Jennifer Heuer is a book designer based in Brooklyn. Formerly a designer at HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, she now runs her own studio out of the Pencil Factory. Jen’s striking inkblot design for 1000 Black Umbrellas by Daniel McGinn, published by Californian small press Write Bloody, was one of my favourite covers of last year. As Jen was in a list with many of the usual suspects — several of whom have already been interviewed here — it only seemed appropriate to feature more her excellent work on The Casual Optimist and interview her as well.

Jen and I corresponded by email earlier this year.

When did you become interested in book design? Where did you start your career?

In college I always thought that I wanted to design either album covers or book covers. I didn’t really know how to get into either field after I graduated, but I was fortunate to have Dave Caplan hire me over at HarperCollins. It was a great place to start and Dave was an awesome boss. I was in the children’s department there, and worked on a wide range of covers as well as interiors. It was boot camp in learning how to package an entire manuscript — all the way down to the binding specs and headbands. It was a great way to start thinking beyond the cover and the spine.

I spent about 4 years there learning the ins and outs of book design with a great team. My next goal was to move over to adult book cover design. Simon and Schuster became my new home where I was able to have a blast creating fiction and nonfiction covers for five super talented art directors.

Why did you decide to go freelance?

It’s funny, I’d always dreamed of taking the freelance plunge, but had planned on staying in-house for a few years more before doing so. Thankfully, my husband, Jed, and I shook up our lives a bit and moved to Portland, Oregon for a year. He was joining the experimental team of WK12 at Wieden+Kennedy and I figured I’d be miserable if I sat around Brooklyn without him. So we packed up, and took a few weeks to drive across the country and try something new. The best and scariest decision I’ve made in a long time.

I set up a studio in town and biked to work most days. I worked on building up clients and challenging myself with new projects and classes in and around the area. I even learned how to letterpress! In the end, I’m so glad I took the freelance jump when I did.

Who are some of the publishers you work with?

Just over a year out on my own I’m so thankful to say I’ve worked with HarperCollins, Random House, Little Brown, Grand Central, Penguin, Thomas Nelson, Simon & Schuster, Scribner, Freepress, Ecco, Columbia University Press, Write Bloody, Harvard Business Review Press, and W.W. Norton & Co.

Could you describe you book cover design process?

Each book is different, so the process can vary. But ideally, this is how I hope I’m working:

Naturally, I read the manuscript if there is one. While I’m reading I keep a running list of keywords, signifiers, and themes in my notebook. From there I create some free-association lists of words, trying to decide on a general direction for the look. Then I head to the Pratt library. As an alumni, I have access to the remarkably eclectic collection. The library is where I tend to sketch out ideas. I made these simple worksheets, basically 6 book shaped rectangles on a sheet of paper to knock around some layouts before using the computer. When I’m back in the studio I set up a moodboard on to organize the artwork I’ve created and keep track of art I’ve collected. That’s kinda the whole shebang. I do a lot of prep work before starting the actual design, although you need to be wary of overthinking a project. Sometimes it’s nice to have almost no time at all and just go with my gut. I recently got to do that with the 30 Books in 30 Days project and the Lolita Project.

What are your favorite books to work on? The most challenging?

Well, this may sound super obvious, but I really don’t care what the subject matter is — from brain eating aliens to a medical history, or a memoir on life abroad, to a beautiful love story — as long as it’s a smart, well-written book that I want to pass along to friends and family. Those are the best books to work on. The ones where you don’t feel like you’re doing work while reading the manuscript. The most rewarding projects present a conceptual design challenge, similar to editorial illustration.

Do you see any current trends in book design?

I feel like I’m hearing more and more about making the book an object of desire — something that will be coveted and gift-worthy. And I love seeing smart special effects on covers these days. While this may be the knee-jerk reaction to e-books, I hope it will be something that holds on long enough to make everyone appreciate the object of the book. There also seems to be more attention paid to detail throughout the entire book — from the cover to the end paper to the title page. It’s a great thing to see these days, and solidifies the purpose of the designer.

Where do you look for inspiration and who are some of your design heroes?

Inspiration honestly comes from everywhere. The important part is to pay attention. I try to to get away from my desk and go to the library, museums, read fashion magazines, the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch documentaries and observe closely. I tend to find that when I’m not consciously searching for a design solution, I’m inspired by things happening around me. These things are often times closely related to the project at hand. Perhaps its all synchronicity, but either way, paying attention to what’s around me seems to work well.

As far as heroes go, it’s the people around me that inspire me the most. Friends I’ve known over the years who keep me on my creative toes are an incredible source of inspiration. Of course there are greats throughout the history of art and design, but I feel like I look up to a different person or group of people depending on what I’m working on.

OK, that’s annoyingly vague. Here are some examples: I just watched Senna, and loved the Formula One graphics and footage from the 80’s; the silk screen posters from Slavs and Tatars in the Print/Out show at MoMA were wonderfully fresh and fun to read; found this amazing book of South African block prints while searching for artwork at the library; was settling into the new studio and read an interesting article about brainstorming and the chance creative interactions that were coming out of MIT’s make-shift Building 20.


Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?

I mentioned earlier that my husband and I spent some time living in Portland last year, and the WK12 group was a big influence. Not necessarily in how I work visually, but in thinking beyond the assignment. While I love spending hours in bookstores oohing and aahhing over the beautiful covers, I’ve been trying to look elsewhere when it comes to interesting work.

It spans from the gorgeous Alexander McQueen textiles, to the beautifully clever industrial design of Joey Roth (I love these speakers!). I’ve been looking at the photography of Todd Hido, and love the eye of Jason Fulford. But I try to pull inspiration from the world outside of design and art. Shows like The Moth, Radiolab, and TED are obvious ones, but incredible resources. The people who are doing the most interesting work are those promoting solid ideas and telling those stories in brand new ways.

What books have you read recently?

Non-work related reading? I’ve been really into Aravind Adiga’s novels. I randomly picked up Between the Assassinations from the free book shelf when I used to work at S&S a couple of years ago and loved it. Right now I’m in the middle of his latest. I’m also in the middle of Chronic City which is a blast to read. I tend to be in the middle of a lot of books when it’s not work related, and always seem to lose track of what I was last reading.

Work related, I enjoyed reading Alexi Zentner’s Touch—lovely story! And a soon-to-be-released collection of short stories by Lucia Perillo was a truly good read (got to use a photo by Todd Hido!).

Do you have a favorite book?

That’s a tough one… It used to be A Farewell to Arms, but it’s been so long since I’ve read that. I did a piece for a gallery show based on Leaves of Grass and found it to be amazingly relaxing to read. And a recent favorite (before any hint of a movie, which I think I’ll skip) is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I loved the combination of visual narrative and traditional narrative to tell a story.

What does the future hold for book cover design?

Oh, I’m sure it’s adorable puppies on every cover. I think my mom would be happy with that! Who wouldn’t?!