Q & A: Suzanne Dean on Designing Ian McEwan’s Nutshell

Posted on 21st October 2016 by Sally Campbell
Inspired by Hamlet and told from the point of view of an embryo, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel Nutshell is a 'virtuoso entertainment' (The Guardian); a remarkable read, the book presented a uniquely fascinating challenge for cover designer Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Vintage Books. Waterstones Online's Sally Campbell was lucky enough to catch up with Dean to discuss her process for Nutshell and how she arrived at the final, pared-down, singular yet striking design.

When you are designing a book jacket, do you read the full novel before you begin to draft ideas or do you sketch as you read?

I always read the manuscript.  There is so much possibility at that moment. After many years of designing covers, it is still exciting.  I make notes, sketch and underline words as I read.

When designing the cover for Nutshell, what was your first drawing? 

This brief was very tricky. How do you design a cover where the witness to this tale of murder and deceit is a nine-month-old baby, still in the womb?

The cover approach had formed in my head, very early on. It was fortunate that the title Nutshell had a ‘u’ with which to create the pregnant belly. 

The curve of the ‘u’ had to be distorted sufficiently to give a full term pregnancy shape whilst retaining the look of the typeface. 

The ‘u’ also had to be big enough on the cover to hold the foetus. A big issue for me was how best to render the idea.

What font, colour, technique and materials should I use?

Did you have a particular quote from the book in mind when designing the final image?

In this case there wasn’t a particular quote that sparked the cover. 

When approaching a design, I look to depict the essence of the novel. 

I like there to be a reason for my visual interpretation. For instance I chose the background 

colour of the design, to be as close as I could find to a flesh tone.

Did you do image-based research once you decided on where you wanted to take the design – if so, what images did you research?

I researched images of the foetus and pregnancy in science and art picture libraries.  I already knew of the Leonardo drawing of the foetus in the womb. 

The study was by far the best image.  It is a sensitive depiction, that isn’t cold or clinical.

Luckily the drawing could be used. All I had to do was cut it out of the background and flip it upside down in the “u” . 

How long did it take you to design the cover?

The cover idea was very quick. I spent a couple of weeks rendering the cover in different techniques.

I was also searching for another visual approach, but none worked as well as that first idea. 

Luckily, when I started to show the cover to people in house, they all loved it.

Is the process of sharing a cover with an author nerve-wracking?

Yes. I want to do the best I can for both the author and the book. I really want the author to like, even love, their cover.

Unusually I only showed Ian McEwan the one visual. Which he approved. I didn’t make any changes to that layout for the final cover. 

How would you sum up the art of book jacket design?

At its best, a cover distills the essence of that book. 

An effective design manages to catch the eye, engage the reader and convey the idea in a unique, creative and striking way on a single page.

The designer has to convey a lot in a small space. 

The design needs to distinguish itself in the market place and capture the book buyer’s attention – for which you only have a few seconds. 

Whose book jackets do you admire most?

Apart from Jon Gray, Peter Mendelsund and David Pearson…my design heroes are from the 1950s and 60s, Alvin Lustig, Dick Bruna and Paul Rand

Is there a book you would most like to design the cover for?

I am very lucky working at Vintage. I get to work on the kind of books that I would choose to buy and read. 

Until recently, I might have answered the Russian classics,  but I have just finished designing a Vintage Classics Russian series. There are six titles including War and Peace and Doctor Zhivago.

And I also have a new Murakami to design….



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