Killed Covers: 12 book cover designers discuss their rejected work

Twelve book cover designers share some of their creative failures and discuss how rejection, far from marking the end of a design journey, can often lead the way to something new

Two weeks ago, the St Bride Foundation in London hosted a night of rejection. Killed Covers brought a range of book cover designers together to share their tales of woe – a commemoration of those designs that never made it.

By all accounts it was a confessional and cathartic experience, with design talent from some of the UK’s leading publishers and imprints discussing what happens when, for any number of reasons, the work just doesn’t quite succeed. More significantly, these designers also recalled what they took from the experience – and how they moved on from it.

We asked each of the speakers who presented work on the night to share one of their cover design stories with us. All 12 of the participants at Killed Covers tell their story below.

Donna Payne’s killed cover, on left, and the final cover, right, which was designed in the US, complete with title change

Donna Payne, Creative Director, Faber & Faber
Cover for Lullaby by Leila Slimani

The book’s plot centres on a couple, their nanny and two small children. It opens with a murder but examines themes of middle-class guilt and the times we live in. At the time of briefing, the book was still in the process of being translated [from the original French].

The editorial pitch made it clear that it was spare, clean, simple prose; for a literary market. Since acquisition, it had gone on to win France’s top literary award the Prix Goncourt. In short it was the kind of brief that book designers love: lots of creative freedom without the demands of the mass market.

The original French edition of Lullaby

The key elements of the brief were that it should not be photographic. And although colour and imagery were called for it should retain some of the understated elegance of the original typographic French edition. Several rounds of roughs later we agreed on this bold graphic treatment.

The author and agent loved the simplicity and the ‘film noirish’ feel. At this point, the translation finally landed. The whole company starting buzzing from a satisfying reading experience. We knew it was beautifully written, but [the fact] that this slim novel was as fast-paced and compelling as any mass-market thriller was a surprise. We began to make plans for a more commercial paperback treatment. Then we discovered that the US was putting it out in hardback with not only a straight-to-the-point photographic cover, but a punch-in-the-face title change.

By this time I’d read the book. And after staring at both covers for the longest time I had to admit that the US cover and not my cover was just right. It’s broad. It’s still literary. But feels inclusive. The US cover has the kind of reach this book deserves.

So the typographic cover was killed. And as a reader I helped kill it. The challenge of constantly re-imagining, finding a new, fresh take on the same text is what book designers thrive on. The very fact that two jackets as diverse as this can both/all be right or indeed wrong, depending on the market, is what fuels our creativity.


Matt Johnson’s first attempt at a cover for The Farm

Matt Johnson, Art Director (adult books), Simon and Schuster UK
Cover for The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

This is the first of many visuals I created for The Farm. The design is a good example of an idea that was liked and approved in-house, only to be dismissed in no uncertain terms by the author.

Looking back at his criticism of the cover – too predictable and quiet – it was entirely justified. I’m still not quite sure why I put a stag on there. He wanted a design that looked original for the genre of psychological thrillers, something that ‘moved on’ the look. My job was to balance these expectations with the demands of our sales and marketing teams.

Johnson’s final cover

The final cover, I think, is a vast improvement on the original concept. I went though at least thirty variations before I landed on this – it was a real battle at times. Thank heavens the author liked it.


Thy Bui’s rejected cover for The Ethan I Was Before

Thy Bui, Art Director, Orion Children’s Books
Cover for The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

This project was a story about grief. The idea was to have the main character broken into two, his world turned upside down after the death of his friend. The composition cut in half tied in to the title – Ethan before and a changed Ethan after his friend’s accident.

To my horror, it transpired the book was based on the author’s real life experience. Her friend had fallen to his death. You can imagine the upset it caused when the author opened her email to see an image of a boy falling and broken into two!

The final cover design by Sophie Burdess

This cover was scrapped, as were a few more attempts. The final cover was designed by Sophie Burdess. So the lessons learnt? That there is almost always a hiccup somewhere along the process – accept this. And, there is no right or wrong design for a book cover. Our role as designers is to explore the options.


Richard Ogle, Art Director, Transworld, Penguin Random House
Cover for The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Commercial book cover design can be a game of semiotics and market research. Genres and trends are dissected through focus groups and consumer insight and we view our covers through the prism of audience segmentation.

When working on the paperback edition of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne our initial instincts, regarding the target audience, changed as we broadened our hopes and expectations of the potential readership spread. What began as a focus on a specifically Waterstones audience opened up to a wider, more commercial, audience range as the project progressed.

Ogle’s final cover design, featuring a photograph by Jeff Cottenden

I think the covers for each stage were all good covers, from the commissioned typographic solution by Neil Gower to the final photographic image by Jeff Cottenden. It was a matter of a changing pitch not design quality that lead to the killing of the earlier covers. As a designer this is sometimes hard to accept but the business of graphic design is sometimes pragmatism as much inspiration.


Will Speed, Designer, Hodder & Stoughton
Cover for Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter

I chose to talk about one cover, Growing Pains, because we went through such a journey, with so many design variations (photographic, typographic and illustrative) until we found the right solution of a hand-drawn labyrinth.

The final cover design by Speed

The book draws from real life stories of child therapy, which made it difficult show a figure on the cover as it deals with different age ranges and genders. However, the cover still had to feel human and hopeful. Sadly, this selection of covers didn’t make it for a mixture of reasons: not feeling human enough, being slightly misleading, or not appealing to the correct market.


Matthew Young’s first attempt at refreshing the Pelican series since its relaunch in 2014

Matthew Young, Designer, Penguin Books
Covers for the latest Pelican Book series

The [previous Pelican] covers [designed for its relaunch in 2014] survived for about three-and-a-half years. But, inevitably, people start to get bored. ‘The covers all look the same’. ‘It’s impossible to differentiate front-list from back-list books’. People within the company were getting restless.

This all came to a head with a book on Islam, where I put forward this suggestion (shown above). I love this illustration. It’s by Lewin Bassingthwaighte from a 1961 Pelican book on the same subject. But this was dismissed for being too different. The new brief was to keep the existing template, but introduce imagery, somehow.

The template challenge

When your template consists of a giant bird, and giant type, right in the centre of your cover, finding imagery that works around, and works with, that template, is a considerable challenge. But, I gave it a shot and put forward some ideas.

When these were presented, it sparked a huge debate about the design direction of the Pelican series:

‘That blue is holding us back’.
‘We never liked that blue anyway’.
‘Make them all different colours, like a box of Smarties’.

I thought (the first set, shown above) answered the brief rather nicely. The different colours and illustrations add plenty of variety whilst still being recognisably part of the same family. And it could even work with photography too (that’s my daughter on the right there). And this approach was liked at first, but every time there was a cover meeting, things backtracked a little (see the other two sets):

‘Maybe they shouldn’t all be different colours after all, maybe we should stick to white’.
‘Maybe that’s still too much of a departure from the existing look. Maybe make them blue. We’ve always admired that blue’.
‘Ok, but obviously these illustrations aren’t right’.

Young’s exploration of the type hierarchy

We then spent three weeks arguing about the hierarchy of the type.

‘Should the line ‘A Pelican Book’ sit below, or above the title?’
‘Actually, could you please use the flying logo rather than the standing one?’
‘And please move the text down a bit; put it beneath the logo’

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to extoll the virtues of options one and two (above), which are my preference. But after much debate, we ended up with number four.

And eventually, we found we all agreed on a new cover direction. It’s similar enough to the previous template to be obviously part of the same family, whilst shifting the focus to illustration, allowing each book to stand out as a unique object (below).

Three of the final designs for the new-look Pelicans

So there you have it. As you can see, the path that led to this point is littered with killed and abandoned covers, but it’s been an interesting journey to get to this point, and I think we’re headed in a good direction.


Liron Gilenberg’s killed cover for The New Munsell Student Color Set

Liron Gilenberg, Book Designer, Ironic Italics
Cover for The New Munsell Student Color Set (5th Edition)

To design a cover for a design-related book is both a treat and a challenge. I’m a minimalist at heart who sometimes likes to overcomplicate things, but for this one I decided to rein myself in and practice the art of Less is More.

I really thought I nailed it, except the Munsell colour system is intricate, made of very clear grids and is the exact opposite of colours fading organically into one another.

The final cover by Gilenberg

Fortunately, I love a good grid and once the first design was killed I embraced complexity by building upon a basic Munsell structure, expanding and adapting it to go beyond the system and stand on its own as a cover. After a few colour tests the design was quickly approved and is one of my personal favourites.


Initial ideas for the cover of Lace by Rafaela Romaya

Rafaela Romaya, Art Director, Canongate
Cover for Lace by Shirley Conran

Shortly after joining Canongate in 2011, I was asked to redesign Lace by Shirley Conran. Perhaps not an obvious Canongate title – a bonkbuster! – but it taught me a valuable lesson about rejection.

Comps came in: cult classic Valley of the Dolls, Shirley’s contemporaries Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins, and newbie Tasmina Perry. First visuals used primary colours, Vogue-esque fonts, lipstick, Versace dresses, all evoking the 1980s.

Romaya’s Lace moodboard

But these were rejected. At first, I couldn’t see why. So I did something I often do, and created a moodboard. This gathered the visual language of the decade as re-imagined in the Noughties, and led me to illustrator Mat Maitland. Together we rebranded Lace.

Further ideas explored by Romaya and illustrator Mat Maitland

I realised our new visuals screamed the 1980s but weren’t of that decade. They had all the signifiers of the book and genre but interpreted for a contemporary audience. Covers say something about a book, author, publisher, reader and the time they emerge. It worked. Eventually, Pan Macmillan joined the party by publishing the rest of Shirley’s backlist in matching livery.

The final cover of Lace

For me, rejection is part of the creative process. Those first visuals weren’t a dead-end but a chance to pause, reflect and discover another direction.


Ness Wood, Art Director and Designer
Cover for Thornhill by Pam Smy

The process was a collaboration between myself – as the designer – and author/illustrator Pam Smy. We deliberated and negotiated to get this dark-themed, fully illustrated debut novel the strongest possible cover.

We screen-printed, Pam produced line work, and painted in emulsion, we involved puppets and scary girls, until eventually we decided upon the titular house, Thornhill, as the subject of the cover, depicted on both the front and the back.

Our ultimate ambition was for the reader to feel as if picking up the book was picking up the house itself. Sprayed, black-edged pages unify the book block with the cover, emphasising the sense of the book as an object.


Yeti Lambregts’ initial cover idea for The Immortalists

Yeti Lambregts, Senior Designer, Headline Publishing Group
Cover for The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I thought this cover (above) was heading in an exciting direction – a perilous circus trick: what could go wrong? The performance, the drama, the dark side. How one move could end everything. But it wasn’t approved in the cover meeting; it was felt it didn’t represent the whole story as it only showed one member of the family of four.

Lambregts’ second cover direction

So, I went away and had a good think about how best to get the unusual title to work, and capture where and when the story took place. Which led me to this cover (above), showing the four siblings – but it lacked adventure and didn’t look unique enough, it needed more oomph!

The final cover…
… and how it works as part of the jacket

By pushing this idea further – changing the perspective of the building and giving reason for the lettering on the wall – it brought me to illustrating it as if it were an old, hand-painted advertising sign on the side of the building, found in 1970’s New York (shown above). The siblings are huddled together at the top, sharing the moment when they’d been told their fate.

Quotes feature on the side of another building, and different rooms hint at other lives as the jacket unfolds – inspired by the great Hitchcock film Rear Window (above). The Immortalists will be available March 2018, published by Tinder Press.


Rejected young adult cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by James Fraser (left) and the original cover from 2004 featuring artwork by Henry Steadman

James Fraser, Designer
Cover for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (young adult edition) by Mark Haddon

My piece at the event was based around my involvement with the young adult covers for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. I had been asked by the publisher to create the photographic look (cover shown above left) in 2011, to hopefully usher in a new generation of readers after the initial success of the original book eight years previously.

This cover didn’t quite make it, due to being ‘killed’ by the author himself, he was still rather fond of the existing paperback version(s). In hindsight I acknowledged an inherent problem with this photographic approach, or in fact any fictional book cover containing a face for that matter.

Granted in that it can help a purchase by a reader, by being able to identify with the most recognisable of human attributes – facial features – but this can also remove the pleasure of building a picture of a character in our heads by the use of worded descriptions on a page.

Fraser’s alternate designs for the original cover, featuring the work of Steadman

I had art directed the original paperback look for the children’s cover previously in 2004, working with the fantastic Henry Steadman. A look he generated which heavily influenced the appearance of the adult paperback at the time, which was released by the same parent publishers, Penguin Random House.

Henry Steadman’s original visuals for this paperback (see above) for me are an example that, mostly, rejected covers aren’t really killed, that’s far too strong a term. In fact, aren’t they mostly acting as prototypes on the path to a particular solution or outcome?


Killed cover by Mark Swan

Mark Swan, Designer
Cover for The Painted Ocean by Gabriel Packard

When the brief was submitted this was the first image that popped into my head. Quite different from what the client wanted but I really wanted create it and see weather it was technically possible.

To my surprise, despite being off brief it went down very well with the client who approved it in-house. Unfortunately, the author was not keen and chose another design I had produced. His chosen design was then submitted to another important link in the publishing chain. They didn’t like the author’s preferred route.

The final cover design by Swan

The three sides battled it out for a while, but an agreement couldn’t be reached so my designs were scrapped altogether and the project went in-house (see above). The lesson I took away from this experience is it’s important to go with your gut and try something new, take a risk and satisfy your own creative needs as well as the client’s.

Sometimes doing something you are proud of is enough, even if it never sees the light of day – except now that is.


Killed Covers took place at the St Bride Foundation in London on September 13. For more details on SBF events, see The Killed Covers project first came to life in a limited edition publication produced by Nico Taylor, Ceara Elliot and Jack Smyth through the Studio of Ideas they set up whilst working at the Little, Brown Book Group in 2016. St Bride Foundation would like to thank them and Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan for all their help and advise co-curating this lecture

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