Although the saying goes that one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s fair to say that when discussing literal book covers, most of us actually do. Yet in this creative case, maybe this judgement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, book cover design is a dedicated craft in which the narrative, context and author of a title are taken into careful consideration by the designer at hand. For us, one of the most thoughtful communicators in this field is Alex Merto, an art director for Picador books in the States, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Alex, who is based in New York, first stepped into the field of graphic design in high school designing album covers and artwork for bands. His more formal education then took place post school, first in a summer art program at OTIS in Los Angeles, before heading to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. Yet, his interest in book cover design specifically came from the endless possibilities the medium allows for. “I think it’s easy to become really bored with your work or what you do,” he explains, “but book covers allow you to explore areas that you haven’t done before.” For instance, depending on what the narrative may call for, working in this field encourages a creative to try on various hats: “It allows you to be an illustrator, photographer, designer, editor, animator or whatever you feel is bests for the subject matter.”
Within Alex’s role at Picador, the aim is simply to “try to make work that feels new,” the designer tells It’s Nice That. In more detail, Alex alludes to how his covers often lean into aesthetics that are “bold and graphic and hopefully unexpected.” The text at the heart of his creations are titles “that have the potential to live on forever,” maybe passed on enthusiastically by friends, inherited within families, or even studied in schools. “I want my design to become an object that someone wants to hold onto for a very long time.”
In terms of literal process, Alex says he follows the same few steps no matter the title he’s been assigned, “although it doesn’t always work the same way,” the designer explains. Unsurprisingly, he’ll start with reading. This is necessary for fiction in particular, while non-fiction can allow for more of a skim read to lift key takeaways. “While I’m reading I’m usually also taking a ton of notes and highlighting words or passages that jump out to me.” Snooping for “visual clues and/or places that help give me an idea of why the author came up with this particular title for a book,” Alex will then combine his notes and random sentences or words lifted from the book “to create a new image.”