The Public Humanist

Zen and the Art of Book Covers

This is the second in an occasional interview series exploring the intersection of art, culture and creativity in Serbia.  Over the next several months, I’ll talk to the artists and thinkers shaping the future of Serbian art to not only discover the vibrant Serbian cultural scene, but to find the shared creative ground of artists the world over.  

Book cover designer and illustrator Jana Vukovic is the rare person who successfully pursued a creative dream to fulfillment.

I first met Jana in 2011 when she was more an aspiring book cover designer than a working one.  However, since that time, in one of the fastest professional ascents I’ve ever seen, Jana has become a highly sought and incredibly busy cover designer with dozens of covers- fiction and nonfiction- to her credit.

Jana’s creative growth springs from a passionate dedication to craft, an unwavering discipline and a marked fearlessness; Jana, in the time I have known her, took shadows of desire and, with hard work and willingness, turned them into the kind of professional career most people imagine “if only they could.”

Her art strikes the difficult artistic balance between simplicity and sophistication; to look at Jana’s work is to see both innocence and wisdom.  There is no artifice in her work, and no pretension in her process.  Talking to her over coffee in a Belgrade café in January felt like a Zen master class on doing the hard work of creative flow; her philosophy is simple: work hard at what you love and strive to be the best you can.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Along with her book cover designs, she also created, and now curates, a website called “Book Cover Designers of the World”, perhaps the most comprehensive image collection of working book cover designers on the Internet.  Her latest project is a series of animations called, “The World is Beautiful.

I talked to Jana about her art, how to break into the publishing world and the role of intent in her work.

How would you describe what you do and how long have you been doing it?

I am a book cover designer.  I got my first book cover published in 2010. It was for my writer friend, Sanja. It’s an interesting book but it’s my first cover, so I am not really proud of it. It doesn’t say what it should say. I was a graphic designer at the time but then, in 2011, I discovered a really superb cover designer John Gray. [From him] I got the idea that you could be only a book cover designer, you don’t need to be a graphic designer. I said I’ll do the same and I decided that I could do just covers and nothing else.

In May of this year, I got an email from John Gray and he wrote in the subject of the email,  “Your Work…” and then in the body of the email he wrote, “…is great.” I couldn’t believe that I got the mail from this person- even now, I am so excited about it.  It was really touching.

Your work has a sophisticated, yet childlike playfulness to it.  Is this a conscious style decision on your part or does it just fall out of you?

It is just me.  I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve never thought about my style. This is the first time.  I don’t actually see it as a style.  That question is not for me.  I can’t answer it.  It’s difficult because I’ve never thought about it.

You didn’t study book cover design?

Yes, I didn’t get into the Academy of Fine Arts- they have a department just for book design. So I had to learn everything by myself.  It’s a bit different, how they do it here and how they do it everywhere else.  Here, the whole book is done by one person. You do a cover design and a layout design, but in the States and the UK it’s separated- you have one person just doing covers and nothing else. The process is more specialized.  You are doing just that one thing, which I think is much better than doing the whole book.  Or maybe it isn’t.

Sometimes I like when I do the whole thing, but sometimes I just like to do covers.  I like to mix illustrations with lettering so that’s why I do covers.  That’s the thing I enjoy most because you don’t have that much freedom when you are doing the layout.  It’s not really that interesting for me.
Was there a particular type of book or a particular genre of book you wanted to work on when you started or did you just want to do books?

Just covers actually (laughs). I still don’t know. I know what I don’t want to do but I still don’t know what I do want.  I usually don’t like mixing photos. I have done very few books with photography on the cover.  That is not an illustration.  And I don’t like computer made fonts.  I like lettering and I like doing it on my own because it’s more artistic and it’s personal and it’s unique.

Growing up, was there something you loved about book covers- was it something you were passionate about at a young or was it something you discovered later? 

I didn’t draw when I was a kid. But at 18, I decided to do this because I have a need to draw.  This was the best way to combine illustration and typography. Those are my two loves and the perfect place to do that is a book cover.
Book cover design seems like such a difficult, specialized field to break into- it seems like a dream that people would have, “Oh I would love to design book covers,”- Was it a difficult process for you, how did you go about that?

Well, it’s actually not that difficult–you want to do something and then you just start doing it. There’s no magic to it.  You say, okay, I’m not a graphic designer, I won’t be doing logos, I won’t be doing flyers or anything else.  I’ll just do covers and I’ll be the best at it. Just covers, nothing else. It was difficult because you have to say, when someone asks you to make a logo and they will pay, and you say, no, I am not doing it when you don’t have a job. But if I accepted those little things then I wouldn’t be into cover design.

You sacrificed financial security for your art.

Yes. That’s the best thing I could do because now it is really satisfying to do covers. I can’t wait for another cover.  You just have to follow your dream.  If you don’t follow it, why are you living? Why are you working?  There is no point.  Jessica Hische, a typographer, has a saying, “that thing that you are doing when you are procrastinating is the thing you should be doing for the rest of your life.” That’s the only way to go.  It’s simple, really.

But how did you find the contacts to make the business part of this work?

I sent tons of emails to every publisher I could find online.  That was the worst waste of time because maybe .000001 percent of those publishers got back to me. Later on, it’s been through word of mouth, and then it became easy.  I did a magazine cover two years ago for a publisher in the States and I just got an email from a woman who saw that magazine.  Now she is about to become an editor of another magazine and she asked me if I would be willing to be a designer for them.

How do you approach the work itself once you’ve gotten the assignment? How do you start?

It depends on the project, but I usually have a questionnaire and they [the publishers] have to fill it in. When they fill it in I get really good input.  They have to describe everything- if it is a book, what is it about, who is the target audience, where are they planning to distribute the book, are they planning to do just ebook, is it going to be published as a hard back, paperback, all sorts of questions.  I like to get a synopsis or chapters to get the feel of the book.

I like to get how they imagine the cover and then I always include how I see it when I read it. Sometimes, it’s not good to read it. I can take more from the questionnaires than from reading the book itself.  I’ve had these situations where I see one thing and the authors and editors see something else.

I usually send several finished drawings over as proposals- the minimum is three and but when I am in the mood, I do seven or eight.  I always have my hands in paint because I do it all by hand.  Then I just sit on the floor and just paint until this [cover] looks the way I see it. Then I choose a couple of them to scan them and play with them on the computer.

The more you do, the better the result. Sometimes it’s the first one that’s the best but sometimes it’s the tenth.  I always want to do more. Even when I am finished with a project and the book is out, I come back to it and I do it again, I do it just for me.

Sometimes they choose how I see it- and then I feel the best- but in most cases, they choose the one I really don’t like.  I mean I’m satisfied with all the proposals I’ve sent but they always choose the one I am least satisfied with.

How long is the book cover proposal process for you?  

It really depends on how I feel. Sometimes I can finish it in 15 minutes and that’s the best one.  Sometimes I am in the Valley of the Suck and it takes weeks. The best way to come out of that Valley of the Suck is to keep working.

How much do you work? 

All day, every day. Because when you do what you love you’re never at work.  It’s really simple, it’s a way of life. It’s not that hard; you just have to try it. Then you have to continue doing it for a longer period even if it’s not successful for you.  You just have to keep doing it.

Are there times that you say that this project just isn’t right for me?

Yes, now I can say that. There were times when I just wanted to work more, but those are the pieces that are not in my portfolio. I am never going to show them to anybody. They are sort of art directed, but not from people who actually do art direction but people who say that we want the cover to be almost the same as this one.  You have to do those because you have to live from this work, but that is something that no one will see [as part of my portfolio].

Most of the covers I’ve done, I’ve done for free.  There is a really small amount of those covers that I do just for money. I don’t enjoy doing that.  Now, I can say no, I am not interested in working on that cover. I can ask somebody else who is perhaps willing to work on that project.

Why did you start the Book Cover Designers of the World website?

I wanted to collect book covers but I couldn’t find a way to do that. There was one website, Book Cover Archive, but it is not, for me, very user friendly.   So I decided to have all those designers in one place where I can just scroll down, not click through, to see them all there.  It’s a source of inspiration and it’s a collection of all the living and contemporary book designers of the world. I think there are a couple of them not alive today. Most of them are active right now. I’m researching and collecting- now I think I have two hundred of them.  I’m really proud of it.

Are you creating a community of book designers through this website- are they interacting with you and with each other through this website?

No, not really.  It has a lot of traffic which is interesting because I don’t advertise it. I never told anybody that I have this- I have it on my mail signature- but I never said, look at this.  I have people sending me emails asking how they can be on the site and what they should do to be on the site and I say, just send me images.  And they ask me, you will do that for free- because it has a link to their online portfolio- it’s useful everybody.

It is my passion. I never see it like there are my competitors.  Maybe we could even work together because we all have different styles. I don’t see it as a competition.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into book cover design or would you give someone advice?

Just start doing it.  It can be a fictional project on your own if you want.  Just do it; there is no recipe other than that.  I think it applies to everything actually. What you like doing, keep doing it and be the best at it.  It’s not the best of the best but be the best you can be. And always try a little harder because if it’s not hard then it means you are not learning.  So it almost always has to be a bit hard and you have to struggle because that’s the only way to learn and that’s very important.

What’s the one thing you would like people to know about book cover design that they might not know?

For me, at this moment, covers are more important than books themselves.  Which is kind of selfish.  I have this stupid way of loving books by covers. For example, my favorite cover is Victor “Helmet of Horror”. I read the book and it wasn’t something I enjoyed but the cover is the best.  I think we have two separate things, books and covers and they have separate lives.

This interview has been edited and re-sequenced for clarity.


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