the secret lives of YA cover designers: an interview with Tom Forget

Tom Forget is an artist and cover designer who was recently declared to be one of the "most stylish New Yorkers" by TimeOut magazine. He also happens to be the man behind the cover for WILD AWAKE. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts on book design and the creative life. You can see more of his work at and at

What do you aim for in a YA cover (as opposed to a cover for the adult market)?  

That's an interesting question. I think the briefest way to answer that is that there's a certain direct-ness of imagery that we use in YA that is not as strictly observed in adult books. We are less likely to use images that are cropped or obscured than what you might see on adult covers. I think that in terms of color we try to be more immediate as well. There's certainly room for subtlety in YA design, and I think many of the best YA jackets employ it, but we have to make sure that we don't outsmart ourselves (or by extension our readers) by trying to be too sophisticated. In addition, just from a market standpoint, we're looking at different indicators. We need to pay attention to advertising, fashion, music, etc. that young people are consuming, where as that's obviously less crucial for adult designers.

What are the differences between designing for a hardcover or a paperback?  

Honestly, there is not much of a difference for me, aside from the fact that you're not really thinking about extending any art onto flaps. You basically have to plan for "front, back, spine," which might limit your ideas slightly. 
What are your biggest frustrations as a cover designer? 

That's an easy one. The approval process. I can only speak to my own experiences, but in my daily working life there are many "customers" to satisfy, and frequently they've got wildly different expectations. Editors and Authors might have a strong creative vision, but then the sales force and the bookseller will have commercial needs that have to be met. The designer has to walk a tightrope to get to the other side, while still on some level liking what they've created and finding some creative satisfaction from the end result. One specific thing relates to this is that in our market there is a tendency to follow in the footsteps of established successful jackets. Obviously, trend-spotting is important, but it can be exasperating when you are consistently asked to "make it look like (current successful jacket)". As designers, we crave new stimulus, so this can run current to our natural impulses.
What would be your dream book for which to design a cover? 

My dream project would be a line-wide redesign of crime writer Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder books. That's one of my favorite series and it's really the kind of material I gravitate towards in my leisure hours. The books are currently packaged in a perfectly serviceable mass market design, but they're so morally compelling and gritty that I would really like to see something more attention-grabbing. The Lookout director Scott Frank is currently working on a film based on one of the books, starring Liam Neeson, so maybe a repackage is in the pipeline? One of my colleagues on the 6th floor will no doubt get the call, sadly.
Are you involved in creative projects outside of cover design? Do they influence your cover aesthetic, or do you keep them separated? 

Yes, absolutely. In my off hours I Paint and draw and have a small publication I work on with a group of old friends called MAMMAL Magazine, where I put any sort of odd idea I've been sketching out in the world. Lately I've been collaborating on skateboard deck designs for Handsome Skateboards, which is a small new brand founded by a talented sculptor friend of mine, Eric Eley. In my house, my wife and I are always working on something and bouncing ideas off of each other. She wrote a novel manuscript that she's shopping to agents, so she's sympathetic to my creative efforts too. We try to maintain an atmosphere where we can help each other over the humps we might struggle with. 
As far as my pursuits influencing my cover aesthetic, they certainly do, and vice versa! Actually, WILD AWAKE is a prime example of my leisure activities and my "day job" meeting up. For the flaps and back cover, I hand-painted the background treatments and drew flowers, as well as splattering ink on paper to make some of the other elements. It was a convergence of a number of different techniques that I don't often get to use at Harper. I also find myself referring back to compositional rules I learn at work when I'm creating my own off-hours stuff. Creativity isn't a one way street so much as it's different bodies of water that really just make up one big ocean.

How did you arrive at this cover for WILD AWAKE? 

This one took a little while. Some books are very easy to get a handle on (Vampire boy falls in love with human girl!), but the emotions in WILD AWAKE were more complicated than that. We needed to somehow show joy and deep sadness while being respectful to the darker aspects of the story. Because the girl in the story had an artist older sister, I started doing alot of stuff with actual, old-fashioned, handmade paints and inks, while simultaneously doing some stock photo research to see if anything clicked. Editorial provided us with some helpful competitive titles and jackets that both they and the author (in this instance you!) liked the feel of, and I tried to tailor what I was doing based on that information. In the meantime, there was discussion about the title, and when that changed it afforded us more room to play with the visual space. After a couple of "not...quite...right..." comps, we had a tremendously helpful conference call where all of the involved parties were able to communicate really directly. This is not usual procedure, but in this instance it was really clarifying and pretty much lead directly to us finding the correct tone for the final cover. And really, a lot of the earlier drawings and paint work from earlier comps went into crafting the back cover and flaps, so the whole process from the very beginning bore fruit.

What advice do you have for aspiring book designers? 

More than anything, I would say that you have to be ready to throw something out and start again! In modern book publishing, there are many layers of approval that you have to go through (art directors, sales team, editorial, author, bookseller), and you have to be ready to just roll with it if the cover you just worked on and have fallen in love with needs to be reconsidered. It's easier said than done when you've come up with a design you're really fond of but that just isn't quite right for the book in question, but you can always make that rejected cover part of your portfolio (as I did for one of the rejected covers for WILD AWAKE!)

I would also say that an aspiring book designer should always keep his or her eyes open. I of course try to keep abreast of the books on the shelves in the YA section of bookstores, but inspiration strikes when I look at the greater world around me. For example, the color scheme and flap design for WILD AWAKE was something I thought up from looking at Mark Rothko color field paintings when I was at the Museum of Modern Art. One other time, I got a great idea for a color scheme for a design from looking at really gnarly bread mold. If you peer too intently at other book designs exclusively, it'll be nearly impossible for you to design something fresh. It's the equivalent of trying to pick something up with a clenched fist.

Tom Forget's cover for WILD AWAKE: hand-made paint splatters and Rothko-inspired colors.

Do you have any burning cover design questions for Tom? If so, please leave them in the comments and I will ask him very nicely for a guaranteed-to-be-stylish response!


  1. I'd love to hear his thoughts about Maureen Johnson's recent #coverflip project. The role that gender plays in cover design is fascinating.

    1. ah, I was hoping someone would ask this! (or I was going to ask it myself!) will e-mail Tom on Monday and see what he says :)

  2. I really enjoyed this! I was actually looking carefully at my ARC, wondering about the design.

    I have a question about fonts. What makes some fonts inherently cheesy? I mean this as a more serious question than it sounds. What makes a font modern and stylish, while some appear to be so hopelessly trapped in the '80s?

  3. Thanks for this awesome feature! Interviewing cover designers is one of my favorite things to feature on my blog, and one of my favorite things to read on other people's blogs. Your cover is a 2013 favorite of mine, so to see light shed on its creation was wonderful!

  4. You got the A-Team working for you, Hillary. The cover designer himself is a "cover-boy" from the image you posted.
    I like the cover to your exceptional book, especially because it isn't one with a giant face on it. Seen too many of those on YA. WILD AWAKE cover tells that something intense and different is waiting if you open this package.

  5. First, what are your feelings about the spine? Though needing to work well with the whole, I consider the spine to be 'its own thing'. Oft times, a book's only shot at getting picked up is the spine. On the whole, I think them not to be very well done.

    Second, I get the draw toward having an author's name take up half the cover - but I really, really don't like it. In those cases it strikes me that there is little chance of winding up with a cover that isn't pretty awful.

  6. Thanks for a look into the cover design process. I usually read about it from the author's viewpoint, so this was a nice switch.

    And he did a great job with your cover!


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