Have you ever wondered about the process of creating book cover art? We decided to get the answers straight from the source and spoke to Vi-An Nguyen, the Art Director behind the beautiful cover of Robert Jones Jr’s debut novel, The Prophets. She shared insights into the design process of capturing the essence of the book and the profound love it portrays.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. Cover designed by Vi-An Nguyen.
Vi-An Nguyen: With The Prophets, it’s an epic love story of two enslaved men on a deep south plantation, and it’s an extraordinary book. I began with the heroes of the story, Samuel and Isaiah backlit against a southern sunset. Maybe standing along the river on the grounds of the plantation that plays a big role, or beside the willow tree where many crucial scenes take place. I also experimented with some visual metaphors. Blackbirds are a strong symbol in the book. I painted feathers and wings trying to capture their spirit. For typography, I tried some hand lettering, but in the end, we went with a strong and simple typeface called plaque to signal how vital the story is. Eventually, our team came to the idea of showing profiles of the two men in silhouettes. I tried roughly carving them into the Louisiana setting in the water on the river banks and in the sky among the clouds. I used big blocks of blues and tans, as well as a healthy amount of negative space to suggest the expansive scope. I hope readers can sense the magnitude of this epic story from the cover and after reading, feel the image is true to this singular, magnificent book.
What is the first step in designing a book cover? How do you begin a project?
To kick off a cover design project, we (the art department) meet with the book’s editor to hear about their vision for the cover. We’ll discuss the genre, other books that might sit on the shelf next to this one, the author’s visual preferences, and possible directions the cover might take. Does the book call for photography or illustration? Should the cover convey the characters, the setting, or just a mood? How literary or commercial are we talking about? Then, we read! I’ll take notes on character descriptions, recurring symbols, and any other visual cues I get from the book that might come in handy when it’s time to sit down and design the cover.
What struck you about this book the most?
The writing! Robert’s writing is lyrical, vivid, lush, and gorgeous. I was constantly stopped in my tracks by phrases that punched me in the gut. I kept taking screenshots of passages to text to my husband, who also loves to admire a well-crafted sentences.
What did you want to communicate with the cover art?
There were two things I felt were important to convey with the cover. First: emotion. This is a love story that gives you access to the character’s deepest thoughts and feelings that really stick with you. And second: scale. This is a BIG novel in every sense: it spans time and continents, and it grapples with so many themes of historical and contemporary relevance.
I hope readers can sense the magnitude of this epic story from the cover and after reading, feel the image is true to this singular, magnificent book.
Are there any specific trends you’re seeing in literary fiction and/or historical fiction covers?
Genre looks are blending into each other more and more. Historical fiction doesn’t always need to have a black-and-white photo on the cover — like with The Prophets, sometimes a cover outside the typical mold is right. Graphic and illustrative treatments are being used to great effect in categories that were historically dominated by photography. And I feel like I’m seeing a rise in edgy photography being used in super smart ways, too.
How long was the process to design this book cover from beginning to end?
Sometimes a book cover takes hundreds of tries (literally!) and several months to get to the finish line. There are, after all, a dozen or more people with radically different perspectives who need to sign off on every cover. But sometimes it clicks right away. I was thrilled when The Prophets was one of the latter. Meeting Robert and hearing his reaction to the cover was especially wonderful; years later, it’s still the best 10 minutes of my life as a cover designer.
See the final design and get your copy of The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.: