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Designer C.S. Richardson sheds light on the cover of Unless

Editor's note: We asked C.S Richardson, the man responsible for the cover design of Unless, to shed some light on why he chose such a simple design and what it says about the story Carol Shields chose to tell.

Unless cover 

Q: Can you provide a brief overview of who you are, what you do and how you got there?

A: Who: C.S. Richardson, born in Saskatchewan, raised in Toronto, 30-year veteran of Canadian publishing.

What: Author (first novel, The End of the Alphabet, published in 2007, winner of a Commonwealth Prize for best first book; second novel scheduled for 2012) and book designer (VP and creative director, Random House of Canada).

How: As above, 30 years in various publishing roles: publicity, advertising, marketing and project development, but majority spent in design. Largely self-taught; considered a pragmatic journeyman — 1,500 (give or take) books later, still trying to get it right.

Q: How did you come to the final cover for Unless? Can you walk us through that process?

A: At Random House, the design process is consensual. It involves a large (sometimes unwieldy) group of editors, publishers, sales and marketing folk, agents and, most important, the author, all having a vested interest in the book's success (and by extension its cover). After being briefed by the editor on major themes in Unless — the tone of the writing, possible imagery/visual metaphors, as well as specifics (cover quote, brag-lines, etc.) I developed a number of approaches.

What I do recall is that the image of the gently folded hands (representing the protagonist's wayward daughter) quickly arose as the iconic element in the design. As for other matters — composition, typography, colour palettes — much was driven by the novel's quiet and introspective style, as well as Ms. Shield's paramount place in Canadian letters.

Q: What do you think the final cover says about the book?

A:That this is a major work by a major writer. It is not brash or garish. It is sophisticated, elegant, thoughtful, evocative. That you should read this.

Q: Unless was originally published in 2002. Do you think the cover stands the test of time?

A: Covers come and go. Ditto design aesthetics. It's the writing that stands the test. If I were to do it again, no doubt I'd take a fresh approach (there are any number of ways to skin the book design cat). But I'm fairly certain I'd start with the image of the hands.

Unless american cover

Q: Are there any international covers for Unless that strike you? What about them catches your eye?

A: The ones I've seen have focused on the daughter-as-lonely-outcast, in varying aspects of dreariness. One exception is the U.S. paperback (Harper Collins) that uses a charming (and eye-catching) period image of a young girl popping a handstand to great effect. When I saw the cover, my first reaction was: "Why didn't I think of that?"

Q: What about being a book designer might surprise readers?

A: That covers take up so much of our time, while it is the interior of the book (typeface, legibility, extent) where the important stuff happens. Book design = COMPLETE book design, inside and out. If a reader can't (or won't) read the author's words, if design gets in the way of that crucial relationship, the cover is meaningless.

And that we don't always read the book we're designing. We try to, honest.


Thank you, C.S., for answering our questions!

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