Interview: Cover Designer Jenny Zemanek

Today I have the wonderful pleasure of interviewing Jenny Zemanek, award-winning book cover designer from Seedlings Design Studio.

How did you get into book cover design?

I started a book review blog in 2010 as an additional creative outlet to working as a graphic designer. I’ve always been an avid reader and book lover, so the blog gave me the opportunity to not only do something I loved, but also interact with people who shared that same love. Over the course of the six years I ran the blog, self-publishing and indie publishing became increasingly popular, and suddenly a long-shot dream of designing book covers seemed possible.

I started by re-designing the covers of some of my favorite books and began posting them on the blog both for fun and to build a portfolio of work. My very first client saw one of those posts and got in touch to see if I might be interested in designing the cover for her book, and I nearly fell out of my chair in my haste to respond with a very enthusiastic YES! Shortly thereafter, a small publisher ran a cover design contest open to anyone and everyone, and I decided to try my luck. I had the very surreal experience of winning that contest, and was commissioned to work with them on the final design. Winning the contest and the interest of that very first client (thank you Intisar Khanani!) gave me the courage to shift my freelance design business from wedding stationery and corporate branding to full-time cover design, and it’s been one of the very best decisions I’ve ever made.

What's your process like? What can a client expect when working with you?

I start each and every job by sending clients a short artwork form to fill out to give me an idea of what they’re looking for in their cover design. Every client is different – some provide a great deal of very detailed information and have definitive ideas as to what they want, and others have absolutely no idea where to start and look to me for guidance. The form helps both types of clients (and everyone in between) get a few thoughts down on the page to give me a starting point.

After reviewing the form, I put together idea boards. The idea boards consist of raw stock images, rough sketches and existing covers for inspiration grouped together into various design concepts for the client’s review. These boards are meant to get ideas flowing and to give the client a variety of design options to consider before we move on to comps. I always strive to make my process collaborative, and I want my clients to feel comfortable both expressing ideas and providing feedback.

Once a client and I have discussed the concepts presented on the boards and we’re both comfortable with a chosen design direction, I move forward with comps. Since I work in a variety of styles from photographic to illustrated to typographic, the comps can take various forms, but they’re all essentially rough drafts submitted to clients based on their feedback from the boards. I typically then make revisions to the comp of a client’s choosing and move forward with final front cover artwork.

Any favorite genres you prefer to work in and why?

Each genre comes with its own set of challenges and I love getting the chance to push myself to try a variety of new things, but I do have a soft spot for the fantasy genre (YA and adult both). I love the broad scope of visual creativity that accompanies this genre, from vast or unusual worlds to mythological creatures and magic; there are so many opportunities for me to take an idea and just run wild with it.

What do you do to recharge your creative energy?

I of course love to read, but I also really love taking classes. I find nothing inspires me more than learning something new, I get that giddy sense of anticipation and can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice.

Right now I’m absolutely obsessed with lettering, and I hope one day to get proficient enough at it that I can create completely custom title work for my book covers. Lettering is a very time-consuming process though, so right now more often than not it just makes more sense to find a gorgeous font and use that as a foundation.

I’m also really focused on illustration at the moment, and am actually going back to school in October, November and December of this year to broaden my skill set in that area. Illustrated covers are my passion, and as with lettering, I hope to be able to create more custom artwork for my clients in the future rather than relying on stock illustrations as the starting point for my design work.

Where have you drawn inspiration from when developing your style?

I’m hugely influenced by the Mid-Century Modern design aesthetic, which I think really comes through in my illustrated covers. My illustrations tend to be very stylized and graphic, dominated by more simplistic shapes and bold, flat color. I love bringing in texture to add interest as well, so my illustrated covers usually have a lot of grit accompanying the smooth vector-drawn shapes.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be so afraid to takes risks! I dreamed about working on book covers for years before I finally took the leap and gave myself permission to try something new. It’s so easy to settle into a routine, and it can be hard to justify walking away from a job that’s making money for something with no guarantee.

I’ve taken risks twice now in my design career, first when I left my corporate job to go full-time freelance (yikes!) and then again when I shifted my freelance business from stationery to cover design. There was so much stress both times, so many what-if questions and second-guessing, but I’m humbled every day by my clients. Their enthusiasm for my artwork and their trust in me to give them the best cover I’m capable of creating makes every stress-induced chocolate-eating binge worth it!

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