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Inside The Birth House: From design concept to cover

Editor's note: Back in 2006, when The Birth House was originally published, Ami McKay interviewed the talented designer behind the beautiful cover of her book, Random House's Kelly Hill. Ami was kind enough to let us reprint that interview below. They talked about Kelly's work as a book designer, how the design of The Birth House went from concept to cover and why judging a book on its appearance can sometimes be a good thing!

The Birth House by Ami McKay cover designQ: What led you to a life in book design?

A: Literature and art are always showing up to parties together in my world. While at university I remember looking at all of my Canadian lit novels (I was an English major) and thinking that it was someone's job to decide which piece of art -- usually a Group of Seven painting(!) -- went on which cover. With my minor in Art History I thought that would be the perfect job for me. That's how unsophisticated my first thoughts were about what I do now.

After university I went to Centennial College for the book and magazine publishing program, thinking that I wanted to do editorial work and ended up loving the design class. Because I didn't have a graphic design diploma I didn't think I'd be qualified for the positions I wanted, but I got into publishing as an advertising and promotions designer and then made my way down the hall to book design.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about renowned book designer Chip Kidd and what he's brought to book design. He cites comic books (specifically Batman comics) and album covers as sources of inspiration for his style. What kinds of things (and/or artists) have inspired your work?

A: Chip Kidd's book is sitting on my desk right now: it's a really impressive portfolio.

I'm glad you suggested that things could be a source of inspiration: I'm often inspired by beautiful handmade pieces, like clothing and quilts and rugs and fabrics. I am drawn to book jackets that use illustrations, textures, whimsical elements -- evidence that although books are mass produced, somebody made this cover. I have some books with old advertising illustrations, which I go to often for inspiration, and I pore over graphic design annuals, wishing I'd thought of those ideas. And then there's always the book itself as the most important source of inspiration -- everything you need to design the cover is there.

Q: Can you take me through the process you went through in designing the cover for The Birth House? What were you trying to convey to the reader?

A: For every book I first sit down with the editor, who describes the general themes and storyline, the audience for the novel and maybe comparable books or authors. I also like to read a portion of the manuscript to get a feeling for the writing and to look for "images" within the text. What I always want to do with a cover is present something that is true to the book, with just enough intrigue and hopefully beauty that whoever picks it up will want more. In the case of The Birth House, there is the pregnant woman (who is she? is she going to be okay?) and the label and botanical print, which hint at the Willow Book and the "scrapbook" style of the novel.

Q: The Birth House also includes many design elements within the text of the book (advertisements, invitations, old news clippings, and an herbal notebook -- all circa the First World War era). What sorts of challenges did these things present?

A: These were fun to do: I used some actual ads from that time period as inspiration and did my best to mimic the fonts and graphic style. Since some of the authentic ads were not well designed I was allowed to break some of my own rules for the purposes of authenticity.

What kinds of things can editors and writers do to lend a hand to the designer?

A: Trust them!

Thanks, Ami, for sharing this interview with us!

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