I’ve always loved drawing, sketching and scribbling. At primary school in Anglesey, I used to give myself headaches from concentrating so hard on my artwork. I always knew that when I ‘grew up’ I wanted to make a living from being creative.
My first job was at Orion Publishing, designing covers for everything from the latest Harlan Coben thrillers to the autobiography of Keith Richards. I found I loved book design. I loved the freedom. Yes, I hear laughter from other book designers at that word. But it’s true; I felt you could go anywhere you liked when working on book covers. You had series styles, but you could still push those forward and taking chances seemed the most fun way to approach every job. It’s also where I met my wife, Naomi, who worked in rights at the time.
After Orion I moved to Vintage, where I spent nearly five years working on a range of amazing projects, including the rebranded Vintage Children’s Classics series then became art director at Oneworld, where I spent three very happy years building and developing the designs for their lists.
But even though I was very happy as a designer, I was starting to get the illustration itch. I ended up spending most lunchtimes in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, ostensibly to research cover designs, but also to flick through every children’s picture book I could find. Naomi and I now had one child and another baby on the way and after reading and re-reading books to our eldest, I’d started looking at them differently. I noticed details I’d missed before, from the layers used to create each spread to the impact empty space could have. I became a bit obsessed. I loved how Rob Biddulph’s handwritten titles were so bold they practically screamed at you (in the best possible way). How Steve Anthony’s doughnuts on the Please Mr Panda spine helped it stand out from the crowd. And how Helen Borten’s bright blocks of colour added so much energy to her inside spreads when paired with her graphic, black illustrations.
Naomi had long wanted to write a picture book and eventually we decided to see how her words and my imagery might ‘marry’ on the page. As I began to experiment, I quickly realised that picture books were a whole new way of thinking about design. As a designer, I had to make sure the book cover enticed readers into the world an author had created, but now I needed to visualise and create that entire world. I began drawing, sketching and scribbling, just like when I was young.
Creating the characters proved to be the biggest learning curve - even trying to decide on the shape of our characters’ eyes was a minefield, each small tweak having seemingly endless implications in terms of characteristics and emotions. At first, every character I created felt lost on the white space I so wanted to utilise… until I introduced a simple shadow texture which helped ground them into their surroundings.
Initially I had been keen on a screen-printed texture with large typography. But with Naomi and I both working in publishing, we knew our book had to be co-edition friendly and that we’d therefore need to leave plenty of room for translated text (which often takes up more space). So, I focused on graphic imagery to make the design pop, with textured shapes and bright, bold colour compositions to draw the reader in. I then used simple line drawing elements to connect the characters and help expand their world. To start with, I felt like I was being too sparse in my compositions, but I soon realised I needed to be brave as that approach was slowly turning into my style. Revisiting the works of Eric Carle and even Roger Hargreaves Mr Men & Little Miss series helped inspire me to stand firm.
As soon as we met with our publisher at Oxford University, Naomi and I knew The Perfect Fit had found its perfect home. Working collaboratively with the designers and editors helped push my illustrations and compositions ever further, and storyboarding - new to me - was invaluable when planning the rhythm and flow of our shape world.
Then I had to design the cover. Which initially I thought would be a breeze. Of course it was anything but; all my years designing covers had not prepared me for the challenge of applying my skills to my own work. I wanted the cover to be bold and recognisable from a distance, but the initial ideas lacked energy. Thankfully OUP’s Lizzie Robertson pushed me in the right direction, towards a cover that (I hope!) bounces with energy, whilst also portraying Triangle’s journey as she tries to fit in.
Illustrating the rest of the inside spreads whilst still working as a fulltime freelance designer also bought its own challenges, but I’m a big believer in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Nothing worthwhile comes from staying in your lane. Introducing these new techniques and processes back into my cover design work has also helped pushed that side of my profession forwards. Luckily Naomi and I are working on more picture books together now, which have allowed me to grow my illustration skills and techniques again, creating grander compositions but still staying true to the graphic tones and textures I love.
So never be afraid to push your publishing career in a new direction. Cross-pollinating different creative skills only brings greater rewards both to your day job and your new hustle (and yes, it also brings a decent dose of anxiety and very late nights, but that’s the nature of the beast). We don’t put up walls between creative pursuits when we’re kids – and it’s a joy to regain that sense of freedom when we do, finally (sort of) grow up.
James Jones is a multi-award-winning designer, and was named a Rising Star by The Bookseller in 2014. The Perfect Fit by Naomi Jones and James Jones is out now (OUP).