freelance work, and I thought it would be great to give people more of an insight into the day to day of an Art Director. Let’s see what happens.
Which illustrators and designers do you think are doing interesting work right now?
This changes every week. Along with my bookmarks. Being an Art Director now I’m constantly thinking ahead, and it’s hard to switch off. Meaning even when I’m at an exhibition in a church hall in Wales, I’m collecting information on a young illustrator from the area who’s tree paintings are so fresh I can’t wait for a suitable cover to crop up for her. I do try to use new illustrators and designers as much as possible. They come with a sense of freedom and a willingness to break the rules. Plus their work ethic is one I admire as they give their all for the outcome. The more experienced illustrators and designers out there, who are still at the top of their game after all these years, they know how to retain that quality.
Who are some of your design heroes?
So many. Hipgnosis. Peter Saville. Hamish Muir (8VO). Brody. Müller Brockman. Non-Format. Love Non-Format. All from my educational years. I still remember when Hamish bought in some original litho printed Hacienda posters from the 90’s which blew my mind and made me realised I massively needed to up my game. All created with their hands. No photoshop. NO Photoshop. Amazing. I never saw myself as a book designer until I worked in the industry. I always wanted to join the big design companies of the world. The ‘Mothers‘ and ‘Experiment Jetsets‘. Daniel Eatock. Bibliothèque. Accept & Proceed. Designs with concepts behind them was what inspired me then, and still does today. As for now and in the book design world, I’m inspired by work that really stands out and tries to be different. From a career point of view, David Pearson, Rodrigo Corral, Peter Mendelsund, Jim Stoddart and Suzanne Dean. They are leading the way for me in various different ways, and I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some of them. Also I admire what Andy Pressman has done over at Verso, along with Melanie Patrick at Pluto Press.
Is there one particular author or a book you’d like to design a cover for?
Tough one. Because there are just so many. I’m also very lucky to have worked on quite a few over my short career. I did think a year or so back that for me, the Harry Potter series hadn’t quite hit the mark. But then Olly Moss came along and blew that out of the water…but perhaps there’s still a typographic option out there that could be explored. I missed out on a redesign of Terry Pratchett covers a while back, and I still think I was on to something there so I’d like to be able to revisit those in the future.
What‘s in your ‘to read’ pile?
It’s become a library. Currently finishing off Originals by Adam Grant (during the day for inspiration) and The Shepherds Life (in the evening to escape it all). Then at some point to follow: Designing Your Life, The Wisdom of Groundhog Day, Outliers, The Ego Trick. I’ve become much more of a thinker than I used to be. That’s something that I’ve had to change as my career has gone on. I spend much more time thinking about a cover now before actually working on it. I find that it helps the actual process go much smoother and adds clarity to the finished outcome.
Do you have system for organizing your books?
It depends what part of my house you’re in. My home studio has everything organised by Company. As in, where I worked at the time as it’s mostly an archive of my work. With a separate space for freelance covers. The design books in there are organised by size, just to mix it up a little bit. My ‘to read’ pile by my bed is organised by what’s up next, or that’s the theory anyway. My wife’s books have no system to them at all…but the less said about that the better.
Do you have a favourite book?
I don’t really tend to re read anything as I have endless notes on my phone quoting all my favourite passages which I constantly come back to. As far as impact goes, I can remember being introduced to the classics from Paul Arden early on at art Foundation and really connecting with them. They seemed so different back then. The Art of Seeing is never far from my side, and as for Biographies it’s hard to beat David Maraniss’ A Life of Vince Lombardi. One of the heroes to one of mine and my Dad’s heroes, Sir Alex Ferguson.
What does the future hold for book cover design?
Whatever we want it to be. The whole death of print has come and gone (for now), allowing for a very exciting time. Everyone’s having to up their game, especially with social media. The ‘Cover reveal’ is really popular in publishing. Allowing designers all round the world to sigh after a hard days work, and seeing a moment of genius from someone in Peru and realising you’ve come nowhere near. I’m still waiting again for that ‘perfect’ cover moment. That marriage of the perfect designer, with the perfect idea, for the perfect book and the perfect publisher, like David Pearson’s cover for George Orwell’s 1984. I’m hoping I’ll be able to pull something out of the bag before I’m done.