Monday, 21 November 2011

"Ideal conditions for interesting covers": An Interview with Alison Forner

In discussing the mystifying Australian cover to Stasiland recently, I saw the much better, and appropriate cover designed by Alison Forner for the current US edition (see left). Alison works full-time for the literary Ecco imprint of HarperCollins US, where she has produced some amazing cover designs, including the much-discussed and rightly praised cover for Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, of which more below.

Alison was kind enough to agree to an interview about her work.

* * *

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: You were a professional dancer and a poet before becoming a designer. How did this transition happen? And looking back, how planned has your designing career been?

ALISON FORNER: I suppose you could say my design career wasn't planned at all. I had always taken studio art classes from the time I was a young child through high school, but training for a dance career doesn't leave much time for other serious pursuits. So I guess you could say the ability was always there, but never fully explored because I was always dancing.

Ultimately, what led me to design was a gradual falling away of my creative interests. Dancing was getting harder and harder on my knees (ballet and modern dance are not kind to the body) and my writing group was dissolving as everyone left New York to attend MFA programs. I was convinced I could continue writing without my group, and had early encouragement from Gordon Lish, then publisher of The Quarterly literary magazine, when he accepted several poems for publication when I was 22. Sadly, The Quarterly lost funding and folded before I could see them in print (although I think I still have page proofs somewhere!), and I completely lost steam. And so without writing or dancing, I was left with my print production job at Random House, which I loved for different reasons, but which left me without a meaningful creative outlet.

After some serious flailing, I took a "Quark for Production Managers" class given by a colleague, and it was then that I realized I wanted to be a designer. We were creating fake book covers in order to understand the entire production process, and I was so engrossed in designing my fake cover that I completely lost track of what was being taught. I was hooked!  I decided the next day to start taking design classes at Parsons. I continued with night classes for several years until I built a presentable portfolio (with a focus on cover design). I started doing some freelance work for Random House, then eventually landed my current job at Ecco.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Do you work full-time at Ecco now, or do you still do freelance work?

ALISON FORNER: Yes, I'm full-time at Ecco, but I also do freelance work. I love my freelance clients--the process is very different from working with an in-house team, but just as rewarding. I've learned so much from this aspect of my career. Some of my clients don't have in-house art directors, so I end up playing both designer and director (and sometimes even production manager).

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: In a literary-oriented press like Ecco, where covers don't have to match a certain commercial look, how much room is there for making use of unusual design ideas?

ALISON FORNER: At Ecco we're lucky to have an amazing publisher, Dan Halpern [also a successful poet], who encourages and appreciates creative thinking. It's a pleasure designing covers here; we have a fantastic list of books that don't always fit into a perfect mold. Ideal conditions for interesting covers!

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I'm interested in how a cover like yours for The Interrogative Mood comes to be: was it your idea to leave the title and author off the front? And how much of a battle was it to get that idea accepted?

ALISON FORNER: I love how that jacket has inspired so much curiosity--as only a book of questions should! Again, I need to mention our publisher Dan who saw the imagery I created and knew immediately that we should leave it as is. Interrogative Mood is such an unusual and wonderful book--it really did beg for its own unique visual treatment. And it managed to sail through the approval process without a hitch. Strange, but true!

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Have you ever been asked to design/cover/illustrate a book you couldn't stand? I'm not asking you to name names, I'm just interested in the process of aesthetically representing something you don't feel any sympathy for.

ALISON FORNER: I will answer this in very hushed tones... yes, I have. But I won't reveal which ones! It certainly makes the design process harder--I think it's always easier to work on something you feel passionate about. But there are so many things that can inspire visuals--whether it's a really compelling title, subtitle, subject matter, you-name it. So disliking something doesn't always lead to a dearth of ideas. It's really our job and challenge as designers to create something worthwhile despite our personal opinions. 

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Is there any neglected book you'd like to draw to the attention of readers?

ALISON FORNER: Can I recommend a somewhat neglected form of writing? How about giving poetry some love? Poems are perfect for our dwindling attention spans. They're not scary! Just tiny and compact. And they pack a punch. I suggest starting with one per day and seeing where that takes you. I think we're all so programmed now to skim instead of read; poetry forces you to slow down, pay attention, and let your imagination take over. Now doesn't that sound like fun?

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: It definitely does. Thank you, Ms Forner!

Alison's site also includes some beautiful covers that never got used for one reason or another. Here are a few to whet your appetitie. See the rest here.


Covey said...

Thanks James and Alison.

JRSM said...

Our pleasure!

Lou DuBois said...

The depiction of the creative process presented within the Alison interview is a lesson for all who must have the imagination for new ideas, ideals and identification.

JRSM said...

Very much so! Thanks for the comment.