Several months ago I picked up the book, “The Hope of Azure Springs” and fell in love with the cover. It was beautiful!
I just had to know who designed it. So after hunting down the name within the pages of the book and discovering it was Dan Thornberg, I contacted him via Linked In and humbly asked him for an interview.
He agreed! Dan allowed me to ask him several questions:
1. How did you become a book cover designer?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in art. I originally wanted to be a painter but was also strongly interested in design and photography. I went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design after high school to pursue those interests but dropped out when God called me to go to Bible school at Bethany Missionary Training Center (now Bethany Global University). One of the distinctives of Bethany in those days was that students worked on campus in the various departments that kept the place running and those that produced items for sale as part of the way they raised money to train and send missionaries.
Bethany at that time had a Spanish publishing division and an English publishing division. So I began designing and illustrating book covers for the Spanish division as my vocational assignment. I later transferred to the English publishing house first as a student, then as a staff member, then as an employee and now as a freelance designer. For many years, I did watercolor and then oil paintings for the covers of the books and then transitioned into digital art using photos. My background in painting has definitely helped with putting together the digital art.
2. Explain your process and how long a cover takes you.
When I receive an assignment from the publisher, I’m given a synopsis of the book, a description of the characters and art direction as to what they’d like to see on the cover. Usually, this is a few options. My next step is ideally to put together a selection of models from local modeling agencies or acquaintances for the client to choose from. Once they choose, the next ideal step is to find the costumes for them to wear for the photo shoot.
The reason I say “ideally” is that I sometimes have to have a costume made and that can take up to 5 or 6 weeks. If we don’t get that base covered right away, it can limit our choices of costume because we run out of time. However, sometimes the rough ideas are needed soon enough where I don’t have time to find models and costumes first. Because most of my covers are historical fiction, whenever I need a costume, I check Etsy and ebay as well as other sources to hopefully find either authentic vintage clothing or reproductions that are well made.
Believe it or not, there are stil dresses and other clothing available from as far back as the late 1700s. I prefer the real deal since they are very well made and usually have a lot more detail than modern reproductions. The condition of the authentic costumes varies and I often have to “repair” them in Photoshop but if I can make them work, the result is usually better. So when I find what I need, I purchase it and hope to resell it later! The other route I sometimes take is to rent good quality theatrical costumes from local or national sources.
So, whether I find the model and costume first or not, the next step is then to put together rough ideas of the cover. I prefer to hire a neighbor or acquaintence and dress them in a costume I have on hand and photograph them and then create the digital art with comping images from stock photo houses or my own library of photos. I usually try to get pretty close to what I actually want to do so that if the client likes the idea, some of the work is already done for final. This way of doing it has two benefits: One, I don’t have to try to imagine and draw the model in the pose I want, and two, it allows me and the client to evaluate whether the proposed scene and pose will make a successful design.
Once the rough idea or ideas have been chosen, I schedule a photo shoot. My stylist does the hair and makeup and then we put the model in the costume and shoot away! The art director for the project sometimes attends the photo shoot as well.
Once the shoot is done, I give a large selection of the images to the art director from which they and the editorial people involved make their selections. Then it’s on to creating the final art. At this stage I’m usually still working with low resolution comping stock images although sometimes I acquire the hi resolution versions. I take the various pose choices and put them into the scene and then refine perspective, color and atmosphere to hopefully create a compelling visual image 🙂
I will do as few as 2 or 3 or as many as 8 or 9 of these “finished” comps. At this stage, the typography has also been refined.
Now the art director and the editorial team evaluate them, choose their favorites and give their feedback on changes they’d like to see. Then I make the changes, they pick the final and I put a spine on it and off it goes to the publisher’s catalog and pre-publishing advertising.
3. What makes a good cover?
That is a good question! It is pretty subjective and much could be said but to me the most important things are being artistically well done and creating a desire in the viewer to know more. And with some books, it’s harder to achieve these goals than with others. On the easier ones, you have a lot of stuff going on in the story and interesting settings both geographically and historical era-wise (if that’s a term 🙂 so you have a lot to work with. With others, it can feel like you don’t have a lot to go on and so it’s a challenge to make it interesting.
Another thing I personally face is that art often succeeds better when it has obscured elements or things hinted at and it’s hard for me to do because I want everything to show!
A good cover is also one that doesn’t feel stiff which is yet another thing I struggle with. It helps if a sense of flow or movement can come across in the art and type. This can be achieved with windblown hair or clothing, grass etc. or with type that isn’t too rigid.
4. What makes a bad cover?
Lots of things but to name a few:
- Art with no easily identified subject.
- Type that is hard to read. This can be a tricky because the art sometimes doesn’t provide natural places for title and author. Of course, planning that out is part of the challenge of good design but still there can be situations where there are “busy” areas of the art and the type has to go somewhere!
- Art that is too busy can be a problem. Again, this is an area I struggle with because I love detail and I have to know what to let go of.
- Art where the background is just as strong as the foreground which results in a lack of depth or feeling of space.
- Bad color combinations.
- Incorrect or ill-fitting period clothing. This can be hard because it isn’t easy to find the right stuff but if there are glaring errors in this area, I don’t think it does the cover any favors.
- Perspective in the art can be out of whack. A lot of time goes into searching for the right things at the right angles and free of distortion. I have had to reshape many buildings!
- Bad Photoshop work. Crude cutouts or obviously different lighting on elements brought into one illustration.
5. What are some of your favorite covers – either you’ve designed or you admire on other books?
Favorites that I have done are Leaving Yesterday by Kathryn Cushman, The Secret by Beverly Lewis, A Bound Heart by Laura Frantz, Courting Morrow Little by Laura Frantz, Making Waves by Lorna Seilstad, The Choice by Suzanne Woods Fisher, Short Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer, Stolen by Katariina Rosenblatt, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin (BHP reissue).
And finally, here are some of Dan’s favorite book covers (designed by others):
Thanks, Dan for allowing me to interview you!
What are some of your favorite book covers?