Q&A with Marius Roux, GBAS Book Cover Design Award Finalist

AiW note: Ahead of the announcement of the winner of the GBAS Book Cover Design Awards tomorrow, December 1st, we have been able to catch up with two of the finalists, Casper Schutte and Marius Roux. We asked them some of the same questions and honed in on specifics relating to each of their nominated cover designs.

Marius Roux talks with us below about his nominated designs, the job and judging a book by its cover… 

Katie Reid for AiW: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. And congratulations – three of your covers have been selected as finalists in the first Good Book Appreciation Society Book Cover Design Awards – two in the Excellence in Illustration category and one in the Non-Fiction category. 

Perhaps we could start at the beginning – could you tell us a bit about your work and your path to becoming a book cover designer, how you discovered or nurtured the spark for it?

Marius Roux: I started out in advertising, but soon gravitated towards design, publication design in particular – in 2005 I had the opportunity to design Prisoner in the Garden for Penguin, and I was hooked.

AiW: What’s your creative approach to cover design, say, when you receive a new project? What do you look for first and how does it unfold from there?

MR: Typically, as part of the brief, I would receive a synopsis, and maybe some extracts to highlight significant visual clues in the manuscript. Included might be some first ideas from the author and publisher. Non-fiction titles could include a lot of visual material, whereas fiction might require picture research. Once I’ve acquainted myself with the world of the story, I’ll start looking at typography, and how the title speaks to different imagery. Or how type alone could portray a sentiment. 

AiW: You have three designs in the finals. Two are in the Excellence in Illustration category, both for works of fiction: one is a novel, Isle, from a literary (and woodworking) craftswoman, Claire Robertson, whose use of language often pushes it to the boundaries of its meaning (see Hans Pienaar on the book here); the other, Mad Honey, is a collection of short stories, in English, by SJ Naude, a writer who also works in Afrikaans. The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past by Imraan Coovadia is a book of non-fiction, and a finalist in GBAS Book Cover Design Awards’ Non-Fiction category, but it’s a text that pushes beyond being classified as “a book of history”. 

Should a book’s genre influence a book’s cover design? If yes, how much did that affect the processes behind these designs?

MR:  There is definitely a typical look to each genre … Yes, it does influence the design, but could also serve as a ‘what not to do’ if you want a cover to stand out. Imraan Coovadia’s The Poisoners is a point in case. Typically a non-fiction cover would feature a famous character, or characters, or an event, or a place. (As is the case with my favourite cover finalist, William Dicey’s 1986, designed by the late Michiel Botha.) Or sometimes it intentionally deviates from the norm, not only to be different, but to indicate a different kind of non-fiction book. 

Paige Nick (founder of GBAS and the Book Cover Design Awards) describes Robertson’s Isle on Goodreads like this:

Okay so I don’t quite know how to describe this book, as it’s not really like anything I’ve read before, (Jim Crace’s work comes closest maybe) but let me try.

Isle by Claire Robertson, is a story in two halves. The first set in 1289, on an island, where women, not quite nuns but not-not nuns, live without men.

I’ve been rooting around in my brain trying to find an accurate way of describing the writing in this first half, but I’ve come up short. And so I’ll have to gratefully borrow from @Louise Temkin on Facebook GBAS who referred to it as ‘indirect language’ which feels the most appropriate to me.

It’s not old English, it’s not dialect, rather it’s prose. No that’s not entirely it either. The words, some familiar, some new (or rather probably very very old), constructed in this way, shouldn’t make sense, but they do. They make all the sense. You read it and wonder how you understand it, but the author’s craft makes it moreish…

How was it designing a cover for this book of “two halves” and the “indirect shouldn’t make sense-ness but does” of its first part? Did the plural languages of the book impact the design process in extant or knowable ways?

MR:  The author and publisher had a very clear vision of what they wanted the cover to be. A dust jacket on a softcover might seem indulgent, yet the layering of photographs, printed in a muted duotone on uncoated stock, is anything but ostentatious. The very big, almost utilitarian, black serif title is somewhat truncated, almost urging the reader to unfold the dust jacket and find the second half of the story. 

AiW: The collection of stories, Mad Honey, does not have the author’s name on the cover (an established AiW fave, we should say, SJ Naude). Could you talk a bit about this decision?

MR: The cover illustration is by artist David Wightman. When working with an artwork, I always try to be sensitive to its integrity, and place text in such a way that does not detract or jar with its original intention. The less, the better. Add a very adventurous publisher, and miracles do happen! (Thanks Fourie.)

AiW: There’s also a lot of vivid texture in that design – a very clever graphic play with difference and sameness – I want to run my fingers over it and feel it (but it’s only on the screen, sigh). What were the design decisions behind this?

MR:  Absolutely! The landscape, rocks and mountain in relief, contrasts beautifully with the sky and water in flat colour. Combined with the very bold and unconventional use of colour, it suggests a landscape, beyond what normally meets the eye. I think this rings true for SJ Naudé’s incredible short stories. 

AiW: The textural element of the cover of Mad Honey isn’t something we see with the cover of Isle, although both play with perspective, distance, space, grandeur – and both make a feature of  landscapes. How does each cover reflect your book cover design processes?

MR:  David Wightman’s beautiful artwork on Mad Honey’s cover, demands a paired-down minimal approach to typography. The vertical stacking of the letters is almost the only ‘design’. Isle’s cover on the other hand, hints at old-school grandeur and glory, that’s been pared down and laid bare. Both contain a certain disruption or tension. A conflict, wherein lies a story. 

AiW: The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past by Imraan Coovadia is something else altogether: non-fiction, a historical delve into the use of poison as harm and a weapon, and the specifics of it in “the making of the region”, focused on Zimbabwe and South Africa … the publisher describes it like this:

[The Poisoners] exposes the secret use of poisons and diseases in the Rhodesian bush war and independent Zimbabwe, and the apparent connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States; the enquiry into the chemical and biological warfare programme in South Africa known as Project Coast, discovered through the arrest and failed prosecution of Dr Wouter Basson; the use of toxic compounds such as Virodene to treat patients at the height of the Aids epidemic in South Africa, and the insistence of the government that proven therapies like Nevirapine, which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, were in fact poisons; and the history of poisoning and accusations of poisoning in the modern history of the African National Congress, from its guerrilla camps in Angola to Jacob Zuma’s suggestion that his fourth wife collaborated with a foreign intelligence agency to have him murdered.

But The Poisoners is not merely a book of history. It is also a meditation, by a most perceptive commentator, on the meaning of race, on the unhappy history of black and white in southern Africa, and on the nature of good and evil.

In your cover, the classic skull, visual signifier of the deadly threat of poison, is here, but subverted with the use of colour and the vibrancy, which also reeks of toxicity: it’s remarkably un-cliched for such a familiar harbinger image…

Could you tell us a bit about the decisions behind this cover? Do you feel differently about designing for non-fiction – especially something that is figured as epically as this – or find a need to approach it in a different way?

MR:  The Poisoners is not only an account of poisoning in our history, but a deeper look into the motivation of the poisoners. The cover almost serves as a health warning, as the book uncovers some uncomfortable truths. 

AiW: All three books have the same publisher – Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa. Do you tend to work with them or with particular publishers a lot?

MR:  Yes, I do. I’ve been very fortunate to have long-standing relationships with some publishers, designing not only covers, but also entire illustrated books. 

AiW: Can I ask about spines and back covers? How much input did you have there? And, if relevant, how did that differ or relate to designing the front?

MR:  The spine and back cover is the cover designer’s opportunity to look at a book as a 3D object. Apart from set rules regarding placement of barcodes and logos, and the necessity of fitting a blurb, the spine and back cover could support, or contradict, the front cover design.

AiW: A while back, there was discussion in the books community about book covers of African writers conforming to, and so perpetuating and confirming a certain aesthetic and expectation about writing from the continent – the “acacia tree meme” (summarised here at Africa is a Country). Thanks to designers out there doing and getting recognition for the sensitivity and intelligence of their work – such as your good self – and initiatives like GBAS, which can only help to put the significance of book cover design, among all the many ways a book is “pre-read”, to the forefront, this has been receding. But I wonder if a) you have any comment on this and/or b) as a follow-on, whether certain aspects of the market, local and/or international, if any, concern you when designing? And/or c) on a slightly different tack, do you worry about repeating yourself in your own design practice?

The “acacia tree” meme. Credit: Simon Stevens.

MR:  Maybe clichés like savannah sunsets and acacia trees have been prevalent because of a lack of authentic African imagery? (Do a search on any photo bank and the majority of images are aimed at either the tourist market or NGO’s.) I’ve had the pleasure of working with incredible local photographers, whom, on occasion, I’ve been lucky enough to source images from directly. There is a real disconnect between the talent out there, and what is readily available to cover designers to license, for use on book covers. Or maybe you have to consider the market? The savannah sunset, with an acacia tree, might just forever signify the big-selling common denominators: romance, action and Africa. These conventions exist, and will, as long as we judge (or pre-read) books by their covers. Absolutely, I worry about repeating myself. 

AiW: Does your job affect what you buy and how you browse books in a bookshop, either irl or online? Do you have books you’re drawn to, for example, for reasons that you don’t entirely understand, or books you wouldn’t buy because of it? Does being a book cover designer make you more or less prone to judging a book by its outside?

MR: I love going to bookshops to have a look at new cover designs, production techniques and publishing trends, but rarely buy a book because of its cover. Generally, I’m drawn to simpler, typographic covers, with minimal imagery, that maintains a sense of mystery. 

AiW: What is your favourite cover that you did not design? Are there specific designers who have influenced the ways in which you look at a new project?

MR: Too many favourites to mention … I love Chip Kidd’s work, especially his cover design for Murakami’s 1Q84. Locally, I’ve always admired the late Michiel Botha’s work, especially William Dicey’s 1986, also a finalist in the competition.

AiW: Any book recommends for our readers?

MR: I’m currently loving The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, after reading, his much later, Utopia Avenue – both titles feature the same character in different eras. 

AiW: Thanks again for sharing and talking with us!

Marius Roux is a freelance graphic designer with a thing for books. He’s worked with many of South Africa’s trade publishers, with content spanning Arts and Lifestyle, to History and Politics. Focused on illustrated titles, he also takes on private commissions, locally and internationally. 

Website: www.mrdesign.co.za

Check out all the finalists in each category at the site, as well as all the covers entered in the GBAS Book Cover Design Award gallery.

And for more on the awards from GBAS founder Paige Nick, you can read her AiW Words on the Times with us here:

Paige Nick, GBAS: I run a book club on Facebook called The Good Book Appreciation Society. It’s a kind of secret club with almost 17,000 avid reading members. So I guess, luckily, it’s a badly kept secret.

As an author and advertising copywriter, I’ve always been fascinated by book covers and the design side of books. I know how hard they are to get right and thought it would be great to give our designers some credit, and some cash. The awards kind of came up out of that.

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