Hello, I’m Yo, one half of design consultancy VS+YO. I created the cover for Before and After and Shan asked me to tell you the story of how we made it.
Before we get started, a warning, this blog post contains spoilers! If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, go get it from the kindle store before you read this, go!
Shan and I have worked together for over 18 years and I think we have only met in real life four times. I love working with him for multiple reasons [Chief among these being that we only meet in person once every 4.5 years – Shan].
Firstly, he gives me compliments like this:
But more importantly we share the same values when it comes to design and creating.
We also understand that we are both focused on making things better, which is why when we share ideas we are completely honest with each other. And why, when Shan told me that the cover was the most important thing to the success of any book and if his failed to sell it would be all my fault, I laughed. No pressure then!
The process I followed for creating the book cover was the same as I would follow for any design project. At each stage Shan had the opportunity to input and feedback which meant that the project is collaborative and that he thinks that all of the design was his idea.
Step 1 – The brief
We kicked off project with a call where I asked lots of questions to get a clear understanding of what Shan was looking for. Here are my notes of what he told me:
I then asked for a draft of the blurb that would feature with the book so that I could get an idea of what Shan was going to reveal up front and what he wanted to be a surprise. You can read the blurb here.
I had an idea I wanted to put something on the cover that represented one thing when you first saw it and then had another meaning after you have read the book.
Shan had lots of ideas for the cover, including making a hybrid illustration, creating an optical illusion where some people might see a fat man other would see a dog and a design with a fat superhero wearing a cape.
Emma, Shan’s wife, also had an idea which Shan send in a video. This made my day:
I had lots to go on, but before started any design I wanted to experience the book and understand the key themes. I also wanted to see the competition to learn who we were competing with and how they approached standing out in a crowded market place.
Step 2 – Research
I read the book, every word.
Shan asked if I would send feedback, I sent him notes after I had read each chapter. Reading the book really helped me to understand the key themes and get ideas for visuals that would work on the cover. It also gave me an understanding of the experience of the book. I loved it! It made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and cry once too.
Next, I researched the marketplace and the competition. Looking at the sci fi and post apocalyptic section of the amazon kindle store was overwhelming. There are so many titles! Our cover would definitely need to stand out and the design would have to work at multiple sizes and in greyscale as well as in full colour.
I had a call with Shan to discuss what I had learned. We looked at examples and discussed typography, colours and tone, what he liked and what he didn’t. This helped us to realise that a traditional cover design was not what we were going to create. A lone figure in front of burning buildings was out. Simple illustration was a possibility. We agreed the goal of the design would be to make it stand out and to get a reader curious enough to read the blurb.
Step 3 – Concept
Now I had all of the information I needed to get started, it was time to focus on ideas.
My ideas always start as words. They allow me to get ideas out quickly and not get caught up in how it will look.
To get started, I do a brain dump of everything I can think of in five minutes. From this quick, simple exercise I get a feeling for what excites me and what sparks visual ideas. I pay attention to words that can be connected and try combinations of words for ideas, with the aim of creating something unique and unexpected.
Then I move on to moodboards with photography and type. As a book cover is quite a straightforward design, I also mocked up some covers so that Shan could see the cover name in action and get a feel for how it could work. I showed the covers both large and as small versions in both colour greyscale to replicate how they could be viewed in the kindle store. Check out of the concepts we explored in this gif:
This stage is quick and the moodboards are designed to explore ideas, not necessarily a finished style. That comes after a direction has been agreed.
All concepts were presented to Shan on a video call where I explained the thinking behind each. We discussed each one taking into account how we could create a design that he could completely own without having to pay royalties on images. The presentation was then emailed so that he could think over the options.
The design that we were both really excited about and agreed represented the key themes was the biscuit concept. It nailed it on many levels. It was simple. It stood out. It would appeal to a mass audience. It made you curious, what was this biscuit book about? We both felt this was the right direction, it just needed more development.
We also agreed the book needed a shorter name, something more memorable, and that the biscuit should have a message on it.
Boom! The design became instantly more memorable. And it satisfied my need to create a design that was timeless and that would stand out in the kindle store.
Shan and I were very excited, this was the one to develop to design.
Step 4 – Design
We wanted an original photo to work with so that we owned the rights and wouldn’t have to pay for a licence or royalties to use it. I’m not a photographer but as the book was digital and we were working to a budget I took the photos myself with my smartphone. I went on a search for the perfect bourbon (Waitrose essentials turned out to look the most like a bourbon and work the best. Fox’s bourbons in comparison looked like dog biscuits which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for this book).
My hubby, Tom, helped with the photography (and eating the bisuits). He noticed that one was broken and said it could be cool even though he had no idea why we were taking photos of biscuits.
I loved it! The idea of the biscuit being imperfect was like the main character Ben with his flaws, as if he had nibbled a little bit off hoping no-one would notice. The piece missing could also represent the part of his leg he has to remove. This was the one!
[I never mentioned this before but one of the things I got from that is that there’s an old joke about the fact that broken biscuits have no calories, so it’s even smarter than you thought! – Shan]
As the cover image was going to appear as if it was out of context in the kindle store I felt it needed a line to explain what the book was about. I wrote one and added to the top. Then I experimented with the layout, see some of the versions in this gif:
Shan loved the big biscuit with the book title on it and the additional line. He is feeling confident and decided to ask a small trusted group to feedback on the cover.
Usually when working on a project, I ask that all decision makers are present for the first stages. It helps to get everyone on the same page.
When new people are brought into the process cold and haven’t seen the work behind a design there can be a tendency for things to get off track and this can add time and cost to the project.
We shared the design process to date and we had a winner! The feedback was to tweak to the type and I needed to have the title properly photoshopped on to the biscuit and we would be good to go.
Until Shan posted the cover in a facebook group and asked over 9.1k people for their feedback. [Sorry. – Shan]
There was a lot feedback!
A lot of positives and some negatives too.
- It didn’t look like fiction.
- American’s didn’t recognise the biscuit.
- It didn’t look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.
When dealing with feedback from with multiple individuals I aim to focus on the problem we are solving and keep bringing it back to what is important. Shan is very good at filtering out the noise and focusing on what is important.
Shan and I discussed the feedback in detail. Did these things matter? What was most important to us and to the viewer? What emotional reaction were we looking for?
We decided to give the cover design one final push to see if adding a post apocalyptic element to our biscuit cover would work.
I created some quick mock-ups, I tried adding biscuit crumbs coloured red so that at a glance it looked like blood splatter.
I added a target to communicate weight loss but that would also look like a scope, which also features in the book. At the request of Shan, I experimented with adding a mad sci-fi colour even though we knew the cover would often appear in greyscale.
I even tried adding a background of burning buildings, the cliche we originally agreed to avoid.
Sometimes, you have to try things to see them to confirm they don’t work.
These quick mock-ups proved that combining an extra element with the biscuit concept would require a lot more time and budget to get it right. And we would likely need to pay for photography or involve an illustrator.
We had two options, either to stick to our gut and go for the biscuit or continue to develop.
We realised something important.
We didn’t care that it didn’t look like traditional fiction.
We didn’t want it to look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.
We both loved the cover as it was.
We went back to the original with some final typographic tweaks to make the cover line and author name bigger as per the facebook feedback.
The cover now ticked all of the boxes we set out to:
- It stands out
- It is memorable
- It makes you feel something
- curious, what’s a book like that doing here?
- hungry, mmm… biscuits
- nostalgic, I haven’t had a bourbon in ages
- And it motivates you to click to find out more.
Whether you love or hate the cover, the book is awesome. It’s not just for those who love end of the world, sci-fi. It’s for people who love an adventure, root for the underdog and like biscuits.
Go to the kindle store and download the book to discover why the bourbon biscuit is on the cover.