Wait, There’s a Difference? Book Designers vs. Illustrators

Here at Ooligan Press, we don’t have a department dedicated just to book design, the way you might at a large publishing house. Instead, we have one design manager, and we invite all members of the press to contribute to our book covers. For instance, when we’re working on a new cover design, we invite everyone to submit designs over the course of four submission rounds, with weekly meetings for feedback from other members of the press. That means that anyone who submits a design is responsible for the following tasks: creating the imagery; choosing the font and layout for the title, subtitle, and author name; and, if their design is chosen, creating the final layout for the spine and back cover design. That’s how many book designers work, but that’s not the case for every cover or every press.

Sometimes an illustrator is brought in to create the cover art, and a designer is then responsible for combining that illustration work with the appropriate typography and text layout for the front and back cover. Okay, you’re thinking, why does it matter that we distinguish between the two?

Before I started PSU’s graduate program in book publishing, I was a graphic design major in undergrad. Actually, the degree written on my diploma was a BFA in studio arts with a concentration in graphic design. That meant that half of the classes I took—such as drawing, composition and color, printmaking, and art history—weren’t actually about graphic design. The core of those classes was about learning how to develop my artistic style to tell the viewer about myself, the artist. I then built on that knowledge by applying it to my graphic design work on posters, logos, and infographics. But I didn’t really understand back then that creating fine art was very different from the art of graphic design, which is about communicating an idea to an audience, usually in order to get them to take action. Simply put, whereas fine art (such as illustration) looks inward by asking the viewer to see the artist behind the art, graphic design looks outward by asking the viewer to see the art and go do something because of it. While these two concepts overlap in places, the purpose of each is very different.

When we think about illustration and graphic design in terms of book design, the difference between the two gets even blurrier. Cover design is inherently commercially oriented and audience driven, and that means book illustrators must keep the same considerations in mind that designers do, especially when the illustrator is also the cover designer. Some designers get defensive if others don’t like a particular artistic choice they made. For years now, I’ve often heard others defend their artwork by saying, “Well, I like it that way.” I think this gets to the core of why the distinction between illustrator and designer, between fine art and graphic design, is so important. When you’re an illustrator, you can make every edgy, interesting artistic choice you want to your heart’s content, because your purpose is to showcase your artistic style. But the minute you are part of a larger design project, such as a book cover, that creativity must be tempered by the purpose of the design; it must be tailored to the audience you want to reach. The book cover isn’t all about showcasing your artistic skill—it’s about selling the book, the story, the author.

How, then, do we balance these two roles? Below are the three pieces of advice I’d give when it comes to being both an illustrator and a graphic designer:

  1. Know what role you prefer. It’s great to be able to both create art and design art—that will make you more hireable in the long run. But know which one you are more comfortable with. Some artists have to have absolute control over the way they create art, because at the end of the day, they’re creating art for themselves first, the viewer second. That’s completely legitimate, but it usually means that working with clients is extremely difficult for them and will likely take the joy out of creating. And if you want to work in book design, you’d probably prefer being approached to create art because of your distinct artistic style, not because a client needs you to create a style for them. In contrast, if you are a designer, you should be flexible enough to take someone else’s vision and make it better through your own artistic skill, without changing the purpose or audience. Your client’s goal should also be your goal.

  2. Know when to break the rules. The general understanding is that in fine art, you can bend the rules in favor of artistic expression as long as you know why you’re doing so. For instance, you might draw a face with giant eyes that aren’t scientifically accurate in order to draw attention to the eyes, for whatever artsy reason. That’s not always the case with design. You could make a poster with tiny text for the title and chalk it up to artistic style. For a poster in an art exhibition, sure, that might be fun because it flips a viewer’s expectations. For a poster on a bulletin board that’s meant to communicate important information, however, such artistic “style” could get in the way of the design. Remember, when you’re a designer, you’re thinking about what a particular audience needs.

  3. Know when to let go of your ego. Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, and the people you’re working with say, “That’s not going to work for us.” Yes, of course it hurts. But if you keep yourself in the mindset that those people just don’t understand, that they made a bad choice, that the new thing you had to make instead is leagues beneath what you originally created, you’ll never be happy as a designer, and you won’t really be able to reapproach the design with fresh eyes. Remember, graphic design is outward facing—and to be blunt, it’s not about you. In fact, I find it a bit of a relief to tell myself that. When a client rejects a design, it’s not about whether or not they like you as a person, or whether they think you’re a good designer (if they hired you, clearly you’re doing something right). So don’t take rejection personally—just think of it as a problem you haven’t quite solved yet.

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