KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 8 — Walk into a bookstore these days and you will be inundated with hundreds, nay, thousands of choices. What to buy, what to read? This is where the design of a book cover goes beyond routine product packaging.
Everyone recognises Chip Kidd’s famous T-Rex skeleton cover for Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel Jurassic Park, a design which was carried over to the eventual film adaptation. And Nick Gaetano’s jacket art for Ayn Rand’s cult favourite Atlas Shrugged employing a crouching golden man was instantly iconic.
How about book cover design in our part of the world?
The whimsical world of Shahril Nizam Ahmad
Chances are you’ve noticed his quirky illustrations on the shelves of local bookstores. From the pontificating politician on the cover of Amir Muhammad’s Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things, Vol. 1 to the whimsical reader introducing us to Readings from Readings, a collection of Malaysian stories edited by Bernice Chauly and Sharon Bakar, Shahril Nizam Ahmad’s style is unmistakable.
The 34-year-old visual artist has had his work exhibited in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Yogyakarta, and credits his parents for his current vocation. He recalls, “My interest in art started quite early. However, my ambition was to become a doctor. Instead, my parents advised me to study graphic design, so I pursued fine art at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art and later, the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia.”
Shahril’s interest in illustration came during his final year of university, when he started reading and collecting children’s books. His entry into the world of book design began purely by chance though.
“After I had graduated and returned to Malaysia, I became disillusioned with making art, thinking it would be impossible to survive as an artist, let alone a painter. While working full time at a bank, I got reacquainted with graphic design and learned the basics of desktop publishing.”
From there on, he started designing book covers as a freelancer, landing projects as varied as Malay Sketches, a collection of short stories by Alfian Sa’at, to Heart & Soul by Indonesian poet Bibsy Soenharjoget.
In coming up with the design, Shahril rarely has any preliminary drawings, as he does not like to sketch. He says, “I normally do all the planning and alterations on the computer.”
For Shahril, a book cover has to stand out and grab the viewer’s attention. “It’s no different from, say, designing a greeting card or a poster. Consider the fact that the book cover is the first thing that a potential reader will see on a book shelf. We often say that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but quite often I find myself lured into buying a book based purely on the strength of the cover alone.”
Likening it to dressing up a book, Shahril feels the design of a book cover should create an impression, and allude to the content as well. He adds, “I’m still learning as I go along. It’s a process of trial and error – you figure out what works and what doesn’t over time. When it comes to design, there’s always room for improvement.”
Sarah and Schooling: Connecting authors with readers
If you’ve wandered into BooksActually, a beautiful independent bookstore in Singapore, you can’t miss the wide range of titles by Singaporean authors. Many are published by Math Paper Press, a small publishing press run by Kenny Leck, the man behind BooksActually.
Leck says, “Our only approach to book cover design for Math Paper Press titles is that it must truly reflect the content. We don’t design just for the sake of design.”
To that end, Leck has enlisted the aid of designers Sarah Tang and Alison Schooling to create a consistent design for the imprint’s books. Collectively known as Sarah and Schooling, the girls first met while studying at the La Salle College of the Arts.
Tang says, “The idea of being able to design books was very exciting for us, as we both love to read and we both love print. With the world we live in being filled with iPads and Kindles, I still don’t think anything compares to holding a paperback in your hands. I’m sentimental towards paper that way.”
She adds, “We are also very happy to have been given a chance to be able to work alongside talented local authors who deserve publicity and appreciation from readers.”
Meanwhile, Schooling feels that book cover design is very personal. “It’s an intimate thing as opposed to designing a website, logo or banner. It’s about capturing the secrets inside the book.
The books are all so moving. The authors themselves are moving.”
To date, their favourite book cover design experience has been Jollin Tan’s Bursting Seams. Tang explains, “Jollin’s book touched on women’s obsession with their weight, and how they struggle with accepting their bodies. I have a best friend with these issues and I invited her to pose for the cover, promising not to reveal her face. This process made her a lot more comfortable with her body.”
As designers working with a small publishing house like Math Paper Press, Tang and Schooling got to speak directly with the authors and get to know each of them individually as a person.
Tang says, “We try to embody the story’s characters in the covers the way they do when they write.
It has been eye-opening. Most people think that it’s fun designing a book. It is, but we also have to balance and consider many different views before reaching a compromise. We also have to read many, many books and understand each subject and tone before we start designing!”
Be it the absurdist illustrations of Shahril Nizam Ahmad, or the intimate jacket designs of Sarah and Schooling, it looks like readers can judge a book by its cover after all.
Shahril Nizam Ahmad
Sarah and Schooling
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 7, 2013.