August 17, 2015

Interview with Erin Fitzsimmons, Associate Art Director at HarperCollins

So if you're like me, you might wonder what various jobs in the publishing industry entail. A blogger friend, Shae, recently talked about being a literary scout intern, which is a job I never knew existed. 
I have a friend, though, who recently asked me about illustrating children's books. She loves to read, and draw, and paint, and take photos. I mentioned cover design to her, but I personally didn't know what all of that would entail. So I went directly to a cover designer I knew of: Erin Fitzsimmons. She's an associate art director at HarperCollins, and I knew if I could get an interview with her, I could get some of Hannah's questions answered - as well as help out other aspiring cover designers. So without further ado, my interview with Erin Fitzsimmons.

Emma: I know you get this question pretty much every time, but could you explain to my readers what an associate art director does?
Erin: Absolutely! I think it does vary from company to company, so I can tell you what I do in my role at HarperCollins. My role as Associate Art Director consists primarily of managing the design and art direction of new book covers and interiors for one editorial team. For me, this means working on mostly middle grade and YA titles, with the occasional picture book and graphic novel!

I have an incredibly talented designer who works with me, and she designs about half of the titles on the list. The other half of the titles I might design myself or I hire outside freelancers to work on. When working with my designer, my role is to help her concept for new titles, or to encourage her along as she develops concepts on her own. Depending on the complexity and level of the project, I might be more involved or less involved with each aspect of the design process. I’m horrible at editing my own work, but I love seeing her ideas and helping her narrow down to the strongest covers!

The great thing about my role is I do still get to design some titles, although significantly fewer than I was before I took on this title. Designing is my passion, but there is something very fun about art directing as well. I love finding new artists, and working with them on a concept I’ve sketched up, or giving them a brief to come up with concepts on their own. There’s nothing more rewarding for an art director than taking one concept from sketch to final, and seeing your vision executed with perfection.

A very large part of any art director’s job is being the liaison between the publisher, the author and agent, and the artist. We always strive to create a cover that makes all parties happy, and sometimes that can be more complicated, but it’s our job to find the best solution and continually push the design to be its best.

[hand-lettering and design]

Emma: What does your average work day look like?
Erin: Usually it’s a mix between meetings with editors to talk about new covers, actually designing covers or jackets, emailing with artists, and circulating materials for books in progress. Every day includes a lot of emailing artists.  Some days are heavier on meetings, or we have more deadlines coming up, so I need to focus on my inbox. I try and keep a balance, or else I can get overwhelmed and can fall behind in one area. I love meeting with editors to share cover concepts or to show them final art, but the absolute best days are the days that I get to design!

Emma: What skills do you think an aspiring cover designer should have or learn?
Erin: This might sound strange but...time management! Work ethic, creativity, and technical skills are all incredibly important, but you’ll need technical skills to get any job in design, and I’m not quite sure you can learn to have a work ethic or to be creative. I think those come naturally. But I do think you can learn to manage your time, and I think if you can do that, you will find working in any design environment much easier, and you’ll be able to manage the day-to-day tasks (emails, circulating jackets and interiors, etc.) in an efficient manner which will leave you more time to actually design! (And that’s all we want to do really - design.)

Emma: Is there anything important they should study in college?
Erin: I didn’t go to design school, so I’m not even sure what you’re supposed to study to become a cover designer! The classes that helped me the most were Photoshop classes. Since I knew Photoshop, I was able to teach myself InDesign and Illustrator (though I suppose it’d be much easier if you took actual classes in those!)

And, again it may sound odd, but I read a ton in college, and was constantly analyzing and writing about readings. As cover designers, we are constantly reading manuscripts, so I’d say reading comprehension is a great skill to have if you want to work in book cover design!

Emma: How do you choose what to put on a cover? Are there specific scenes or detail you make note of if you're able to read the book?
Erin: In many ways, the cover imagery kind of chooses itself. I do try to take notes and sketch while I’m reading. Sometimes an image jumps out to me immediately, and I can’t get it out of my head while I’m reading. This happened recently on Challenger Deep. I had this image of Caden underwater, with a tangled, messy line, in my head from the very beginning. It was very cool to see my idea brought to life by the extremely talented artist Andy Bridge.

If I don’t have a specific idea while I’m reading, I like to make lists of words that come to mind when I think of the book, such as general themes, or specific elements. I use this list to begin researching imagery and artists, and then I see where that research takes me. The process becomes more exploratory then, and we can go through many iterations of a cover before we settle on the final image.

[art by Andy Bridge]

Emma: How much input do outside influences have on a cover? (i.e., the author, the editor, marketing teams, and so forth)
Erin: Quite a bit. We want everyone to be happy and excited with the cover direction, so sometimes we need to make changes based on feedback from different teams. We work most closely with the editors, so they are very involved from the beginning. But as we get closer to a final cover, we share with the sales and marketing teams, and the author. For the most part, everyone is usually on happy and board, maybe with minor changes! But there are the occasional titles where they see something we didn’t, or they had a different vision for the cover. So we adapt and come up with a better solution!

Emma: Is there anything you see becoming a cover trend in the very near future?
Erin: Gosh, I wish I knew! Do you see something? Do tell, do tell! ;)

I do think we’ve reached the peak of the illustrated/hand-lettered cover trend, so the market is definitely ripe for a new trend. It’s anybody’s guess! I can’t tell if I’d love or hate to be the one to set the trend. I think I’d love it? Who knows!

Emma: Do you have a preference for which genre of YA fiction you design for? (Contemporary, fantasy, futuristic, etc.)
Erin: I thought I used to, but now I really enjoy working on a variety of genres! That’s kind of the best part about being an art director -- I assign the titles so I can give myself a nice variety to work on. It can get monotonous (and difficult) to design for the same type of book over and over again, so it’s great to mix it up.

Emma: What is one thing more people should know about cover designers/cover design?
Erin: We’re huge nerds. And we love books as much as you do!!!

Thanks again, Erin! 

If you want to check out more of Erin's work, here are the links to her website and her Twitter.

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