Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Interview with Art Director Helen Robinson

 We're lucky to have the talented graphic designer Helen Robinson as a guest today. Helen has worked as the Art Director of Front Street Books and namelos, the new venture of Front Street's former publisher, Stephen Roxburgh. She designed the cover for Nancy Bo Flood's debut work of fiction, WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE, and Jacket Knack is joining quite a group of bloggers this month who are looking at Nancy's book from the point of view of editors, art directors, librarians, readers and general admirer's of Nancy's work (a few links can be found at the end of the interview.)  I took shameless advantage of Helen when she agreed to talk about the cover of Nancy's book, asking her far too many general questions as part of my cunning plan to learn cover design from the Best of the Best. 

JL: Will you tell our readers about your association with Front Street and how you got involved in the cover design for Nancy's book?

HR: I began working at Front Street in 1998, almost by accident. I was working in an ad agency, and ready for a change from that strange and unfamiliar world, when a friend told me that Stephen Roxburgh (the publisher) was looking for a designer. I knew nothing about childrens books (my design experience was primarily in newspaper and museum exhibit design) - but I was instantly hooked. I designed all of the Front Street titles from cover to cover so to speak (jackets, interiors, cases, endpapers) - and so WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE was automatically on my list.

JL: This is a book where both the main character and his best friend are boys. How precisely do you try, when designing the cover of books for children and young adults, to identify who the potential readers will be? Do you find yourself thinking very broadly of “boy books” and “girl books,” or do you think about pulling in readers across the gender divide?

HR: A cover really does help to sell a book, so I am always aware of the audience. I tend to think not so much of gender, but of kids in general. Front Street books tend to be edgy and challenging so I design my covers to reflect the emotional tenor of the story rather than to directly reflect the gender of the protagonist. When I began working at Front Street my daughter was six, and as she grew up (along with my interest in childrens and YA literature) she and her friends became some of my best critics. There were many evenings when a group of teens would be flopped around printouts of cover comps laid out on the living room floor discussing which ones they would pick up in a book store. Teens are unerringly and instinctively honest - their help was invaluable.

JL: When I first saw the cover of Nancy's book, I thought that I might be looking at some kind of radiology image - something to do with bones, something almost ghostly. Then I saw the handwriting and the image took shape as a war map/chart. The eeriness of the first impression carried over to the second. Was that something intentional you were going for? Where did you find that image?

HR: Existing images and stock photographs are great sources for me. I often spend quality time with Jupiter Images and keywords (from my gut reactions to the text) in the early stages of a project. In Nancy's case I got lucky early: I found an image that spoke intuitively to me of WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE - and which turned out (on closer inspection) to be a WWII aerial map of Guam and the surrounding islands. I was working on a few other ideas - a few where the main characters were depicted, and a few using a block print that a friend of Nancy's made - but in the end I felt that this more abstract image gave a more direct and emotional feeling for the book.

JL: Can you explain the steps in your thinking about cover design? Is there a “first this, second that, third that” or is it more organic and instinctive, something along the lines of an “Aha” moment where you know just what you want? Are there steps in the process (from the time you take the project on to the day the book is printed) that most people just don’t understand?

HR: I tend to work intuitively and organically - I almost never get an idea and then execute it. Some covers just seem to emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, but that’s the exception and not the most interesting process for me because it presents fewer surprises: it’s more of a problem to be solved and the end result either looks just as I imagined it or not.

I start by reading the book. ALWAYS. Cover to cover, word for word. I begin to work often with only vague images or ideas which I explore visually until a few of them speak to me. I don’t really think. I draw, or paint, or make photographs and collages, but most often I start looking at existing images from photo libraries and stock image houses. I work in Photoshop using many layers of photographs, paintings, objects, type. At a certain point I show my editor (in this case it was Joy Neaves) and other Front Street colleagues. Usually Nancy Hogan, the marketing director, Joy, and I gather around my computer and decide together which few we will show the author.

JL: Your web site includes sections such as “Novels,” “Picture Books,” and “Museum Graphics.” That quite a range! Tell us a little about the kinds of projects you get involved with as an artist (and do you differentiate between a graphic artist and an artist? If so, what first pulled you toward the “graphic” side of things?)

HR: An artist works for her/himself, and a designer works for someone else. It became clear to me in college that I was not an artist. I did not need to (nor was I able to) create an entirely different view of the world through my work. And I needed to earn a living. Graphic design fell into my lap, and I loved it - the impermanence of it (especially in newspaper and periodical design where I began), the lightness and playfulness of it. I've been lucky in that I've always gotten jobs I've been completely unqualified for (and book design was no exception). Book covers is the area of design in which I have most effectively able to really merge my art and design selves.

JL: Your web site also lists you as the Art Director for Stephen Roxburgh’s new venture, namelos. It’s interesting to think of an Art Director for non-print books which are delivered electronically. I've heard Stephen speak enthusiastically and convincingly about non-traditional delivery systems for books, and many of us are interested but uninformed. Help us understand?

HR: Books delivered by “non-traditional systems” still need to be designed. Each new book that namelos publishes is also available as a Print on Demand (POD) book - both in hard cover and paperback. These require the same design that “regular” books require - covers, jackets, interiors - with some added design challenges/limitations due to the current generic quality of POD. This quality is going to get better and better and the design possibilities of it will only increase. We are very excited to be publishing our first graphic novel by Timothy Decker as a POD and electronic book. In addition to the new books that namelos is publishing, we also control the electronic rights to the Front Street list. For these books we are using the original covers and interiors.

JL: Are there contemporary book designers whose cover work you particularly enjoy and admire? Any books from the past that you would like to design the cover for? Chip Kidd once said that he wished he could design a cover for Catcher in the Rye. Do you have any wish-list like that?

HR: Well, Chip Kidd is, of course, one of the most amazing book cover designers ever. I have never aspired to design a particular book because I'm so aware of the fact that I can design a great cover for a terrible book (and nothing is more disappointing for me as a reader than to pick a book by it's fabulous cover only to discover out that the book itself is terrible) and vice versa. I'd be more interested in designing a group or series of books - like all of George Elliot’s novels, for example.

JL: Any current projects you can tell us about? Do you handle several projects at once?

HR: I work best on many projects at a time. I’m currently working on a sequel to Betty Levin's Front Street title THORN, called THE FORBIDDEN LAND for namelos, an adult title, LOVING RYAN by Christopher Brookhouse for Safe Harbor Books, the Warren Wilson College art department web site, and a “lookbook” for Hark Designs, a high end leather bag design company.

JL: What does your work space look like? Photos/jpg’s earn you extra points!

HR: Funky, and tiny, and cozy, and fabulous.

My wall....

My chair....

JL:  I understand you were expelled from Montessori School for drawing all day long. Congratulations! Any thoughts about the current state of arts education in this country, or is that too depressing for a nice spring day?

HR: Education is a charged/depressing subject. My current experience is primarily with the public school system in North Carolina. Seeing my daughter through this system - she’ll graduate next year - what strikes me is that for all my anxiety about who her kindergarten teacher would be, it didn't really matter that much - just as most of this phase of her education will probably not matter that much either. Kids are way more interesting and resilient than our education system. And as long as they have not run into a truly deadening situations their own interests will show them the way.

Photo of Helen Robinson as a schoolgirl in Greece 
(taken from

For THE DRIFT RECORD's interview of Nancy (all about how WARRIORS OF THE CROSSFIRE came about) and two lovely poems from the book,  click here

 To read Nancy Bo Flood's interview with the people at (about literacy projects on the Navajo Nation) click here

Dianne White has a two-parter:  an interview with editor and publisher Stephen Roxburgh, who acquired WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE for Front Street, and an interview of Joseph Ruak, Reagu'nu'worh elder and Director of the Talbwogh Men Stick Dancers. 

Click here for Sarah Blake Johnson's interview of Nancy (many insights into Nancy's time on Saipan.)

Nancy will be part of a Special Interest Group discussion of Literacy and Social Responsibility at the 55th Annual  International Reading Association Convention in  Chicago - the discussion is on Monday, April 26th, from 3:00-5:45. Hopefully, Front Street will have Nancy signing WARRIORS IN THE CROSSFIRE at the convention, too! 


  1. Wow. What a great and fascinating interview. Thanks, Julie.

  2. Loved getting a peek into Helen's design process. Great interview, Julie!

  3. A fun and fascinating interview, thank you, Julie and Helen. Nancy

  4. Two of my books are the lucky recipients of Helen's talent. The wonderful thing about working with Helen is that she is so much more than gifted. She is also gracious and giving.
    And obviously intuitive.

    Loved this interview!

  5. Thanks for this interview! I have one question based on an answer Helen gave. She said that several people help her decide which cover designs are shown to the authors. Do authors have a say in deciding the final cover? I'm wondering because my manuscript will be a namelos book. Thanks!

  6. I think that would depend on the publishing house. I know of some instances where the author had a strong negative reaction to the finished cover and the publisher went back and changed it, but I can think of only one novel where the author was actually involved in cover image selections early on--BLESSING'S BEAD by Debby Edwardson, which we talked about here on JK a while ago.

  7. Here's a link to the Blessing's Bead post:

  8. Sheila - I agree with Carol that the practice is uncommon but depends on the publisher. Seems unlikely, though, that a publisher would ignore a real howl of pain if an author HATED a planned cover and said so in advance of printing. Most authors don't have the same list of priorities designers do, and I like to think that professionals know how to do their jobs - and sell your books. But since you have a contract with namelos, I bet the people there could give you the best advice!