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Getting Hired

From Personal Project to a 40-Book Cover Commission

How one young designer broke into the publishing world on her first try.   


Breaking into the creative industry is a beast, whether you’re a designer, entertainer, or writer. Typically, a young creative needs to show their assignor a portfolio of published work to establish credibility and be taken seriously enough to get that first assignment. Except, the creative usually doesn’t have published work because…they are completely new to the industry. 

So how do entry-level artists bridge the divide between not having any published clips and landing their first commission? By showcasing their skills and potential via a personal project, which is how 24-year-old Manuja Waldia was able to turn a cold call submission to book publisher Penguin into a 40-book commission. 

Originally born in India, Waldia attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and graduated in 2014. She then moved to Indianapolis to take a full-time job in UI and UX design for Interactive Intelligence, a corporate cloud services company where she had interned.  

While her duties at Interactive Intelligence exercised her digital muscles, Waldia also wanted to continue to work her illustrative muscles. Right after she graduated, she emailed Penguin’s creative director Paul Buckley, a man she admired but didn’t know personally, her online portfolio. Buckley enjoyed Waldia’s design school clips, but what really intrigued him was her Daily Icon project, a personal project she had tackled during her senior year of design school by creating one new sleek, minimalist icon every day.

Buckley asked Waldia to submit cover concepts in the style of her Daily Icon project, to see if they could be the perfect fit for Penguin’s new set of contemporary Shakespeare books. And they were – Waldia got the entire commission, 40 books in all. Four of the 40 books are currently in publication, including the most recent title, Romeo and Juliet. (Waldia shares the pitch book she used for the Romeo and Juliet book, below.)

The word list from Waldia's cover pitch book for Romeo and Juliet.

The word list from Waldia’s cover pitch book for Romeo and Juliet. **View Waldia’s full pitch book for Romeo-and-Juliet.

We asked Waldia about the importance of taking on personal projects, what goes into her cover designs and how she balances a full-time job with a booming side gig.

What drove you to pursue the Daily Icon project while in college, with the degree of dedication that you did?

A lot of my self worth is wrapped around how hard I work. If I am not competing with myself and working towards improving myself, I feel really lousy. I guess that is both healthy and unhealthy, but I like it. With the Daily Icon project, I wished I would have set a target of doing 100 icons in a year, to take the pressure off, otherwise if feels like a job. But, if you have a constraint, it ensures you don’t procrastinate. 

If you have a constraint, it ensures you don’t procrastinate. 

You continue to do quite a bit of personal project work. Why?

I look at it like an athlete. They don’t just do races; they work out every day. In the same way, this helps artists build their skills and use their creative juices in ways that they might not be able to use on a professional project.

What is your starting point for the Shakespeare book cover designs?

My entry point is the words. The text inspires almost everything that goes on the cover. I try to read the text at least once, but Shakespeare can be so dense and rich that it can be hard for me to comprehend the trickier parts of it. So I try to read it at least once but also look at alternative ways of doing research – there is a lot of Shakespeare in the Park going on in the summer, or Shakespeare titles adapted into movies. When you see the work performed by actors, you can really understand the emotion behind the words, which doesn’t always come out when you’re reading the text.

How does the text inform your Shakespeare designs?   

I identify key words in the text that I would like to explore and make a word list. Then I start drawing thumbnail sketches of the symbols, because it’s quicker than using a computer.

Initially, I started making the sketches using Adobe Illustrator, but that was time-consuming and sometimes futile, because some of the concepts didn’t resonate with the editorial team. Now I show them quick sketches to get their approvals. Once I get those, I work on them digitally using Adobe illustrator. From the word list to finishing the pitch presentation, it takes me about 50 to 60 hours.

Manuja Waldia shown hanging out with her cat.

Manuja Waldia shown hanging out with her cat.

Your concept sketches have text explanations next to them. Why the need to elaborate on the design itself?

With these pitches I don’t present them in person, so it’s very important for me to provide a description to explain what is going on especially when these designs have so much symbolism. Otherwise, it is just shapes.

Walk us through your front and back cover design for Romeo and Juliet.

On the front cover: The twin coffins symbolize the tragic act of double suicide by the lovers in the plot. The coffins have a poison icon and a dagger icon on them which stand for Romeo and Juliet respectively, as those items were the instruments of their death. Arrows pierce the coffins to show how young love was met with violent resistance from their feuding families. Additionally, the flower icon on Juliet’s coffin references “A Rose is a rose is a rose” and the heart icon stands for Romeo.

On the back cover: I really wanted to play on the “and” aspect of Romeo and Juliet. We always talk about these two characters as a pair, and I thought the ampersand would be a fresh take on their love story.

On the color pink: I wanted to be slightly corny with my color choice here, so I used a bright Valentine’s Day hot pink.

Of the 10 or so cover images that you submit to Penguin for each book, what happens to the images that aren’t used for the front and back cover? 

I hold the rights to the images not used. The marketing team is thinking about putting these illustrations on other formats, like posters, and I will get paid a royalty for those. The good thing about retaining rights is that if the illustrations get really popular, I can sell them as art prints later on.

Based on what you know now from being in the book business, what kind of personal project would you recommend that an aspiring book jacket designer take on to show their skills?

Art directors enjoy seeing classic books re-interpreted in a cool new manner. If you can come up with a cool personal project that revamps these classics, that would gather a lot of attention.

I try to maintain balance and sanity by being really selective about my freelance work. I don’t want to burn out from taking on too much work, and then burn myself out creatively.

How do you do manage your full-time job with the book jacket work?  

I try to maintain balance and sanity by being really selective about my freelance work. I don’t want to burn out from taking on too much work, and then burn myself out creatively. The good thing about having a full-time job is that it takes a lot of [financial] pressure off. It ensures that I’m not freaking out about where my next commission is going to come from. And that keeps the creativity alive. 

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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