ABCD 2020: Jo Walker on designing Dead Astronauts

The seventh annual Academy of British Cover Design awards, known as the ABCDs, is this year being announced virtually, in lieu of hosting a physical event. Two winners are announced each day this week (commencing 19th October) by the organisation’s Twitter account and Instagram feed.

The awards recognise excellence in UK-based cover designers; the criteria for this year’s awards was any book published between 1st January and 31st December 2019 (e-books are admissible). In order to promote inclusion and a breadth of entries, entry is free for designers, who may submit their own work or that of a fellow designer.

Awards will be given in ten categories this week—Children’s 0-5, Children’s 6-12, Young Adult, SciFi/Fantasy, Mass Market, Literary Fiction, Crime/Thriller, Non-fiction, Series Design and Classic/Reissue—with the initial entries whittled down to a shortlist by a number of book- and design-industry insiders.

The winner of this year's SciFi/Fantasy award has been revealed as Jo Walker. The Bookseller caught up with Jo to find out how she came up with the winning design...

First off Jo, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you landed in the world of book design?

I left university and got a cover design job straight away at a tiny vanity publisher, Minerva Press. Unfortunately, after four months there they moved the company to Leicester and made everyone redundant. By then I was hooked on book covers. Nathan Burton, who was at Bloomsbury Publishing, had asked for my details at my graduate design show and we kept in touch, so he offered me a job there when one came up. After Bloomsbury, I worked for a few different publishing companies in-house, before landing the dream job of art director at Pushkin Press. I also work as a freelancer.

Moving onto your winning cover, can you tell us a little about the brief you received?

Dead Astronauts couldn’t really be summed up on a briefing sheet, so the brief simply said "read the book". There were some images that stood out straight away to me, so I got to work. The author, Jeff Vandermeer, is a designer’s dream: he’s very open to whatever crazy ideas you come up with and really trusts the publisher's vision for the book. I’ve been very lucky to work on a few of his books, and each time it’s been a really enjoyable process.

How did you go about creating the cover?

I started off thinking that this book absolutely had to have a blue fox on the jacket. I played around with a few ideas but sadly, a lot of them resembled Athena posters that I had up in my bedroom in the late 1980s.

I had recently started following an illustrator on Instagram called Alycia Rainaud, or known as Maalavidaa. I thought her work was incredible and really suited Jeff Vandermeer’s writing. I got in touch with her to see if she was interested and, in the meantime, the editor had asked the US publisher for their jacket to see what they had done. When it came in, I was shocked and slightly horrified that they had used Alycia! [US designer] Rodrigo Corral had the same thought—she obviously was perfect for this book—so I had to contact him and explain that I’d also wanted to use her and it was just a fluke. He was very understanding about it, and she created the amazing illustration for the UK cover. She was a total delight to work with.

I wanted to keep the typography fairly simple and let the illustration take centre stage, but I also wanted to reflect the surreal nature of the book, so I turned the title upside-down. My art director at the time (Julian Humphries) and I had a bet on whether it would go through [the cover approval process] but nobody mentioned it, so we kept quiet... and it did!

 

Can you share any alternatives or ‘killed covers’ for the project?

Behold! The Athena-style poster that never made it. (I didn’t even show this to the meeting.)

 

What has been your favourite project to work on in the past year?

My favourite project of 2020 has been the paperback of Weather by Jenny Offill, designed for [production director] Sarah Wasley at Granta. Jenny Offill is an incredible writer and that book really was an absolute dream visually. As I read it, I filled up pages and pages of ideas—it was the book that kept on giving! I did over 30 different jackets for it. I just couldn’t stop.

Which book would you most like to design a cover for?

Ooh this is a tough one... but I’d have to say, working on Haruki Murakami would be incredible. [Vintage creative director] Suzanne Dean has already done an amazing job of his covers, but in an alternative universe I’d love to give them a go—particularly The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I think my main issue—which has been talked about a lot lately, but needs to be shouted from the rooftops—is: credit designers, everyone! I see so many instances of cover reveals on social media without credits, and it’s rather soul-destroying.

To see more of Jo's work, visit her online portfolio.