Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Interview with an Art Director: John Aardema on DON'T VOTE FOR ME's Cover

I'm so pleased to welcome John Aardema, art director at Sourcebooks, for a much-anticipated interview (or at least I've been anticipating it for the last couple of weeks). When I asked the great folks over at Kidliterati to reveal DON'T VOTE FOR ME's cover, I knew I wanted to offer some bonus content. I immediately thought of interviewing the cover designer, and Mr. Aardema was kind enough to agree. So check out the cover reveal (where I'm giving away THREE SIGNED ARCS), then pop back over here to get the behind-the-scenes scoop!

KV: Tell us a bit about the initial design meeting. Did you have a clear vision for this cover, or did it develop as you went?

JA: This was actually one of the very first covers I worked on when I started at Sourcebooks last summer. The initial meeting was interesting as the very first question we had to address was “what are we going to sell on the cover of this book?” Which is a very important question for an art director to have answers to. In this instance, we had a lot of back and forth around the idea of selling school elections--are kids really interested in that? Would they rather read about the band since both kids play instruments? But when we looked at other books in the middle grade space, and what other books have similar themes, it was clear that kids actually find election stories interesting. The numbers don’t lie. 

The second biggest point of discussion for us was "who should be on the cover?"  This is a story for both boys and girls, and as much as you want every book to sell to both boys and girls, just putting one or the other on the cover doesn’t really represent the content and could limit your audience. So again, we looked at the other titles in the category and what stories that they told. In the end, though, we are telling our story--telling Krista’s story, and telling Veronica and David’s story--and when we had all our questions answered, from there I did my part: sketches that brought to life the elements we all agreed belonged on the cover, the elements that were going to speak to the consumer and tell them what this book was about.

KV: It seems like MG covers tend to be illustrated, but Sourcebooks has had success with MG covers that feature photographs (like the ones in Anna Staniszewski's Dirt Diary series). Why do you think that is, and why did you decide to go with a photographic cover in DON'T VOTE FOR ME's case?

JA: The middle grade space covers a wide age range and reading level. You get second graders who read at fourth and fifth grade levels and want to be challenged, and you get fourth and fifth graders who can’t wait to read what their friends in junior high and even high school are reading. We believe that the cover treatment helps create a visual cue to the reader and to the parent as to how appropriate the content is for kids at various ages in the middle grade space.

You tend to see illustrated covers on what we call “lower middle grade” and then photographic or photo-realistic covers on “upper middle grade.” Stories that may take place in fourth and fifth grade will still have illustrated covers, but once a story or a character hits sixth to eighth or even that wonderful “freshman year,” the covers tend to feel a bit more sophisticated, while the content remains appropriate for younger readers.

And believe it or not, these covers are actually “photo illustrated”--they start with two people being photographed in a studio, but the rest of the design is composited from stock, from illustrations, etc. And the final art is sometimes given a painterly effect. And in this case, the kids on the cover are really only about forty to fifty percent of the total cover experience. The rest is in the illustration, the title type, the layout. The end result is a slightly older, but appropriately aged, middle grade book. 

KV: Once you came up with the initial concept, how did things progress from there?

JA: After the sketch stage, I needed to find the right photo-illustrator, pick clothing for the models, and art direct the illustrator to get the final image we wanted. The expression on the kids' faces was very important. Too much expression in the wrong direction and the girl would look like a bully! And you wanted to believe these kids are in the scene at school even though they are being photographed in a studio. It’s actually a lot more difficult than you’d imagine it to be--getting the right kids with the right expressions to feel like they are in the moment.

Once the photo is taken, then the real work begins. The “illustrator” who creates the full cover layout needs to know how we plan to set the type on the cover so he knows how to position the art. The two have to work together. I worked with the in-house design team--as I mentioned before this was my first cover for Sourcebooks middle grade, so the team here was great in offering suggestions on how to bring the whole package together. I’ve attached a couple of sketches you might find helpful. One is the initial pencil sketch back when we thought we were calling the book RULE THE SCHOOL. The second attachment is a more comprehensive sketch based on a photo test the illustrator sent to me.

KV: I have to admit that I find the whole concept of a photo-illustrated cover fascinating. I'd never heard of this technique, so these last few responses have been especially informative (and it's kind of thrilling to think about real, live kids posing in a real, live photo shoot, but I digress).

My favorite element is definitely the title treatment. Where did that idea come from?

JA: Will Riley, one of the senior designers at Sourcebooks, does a phenomenal job with middle grade and has a great eye for type. He really helped build this cover from the raw images into the final package, and that type had a lot to do with the final direction ending up where it did.

KV: Talk to us about the color palette. The patriotic reds, whites, and blues are especially appropriate for this story. Was that intentional?

JA: Again, as we discussed how to position the cover, and the focus on elections, it only seemed natural to go with a red, white, and blue color palette. Any kid running for school election is probably going to paint his or her own campaign posters in red, white, and blue--most politicians do too! It’s a natural choice and helps really keep the focus on the package as a whole. 

KV: Last but certainly not least, I'm handing the mike over to you. Any final thoughts about DON'T VOTE FOR ME or its cover?

JA: I’m glad you liked the cover for DON'T VOTE FOR ME. It was a great first project for me at Sourcebooks. It was definitely a team effort on our part, and a number of departments all had a hand in making sure the cover we ultimately put on the book is the very best we could put forth in terms of design, marketing potential, and quality. Best of luck on your cover reveal!

Thank you, Mr. Aardema! And thank you for these insightful responses. The more I learn about this industry, the more I realize I don't know much, so I appreciate your taking the time to fill us in on this part of the process.


Emily R. King said...

This was interesting! I knew a lot of thought and preparation went into covers, and it was neat to see the process unfold.

Lory said...

I'm totally fascinated by cover design and I appreciate this look behind the scenes. Thanks!

Jessie Oliveros said...

Awesome, Krista! Thanks for sharing.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I thought so, too, Emily. Such an interesting process.

You're welcome, Lory. It's one of those things we don't hear a ton about (which is why I wanted to do this interview).

My pleasure, Jessie!

Myrna Foster said...

Fascinating interview! Thanks so much for sharing this!

Karen lee Hallam said...

Wonderful insight. Thanks to both of you for sharing.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

You're very welcome, Myrna and Karen. I found it fascinating, too. I never know how much an interviewee is going to give me, but Mr. Aardema definitely exceeded my expectations.