Coralie Bickford-Smith: The Power of a Limited Palette

Book jacket designers rarely experience extreme notoriety. But this past holiday season that changed for Coralie Bickford-Smith. A longtime Penguin Group book cover designer, Bickford-Smith saw her star rise when her second series of Clothbound Classics for the publisher was released this past Fall. Along with mentions on prominent blogs like Design Sponge, Bickford-Smith’s re-imagined covers – such as those for classic novels

Emma and Little Women – began popping up in just about every magazine’s holiday gift guide, including Real Simple and Readymade.
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erhaps it’s the designer’s nostalgic graphics combined with ultra-modern color pairings that appeal to so many. In the end, no e-reader can replicate the tactile beauty of these covers. We corresponded with Bickford-Smith about her life as a book artist.

How long have you been at Penguin, and how did you get there?

I’ve been at Penguin for almost 8 years. Before that I studied typography at Reading University and had several design jobs, including illustrating coffee table books. And there was the year spent designing stuff for supermarkets, including point of sale and loyalty magazines. Needless to say, I find both the process and the end product a great deal more satisfying at Penguin.

Are you surprised by the attention the classics series has received?

Yes, they seem to have captured people’s imagination, which is lovely. What is so great is that it is a set of books that I got to design to my personal taste, using my favorite materials. As a designer I have many approaches depending on the audience of the title I am aiming to reach. The classics were an opportunity for me to create something that was more personal. Maybe it’s that passion that has come through and that people are connecting with. And of course the authors don’t hurt…

How do you conceptualize a book cover? Do you take the books’ contents into consideration?

The cover is there to serve the content, so the content has to be taken into consideration. How and to what extent the content is represented on the cover varies of course – sometimes it will be quite literal, other times more oblique, or even just a suggestion of mood and tone. For factual books, the title and the blurb can sometimes be enough to work with, whereas with fiction I like to read the whole book whenever possible.

The cover is there to serve the content, so the content has to be taken into consideration.

How important is color when you’re coming up with a concept? Do you have any colors that you consider favorites?

Color is vitally important – the right combination can make a good design utterly compelling. I like to use a limited palette in a lot of my designs, something I became hooked on at university. We were encouraged to design within constraints and make a virtue out of it, which is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.

With the clothbound classics, materials and budget dictate that I can only use two colors per book, and there is a further limitation imposed by the range of available cloth and foil. Rather than seeing that as a negative, I love finding the best combination. It’s a time-consuming business but such a major element of the design, and when it works it really takes the cover to the next level.

As for favorites, I still love pink foil and dark red cloth on Fairy Tales. It was the first clothbound book I designed, and I spent hours looking at colors to get the choice right.

What inspired the design of each book in the classics series?

The series design came first. The grid unifies the series as a whole, while allowing each title to have its own individual identity expressed through the pattern and color choices.

The peacock feather on The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, plays on the book’s themes of vanity and the superficial, whereas the leaf motif on Jane Eyre refers directly to the lightning-blasted chestnut tree, a concrete element in the text that serves as a potent symbol of the book’s central relationship. Emma was to be either a map of the village they lived in or chairs to signify the complex social etiquette presented in the novel. I worked with the in-house picture researcher Isabelle de Cat and the illustrator Despotica (Mike Topping), who illustrated three titles in the second series.

Can you describe a typical workday?

Typically I have several projects at different stages of development. There’s a range of things I could be working on at any one time, from gathering inspiration for a new brief, to presenting alternative concepts at a cover meeting, to making final adjustments and sending the work off to production. So days can vary quite a lot, though they all tend to begin with me making lists of what needs to get done. I’ve always liked the idea that I’m not one for structure, but in reality I thrive off it.

If I’m starting a new brief, I look at where it might be most appropriate to gain inspiration. Working in central London, I can go to some wonderful places to get ideas – museums, galleries, shops. And right at my desk of course – sometimes I just get sucked into the Internet and binge visually for hours. If this is the way my day has gone I go running for half an hour at lunchtime to escape and reset my brain.

I’ve always liked the idea that I’m not one for structure, but in reality I thrive off it.

Then I start collecting my ideas, drawing and making notes, reading the book, and visualizing concepts. I like bouncing ideas of other people, to see if they produce the intended reaction and have any appeal beyond some strange compartment of my own brain. If the concept work isn’t getting anywhere, I put it to one side and get on with the more mundane housekeeping jobs that need doing – archiving, text corrections and so on. It’s important to keep on top of that stuff, and it makes sense to do it when my creative faculties aren’t 100%.

I like a day that ends when there’s an idea that makes me smile, and I can go home and relax. Other days I’m still working on an idea when the working day has finished, mulling it over until I fall asleep.

The best days are when final books come in. If it’s one that I’ve put my heart into I can’t wait for them to reach our floor so I rush up to production to get my hands on them and make sure everything is as it should be. It can be a bit scary, opening those boxes of books, but when it has all worked, it’s ace.

Besides graphic design, what other types of art do you do? Do those mediums affect your work at Penguin?

I created an installation for an art exhibition recently (Fantasy Zoo, curated by Garudio Studiage) which involved placing a load of zebra-shaped helium balloons among some broken gravestones in a church crypt. That was fun and conceptual – more art, less graphic design.  But I am mainly design-focused to be honest, though I do like to explore areas other than book design to get a feel for different scale and materials. I try to do a course every year to widen my skills: I’ve tried my hand at calligraphy, screen printing, pottery, and so on, and I’ve got a surface design course coming up.

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