If you’ve traversed the hallowed digital halls of 21st century book cover design, you’ve come across the work of Jason Booher. His work is constantly striking and surprising, and its breadth and variety means that your only tipoff that you might be looking at a Jason Booher design is that it’s damn good. Recently, Jason was so kind as to read our breathless queries and talk to us about his life and his work. Read the entire interview with Jason Booher in Paper Darts Volume 4.
How did you get your start in design?
I came to design late (or later than most, perhaps). My first degree was in literature from Princeton, with as many drawing and painting classes I could fit into my last two years. I always wanted to be a high school English teacher, but after teaching in England at Eton College and then at Trenton High in New Jersey, I found it wasn’t right for me. So I floated for a few years, writing grant proposals, working as a personal chef. All the while trying to create a graphic novel, something I had been toying with since I graduated college. Then I stumbled into a sudden awareness of graphic design. It’s amazing how invisible and pervasive design is. I knew instantly with a vocational knowing that graphic design was it for me, and I found a way in through the Parsons, AAS graphic design program. It’s a phenomenal two-year program designed for people like me who are coming to design after getting another degree—more like a graduate program in terms of the student body, instructors, and intensity of the coursework.
It happened so fast and was so fulfilling that it wasn’t until around the time I was graduating that I started thing about what kind of design job I wanted. I had realized that for the most part as a graphic designer I would be selling something, even if it was just an idea. So I decided I had to believe in what I was selling to make great design. And I believe in books.
I got my first job after design school working on juggling book interiors for Brian Dubé. I became pretty good at three ball tricks, and I kept meeting with people in the book cover world, showing them my portfolio and refining it. Which led to my job in the Penguin art department working for Darren Haggar and Joe Perez. About a year later, forces conspired and Carol took a chance on me. I hope she’s still happy about it.
Your work varies dramatically with each project, and yet it consistently stays fresh. How do you so keenly identify the tone of each cover while maintaining a forward and fashionable design aesthetic?
Because so many books are published every year, this is one of the basic and most important jobs of a cover designer. As soon as I read enough of a manuscript I generally know what a cover could look like, what a good solution for this title would be. But it would be like so many other covers. And the book in the end would feel just like so many other books. I try really hard not to make that easy, decent solution. What that boils down to, I believe, is creating unique formal experiences.
These days I tend to solve problems using formal-conceptual approaches. What I mean is that I don’t really try to come up with an image that I think will conceptually work on a cover. Instead, drawing from something in the book, I’ll consider a set of constraints, or a material, or a world of cultural ephemera, etc. from which I can start creating form. I find an idea through what I am making. Sometimes the word concept can be misunderstood as being narrow. I find it most useful to apply any kind of concept to the process of design. That way, the formal execution is inherently tied to whatever specific design problem you are solving or, in my case, the specific book I am working on. And you are more likely to create something that looks and feels different. I had a period where I was obsessed with repeated lines and their power. It was fascinating the different solutions I could make that all used stripes or abstract linear elements in some way. But the reason each cover would end up feeling different from another that I had also used stripes on was the design’s origin from or connection to some aspect of the book. As you said, you have to hit the right note of the book. Tone, for me, is still something I feel only intuitively. I can’t define exactly why it’s right, but it feels that way. If you are drawing from the book, and you feel like your design is honest in its relationship with the book, then you probably are getting the tone right.
Another way of thinking about this question of formal power or freshness is not to decorate. Adding extra elements to make a design feel like something is a sign that it wasn’t a strong enough design to begin with. That’s not to say that ornament and excess don’t have their uses. It’s just how and why you are using them that will make a cover design either feel special or just like all the rest. This is all just modernism in its fullest extent. The conflict between functionalism and concept is resolved only when one comes out of the other or the two are birthed together.
One of the biggest things that influences my work is that I teach history of graphic design at Parsons. For the last five years I have had to figure out how I look at and discover successful relationships in great historical design and develop a language to communicate that to students. Working through the verbal expression of things I at first only knew intuitively how to do has shifted the way I go about the doing. In a conversation with design educators at Arizona State University, Paul Rand says, “design is relationships.” I have found that to be one of the most helpful things I have ever read about design.
What is the difference between designing book covers for a mass market versus a literary market?
Well, part of this is how the entire publishing group is thinking about a book. Commercial packages obviously have more expectations and constraints. But there are things you can get away with—crazy special effects, a bigness or graphic boldness. To make a great cover that still can be a commercial package is one of the hardest things to do. And I’m thankful I rarely have to attempt to accomplish this feat. In my specific world, that’s left up to wizards like Carol Devine Carson, Peter Mendelsund, Chip Kidd, and John Gall.
Best book you ever read?
Ha. How can anyone pick this? I guess The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Can you judge a book by its cover?
More often than not.
Visit the Paper Darts Store.