Art + Design + I Design Stuff + Life + Health + Music + Movies + Books

Answers, Part One: How I Got Into It.

“Imaginary Friends”, 1997. I was very into Reid Miles/Blue Note at the time.

So, wow. That’s a lot of questions! I was kind of expecting the usual five or six that I get asked all the time, but some of you got in really deep—I’m finding myself thinking about aspects of my job that I’ve never even considered before.

I’m floored by the variety of jobs that you all have, too, including a few that I didn’t even know exist. Isn’t it amazing how many things we humans need to know how to do in order to make our sustain our societies? I remember my parents telling me at a very young age that every single job is an important one in its own way, from garbageman to president to dancer to doctor, and I truly believe that. Every single person has something they can do well and love, and the luckiest among us are the ones who know what that thing is.

I tend to be a little lot on the wordy side when it comes to writing (I think I was the only person in my college art history classes decreasing the leading and margin widths on my papers in an effort to make them seem shorter), so I’m going to have to break my responses up into categories. It might take me longer than a day or two to answer everything properly, so please bear with me!

The most-asked questions were about (a) how I got to be a book cover designer, and (b) what one has to do to become a book cover designer. I think the easiest way to answer those questions is to first give some background on my own educational experience.

I was raised in a very artistically-minded family (my mother is a graphic designer and painter; my father is a painter and art instructor—and that’s just the first generation of my immediate family), and while it’s easy to say that growing up in a creative environment led me to where I am now, I have a bunch of older brothers and sisters who wound up doing doing completely different (and super cool) things for a living. The common thread among us is an ability to creatively problem-solve. That, and we’re all kind of nuts.

I did grow up knowing that professional careers in the arts are possible, though, and I think that’s something that might be eschewed by a lot of guidance counselors and well-meaning parents. I’ve been exposed to the realities of working in fine art and commercial art for my entire life, and jobs in those fields are what seem “normal” to me. That said, when I enrolled in college at SUNY Purchase in 1993, I did so not in the School of the Arts, but in in the Liberal Arts department. I thought I would major in English Literature and become a writer. I’ve always been an avid reader and book-lover, and writing is something that comes naturally to me, so why not?

I realized about halfway through my first semester that I didn’t want to continue on that path. There wasn’t anything wrong with my classes or my professors, but I just knew in my bones that I wanted to do something else. Like maybe what my parents do. I remember seeing one of my suitemates spreading out squares of colored paper and creating Josef Albers-eqsue arrangements to complete an assignment for her Color Theory class, and just feeling so jealous. And like I’d made a huge mistake.

Long story slightly less long, I wound up transferring to the School of Art+Design at Purchase College (same campus, completely different program). I got my BFA through the graphic design program. The approach to graphic design at Purchase leans heavily toward the fine art aspect of the field rather than commercial application, and, as the program description on their website states, “encourages overlaps with other areas in Art+Design (e.g., printmaking, photography, furniture design, video, and new media)”.

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but Purchase used to be one of the only schools in the country to offer an MFA program with a concentration in Book Arts. The art department included a letterpress studio with a huge lead-type foundry, a book bindery, and an offset lithography press. The printmaking facilities were also impressive, and I was able to take classes in all of the above areas, as well as silkscreening, intaglio printing, photography, and plenty of art and design history classes. My foundation was still in graphic design, but the emphasis of the program was not on learning computer programs.

Yes, I did learn the basics of the computer programs that were in use at the time (I remember when layers were first introduced in Photoshop—very exciting!), but that was really secondary. I do realize that this has probably changed as the years have passed, and I absolutely think it’s important to have a very good working knowledge of the tools best suited for any job (in other words, you really do have to know InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator in order to work as a graphic designer in 2010), but that knowledge alone does not equip a person with the ability to be a good designer. I cannot emphasize this enough. Furthermore, graphic design is not the same thing as painting or photography or any other creative field, and it’s a common misconception that a person with a good visual sense in one field can easily translate it to another (I say this as someone who is endlessly frustrated by my lackluster abilities as a photographer!).

Because I’ve always been a workaholic freak with a fear of downtime, I had a full-time job while I was in college full-time. I worked at Borders, first as a café barista (you should have seen the adorable signs I made for the pastry case!), and then as a bookseller and new book merchandiser. I love books. Love, love, love. I can’t get enough of them. I love holding them, smelling them, borrowing them, lending them, touching their pages, and yes, even reading them. For my senior project, I designed, offset-printed (with the help of my advisor and mentor, book artist Philip Zimmermann), and bound 20 copies of an image and type-based book about imaginary friends. I commissioned an illustrator, Derek Van Gieson, to make a drawing of me for the cover. Looking back on it 13 years later, I can see that my aesthetic hasn’t really changed that much—but I have gotten much better with my execution!

One of my professors at Purchase, Bill Deere, approached me at my graduation ceremony (my commencement speakers were Chuck Close and Wesley Snipes!) and asked me if I was interested in designing book covers. I said yes. He said cool. I said yeah. And then he gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it, and told me a former student of his was an art director at a big publishing house, and that I should give her a call. So I did! I set up an interview and got together my portfolio (filled entirely with student work). I was literally one week out of school when I went in to meet with the department head, and I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve never been a plan-ahead kind of gal, so I really just winged it. He liked my portfolio, but he kept coming back to the fact that I’d been working in a book store, and that I really love books. As much as he could see that I was a competent entry-level designer, I think it was the fact that I understood the marketing and saleability of books and what makes them attractive to consumers that gave me the extra edge.

A week later, I had a job offer. I gave my two weeks notice at Borders, and started my job as a book cover designer exactly one month after I graduated from college. I still work in the same art department at the same publishing company today! Over the years, I’ve advanced from Designer One to Junior Designer to Senior Designer, and I’m happy being at this level and having the responsibilities that come with this position. I work with a lot of the same people that were there when I started (four of us went to Purchase, though not all at the same time), and the environment is very tight-knit. I definitely have days when I dread going to work (mostly because the dogs look soooooo comfortable lying in bed), but it’s never because I don’t like what I do or who I work with. I am a very lucky person, and I hope my coworkers know how much they mean to me. (Hi, guys!)

So that’s the story of how I got where I am. I’m sure there are a lot of ways to become a book cover designer (I mean, it’s not like I’m an architect or anything super-superior like that, after all), but this is how I did it. The number one most important thing is to LOVE books and LOVE typography and LOVE all kinds of design, and the number two thing is to accept and understand that the job of a commerical designer is almost always to please a client, attract a customer, and sell a product. I do think art school is a great thing (specifically a school with a design program), as is a knowledge of art and design history, but I’m sure there are plenty of self-taught kids out there doing amazing things, and far be it from me to say their work isn’t valid just because they don’t have a formal education. If you want to do this, you kind of just have to start doing it. Design book covers for self-published authors. Design a bunch of fake book covers (portfolio content doesn’t have to be “real”!). Go to bookstores, and see what’s on the shelves. Check out some graphic design history books from the library. Look at book design websites. Put together a portfolio that will show an art director you know what a book cover needs to do, and that you’re able to bring something new to the table, too.

I realize this might not be the specific advice you were interested in getting regarding breaking into the industry, but it’s all I’ve got. I do recommend that you read some of the “Ask Nubby” posts from fellow blogger and designer Nubby Twiglet, too, because she’s much more practical than I am—and she’s got some great advice: Ask Nubby!

(More essays answers to come!)

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  • Reply Lauren September 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Ahhh thank you for taking the time to answer in detail and informatively. Graphic Design has been on the fringes of my mind as a high school student, but I’ve always shot it down as a possible career because a) no real experience w/ Photoshop and b) i’m not confident in my artistic ability.

    I do love books, but in a highly competitive environment where reading takes up the bulk of my time, not even allowing for proper sleep, it has sadly not been one of my higher priorities.

    Thank you and thank you again for giving us a window into your experience!

  • Reply Erica September 15, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I feel like you might be my older twin—I looooove books and well and also started college wanting to be a writer. Instead of switching my major in my sophomore year, I applied and got accepted to a program at my school that allowed me to design my own programs for my major(s) and ended up double-majoring in Creative Writing and Graphic Design.

    I work right now as a Web Designer but my dream is to get into book design—it combines the two things I love most: books and design! But jobs in the field seem to be few and far between. 🙁 But in any case, I’ll keep trying till I find something!

  • Reply nicole September 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    i loved reading this.

    still have my copy of ‘imaginary friends’ (in pristine condition and kept with all my treasures) after all these years.


  • Reply Honora September 15, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Love that you started in Book Arts. I’m very involved in the Book Arts MFA at Mills College in Oakland (I’m getting an MFA in creative writing, but the Book Arts MFA is housed under our program so we can take the same classes.) I have simply fallen in love with Book Arts!

  • Reply michelle September 15, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    thanks for sharing how you became book cover designer extraordinaire! i love your aesthetic & appreciate the restraint you possess.

    chuck close? i die. (said in my best rachel zoe voice, of course)
    his work is amazing. i saw an awesome c.c. exhibit at the VMFA last month here in richmond.

  • Reply kay* September 15, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    loved reading this and appreciate the time you took to write such a thorough response. i think one of the best things is, like you kinda said, to love what you do (and to be good at it doesn’t hurt!). looking forward to the rest of your essays…ahem, i mean responses 🙂

  • Reply Aimee September 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Wow, I love your story. It’s beautiful and hurts just a little. We’re the same age, it seems, and I started college in ’93 as an Industrial Design major, but quickly got derailed from the design track. (Probably because the design I love is more visual than utilitarian; I now understand that I was in the wrong program.) And boy do I miss it. I can’t say I regret it, because I wouldn’t be who I am today if I changed my past. But I do miss it. A lot.

    I should take some classes.

  • Reply Kristy September 15, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I buy a lot of books…a lot. I love books and am slowww to transfer over to ebooks because I like everything about the product we call a book. I like the feel..the touch…the color cover…all of it. I have unknowingly bought many of the books you design and the cover art DOES matter to me. And your designs are top notch!

    • Gwen January 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Kristy! I am an avid reader and am more than reluctant to add a new item of technology in replacement of what we “olden day” folks call books! I completely empathize with you. I love the feel, look, weight and texture of a book. I especially love the smell of a book store or library. And I too have bought books that Anna has designed. Love Love Love!

  • Reply Dan September 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    What a totally cool journey! As somebody at that stage in college where I really have to figure out what the hell I’m doing (or want to be doing), it’s nice to know that somebody as sure of their passions as you went through that period of uncertainty too.

    Also, I totally decrease the margins on my papers to keep them under the page limit (and use Helvetica 11 instead of Times New Roman 12 because it’s smaller and condense the title, date, name, course name, etc. on the first page into two lines… I also think I’m the only one).

  • Reply Kathleen September 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    We have such a similar background. I grew up in a family of artists (and freaks) and my fine arts education with an emphasis in design had VERY little emphasis on software. In fact, most of my memories of art school involve tracing paper, plaka, technical pens and sheets of colored paper. And now when students and aspiring designers ask me what software I use I always respond with “Pen and paper. A sharpie and post-it, most of the time.”

  • Reply chrispito September 15, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    COOL! This was so inspiring–saying this as a person doing her BFA in printmaking. MFA in Book Arts sounds divine. Thanks for this.

  • Reply Janet September 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Nice post, Anna, you’re a talented designer AND writer!

  • Reply ehalvey September 15, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Woo-hoo for art history papers! I had to condense my papers as well 🙂 And they were on MEDIEVAL art.

    Your background sounds AMAZING! Color theory, screenprinting, graphic design-swoon! This is why I want to go back to school. I really want to pick up a lot of these skills because they’re fascinating.

  • Reply Zooey September 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all the questions. I’m enjoying reading everyone’s comments and what they do too!

    As a Literature major who LOVES books, LOVES bookstores, who LOVES all sorts of design and art, and is really obsessed with typography, I feel really heartened that these things matter as much as design competence. Your perspective on things really gives me hope, even though I know the road ahead involves lots of hard work and taking chances!

    Looking forward to your other essa… ahem, answers 😛

  • Reply anniken zahl furunes September 16, 2010 at 4:54 am

    I like what I see!! Go girl!! Greetings from Norway!

  • Reply Callista September 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Oh my goodness, I am so jealous. I just received my BA, and not only am I struggling to figure out my future career, but there are also very few jobs out there right now. Most of my friends have been searching for jobs now for 3-9 months. Oh, how I wish your story was mine.

  • Reply Sarah September 16, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    It’s great to hear your story, it really rings true to me that a person is lucky to reaslise what their dream job actually is. I thought I’d got mine, but the reality of it is sometimes different!

    I teach bookmaking and printmaking to degree students in a specialist art college. Sometimes its frustrating to see them not making the most of their time and access to the facilities but maybe that’s a reflection on what *I* wish I was doing! Oh well, got to pay the bills…

    Also, I’m very keen to point out to the studnts that computer skills are great but you have to have the content to back it all up. I try every way I can to get them drawing, creating hand drawn positives, actually *touching things with their hands*. I think it makes all the difference.

    Looking forward to the next installment, its facinating.

  • Reply chika September 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    thanks for answering. long story! But this is attractive enough to keep reading even with my poor English skill.
    This time, I realize stories of how to get someone’s job is interesting. definitely you are one of luckiest. I think there’s no doubt your growing circumstance made you easy to choose your current job.  
    This is my story: I am a system/computer administrator now. But I used to learn painting, drowing and designing at private class that my local painter held during I was 10-18. I LOVE painting and drowing! But I chosed the way seemed easy to eat: computer/system administration job. (don’t get wrong, I don’t complain my job!) I thought becomming a designer/artist for living was soooooo tough when I graduated from high school.  Someone give me a money for my work? I couldn’t have confident. Do you have confident of your work when you were student?  Back to my story, I got interested in computer same time(I was inspired by movie visual effect like The Jurassic Park, The Tarminator) so I started to learn photoshop, illustrator, 3d animation. It was natural to getting computer skills for me.  Then when I graduated from university, it’s easy to find computer related job. it’s right time, I think.  So I got a job I do now. I LOVE painting drowing. But now I think it’s ok for me to doing that as hobby, not living. Do something for living is tough and not always enjoyable, right? sorry for too long post.

  • Reply Suzen September 16, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Anna, I have been out of touch for a bit and actually have two pretty simple questions:
    1–do you have a sister named Andrea Dorfman?
    2-do you still have the bunny chalet?
    Mundane I know. But I will share with you that I also LOVE books, ink, bookstores, reading and everything connected. LOVE
    And for my work, I am a Parent Advocate, which in a nutshell, means that I cast a line from my heart to that of a parent having trouble with a child and hook our hearts together so that we can rebuild their lives in a healthier and happier way. I work at a Mental Health Agency here in New York.

    And finally, one of my pet peeves is people who write “alot” and “loose” for the word “lose.” It’s the tight-assed English major in me presumably.

    Let me know on your sister and the bunny cage, ok? 😉

  • Reply Anna at D16 September 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    @Suzen: Nope, I don’t have anyone named Andrea in my family! I do still have the rabbit cage, though. I’ve had it for years (from when I sued to have pet ferrets), and I figure I’ll hold on to it until some other furry friend comes along. 🙂

    I feel exactly the same way as you when it comes to “alot” and “loose”/”lose” confusion. And “it’s”/”its” mix-ups. And a lot of other things, too!!

    • Emily June 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      Just want to weirdly chime in here months later with my most recent blogger pet peeve of not knowing the difference between peak as in top of mountain and peek as in “sneak peek” or “let’s have a peek” ie a little glimpse. “Peek” is way overused in blogging anyway, but then when it’s “peak” on top of that….grumph. I’ve made a pact with myself to x-out of whatever site I’m reading as soon as I see “peak.”

      It’s (not Its) something that bugs me – a lot! 😉

    • Anna @ D16 June 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      Well, everyone makes typos. 😉

  • Reply tifanie September 17, 2010 at 12:04 am

    wow. that was fascinating. i hardly ever read the *whole post* of anyone’s blog, but this time, i did. i always wonder about how people get into doing what they do. thank you for sharing, and beautifully written by the way. i love, love books as well (can’t get enough) and am picky about cover design and love what some people have been doing with it lately. pleasure to meet you and thank you so much for sharing what you do!

    i myself am currently raising two kids, studying cello and spinning yarn. oh, and reading. lots of reading.

    take care :::

  • Reply lindsey clare September 17, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Great write up, Anna. I think your path to where you are is really interesting; I love hearing about the ways people get into design, because pretty much everyone has their own unique story!

    Also I love that you acknowledge that software is NOT the only prerequisite to being a designer. I STILL feel like I’m not totally up to scratch with Photoshop and Illustrator, but I know that it’s not the be and end all. (Having said that, I do admire those people with mad skillz!)

  • Reply Juli September 17, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Oh, where was the internet 12 years ago when I was needing this advice? GAH! Thanks for sharing your journey – goes to show that every step we take leads us to our ultimate goal.

    I wish our universities were like the one you went to. I ended up in Humanities because I didn’t think I was an art school kid (painting? no way) but there weren’t any design/graphic design programs available at the university level. Once I finally figured things out, I realized book design was what I wanted to do. But I never did make it in the door. Glad to hear that my once upon a time dream job exists and that you are one of those lucky enough to do it!

  • Reply Alisa September 18, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am always interested in learning about how people got into their dream job (or maybe my dream job).

    I’m currently attending the University of Arizona, in the visual communications program. I was so surprised when I read the name Phillip Zimmerman! He, his wife (they’re both design professors), and passionate students are doing great things in the tiny letterpress room on campus.

  • Reply frannie September 18, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    🙂 i don’t think we’ve ever discussed how you (specifically) got into book design. our conversations on the subject were a bit here and there over the years, but i cannot tell you how inspiring and lovely it was to read this! i feel so fortunate to know someone with such an amazing aesthetic and creative nature.
    a fascinating read and i love love love Imaginary Friends. forever.

  • Reply Ann September 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    AMAZING! I love hearing about book design. I just opened a used bookshop in Philadelphia, The Spiral Bookcase, and I am so taken with book design. I always have been, but now it is a focal point of how I decide what collections to buy and how I display and sell the books. We just acquired a collection from a man who was a book designer and his aesthetic was impeccable. He obviously collected books based on typography and illustrative interest. And, my current personal obsession is to collect all the covers Edward Gorey created for Anchor Books. What I’m saying is, I love what you do! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Grumble Girl September 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I loved reading that. I love books so HARD, it’s crazy… though I have no interest in designing the art – you’re so good at it, lady!! It really is a blessing to love your work, and to love the people you work with too… wonderful!

  • Reply kbd January 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Like Grumble Girl, I loved reading that… I got into graphic design because of books. Not that I design books now 🙁 but I do love my job. So nice to read your story, its always great to know there’s someone else out there who feels similarly. Big grin!

  • Reply Stephanie April 11, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Long time reader, shamefully not much of a commenter! However, I just saw this post (even though I’m a few years late here) and had to share that I’m a graphic designer that was once a café barista at Borders as well… nice! Thanks for this post, I agree with all your advice on getting started in design. Love your blog!

  • Reply Jana @ 333 Hand Lettering Project May 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    You are living my dream. I’m new to it all and appreciate all the details of your story.

  • Reply Leon October 11, 2014 at 12:10 am

    My wife suggested I check out, because I am at a sort of career crossroads right now; and though I have dual degrees in Fine Arts and English I have spent the past very many years working as a Chef, but have always in the back of my mind thought “I should try Graphic Design!”
    So simply stated, much less simply done.
    I’ve always loved typography, books, album and CD cover design, packaging in general.
    I was going to just write to you out of the blue, asking for advice or simply your story, but then wisely checked your FAQ’s. Guess I’m not the only one to have thought to ask you about your career path, eh?
    Saw a blog posting leading to a book cover designer, Iacopo Bruno, and was immediately drawn to the notion that that is what I would like to do! Or try. Or something.
    I was wondering about the fact that this is so much about pleasing the client, attracting a customer, selling a book (aspects I am well aware of and have no problem with) – but do you ever have difficulty reconciling pleasing the client with achieving the other two objectives? And how often are you ultimately pleased with the work in and of itself for your own sake?
    Also, love your musical tastes: The Cure, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, Peter Murphy, New Order… Ahhh!
    Thank you, goodnight, and have a pleasant tomorrow!

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