Behind the Cover – Nina Tara
(Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens)

by Diana Sousa



Today I’m interviewing Nina Tara, responsible for designing the cover of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, published by HarperCollins (as well as other books by the same author), where she collaborated with Duncan Smith; as well as the cover of Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, published by Corgi Childrens.

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How did you become a designer? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

Well, I was 16 and I actually wanted to be a journalist. I loved the idea of being a bit of a Nancy Drew detective type journalist! Unfortunately I didn’t get my grade in English, so Art it was then! I didn’t think Fashion design was for me so I looked into Graphics. I went on to study for 4 years and directly after college I managed to get a job in an advertising agency in Oxford. It was a great learning curve, having to think on your feet and very quick turnarounds to meet deadlines. I worked in advertising for about 5 years and then after redundancy I decided to go freelance and a few of us started up our own design agency. A few years later I returned to London and found myself freelancing for publishers too. One of the first clients was HarperCollins!

How did you get involved with this cover? Did HarperCollins contact you directly, or did they already know your work? 

I was working as an in-house freelance designer – covering maternity leave. I was assigned the project by my studio manager as I had worked very closely with the editor who looked after Diana on a previous series Conrad’s Fate, The Magicians of Caprona, Mixed Magics and Witch Week. All illustrated by David Frankland.

Conrad'sFate_B_PB  DWJ_MagiciansCaprona_B_PB

MixedMagic's_B_PB  DWJ_WitchWeek_B_PB


How was the process of developing the cover (collaborating with Duncan Smith)? Was there a clear goal in mind?

Would you believe me if I said that the idea actually came to me the morning of the cover art meeting? Well, it did! I had explored quite a few ideas before, but none of them seemed to work. Each time I took them to the cover art meeting they were rejected. So, we were running out of time as the print deadline was looming and I quickly put an idea together of the type taking up the entire cover with little elements working within it. If you have read the book you will know there are many visual components and I had a lot to choose from for ideas for the illustrator I would have assigned.

I had worked with Duncan Smith before on previous projects and I knew he could meet the tight deadline, so I commissioned him. I sent a detailed brief with the initial concept worked up and some suggestions of character action, so he knew the sizes and spaces he had to work with within the text area.

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this cover and collaboration, interesting facts you’d like to share? 

As with many projects it’s great to be able to read the manuscript and do some research when deadlines allow. So, the best thing for me was discovering the many wonderful, adventure filled and imaginative books that Diana had written.


How did you get involved with this cover? Did Corgi Childrens / Random House contact you directly, or did they already know your work? 

I was commissioned by Random House cover designer Laura Bird to produce concept and illustrations for the cover. Laura had seen my previous cover design for Diana Wynne Jones – The Game illustrated by Rob Ryan and loved the look of the cover.

The game

How was the process of developing the cover? Was there a clear goal in mind?

The brief was great – a ‘Agatha Christie for 10-12 year old girls a 1930’s murder mystery’. I’ve done a lot of covers for Agatha comic novels for HarperCollins, so this was right up my street!

ac cards on table

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with Robin Stevens, any ideas or suggestions? 

Robin was great. She sent loads of ideas and suggestions via the editors Natalie and Laura – and often great references too. So, it was a really smooth process coming up with ideas and concepts for the look of the girls and the elements on cover along with the typography.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

Murder Most unlikely  Murder Most unlikely 3b blue  

The first one is a black and white version of the very first idea. The blue one was one of the colour variations I sent in. As you can see the cover that actually made it to press is a lot simpler and cleaner and I think actually works really well. So the final isn’t too far away from the original – but with input from the Art director, designer, sales and marketing we were able to enhance the look to a simpler, cleaner and more fun cover.

From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer/illustrator have free reign?

Well, sometimes you are free to come up with a new concept – other times you are guided in the brief as to the type of look the publisher is looking for, but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t add your own design input and ideas into the mix! I often work up about 3 concepts covering all requirements and including my suggestion for the approach.

There are a team of people involved in the final say from the author, art director, sales, marketing and bookshop reps the books are being sold in – e.g Waterstones.  So, it’s interesting when you get feedback because everyone is looking at the cover from different perspectives. It’s good to remain open to ideas and suggestions – because what I think will work could be enhanced (or even sometimes not) by another suggestion. But we don’t find out until we explore all avenues and sometimes you could end up back at the first design idea!

Finally, what are some of the favourite book covers that you’ve seen (recently or not), from other designers and illustrators?

Goodness – there are so many fantastic designers and illustrators that inspire me on a daily basis I would need to write another blog entry for you! But, I do count myself very, very lucky to also have many of my inspirations as very good friends too!

Thank you so much Nina Tara for these answers and the pictures you shared!

I hope you liked this interview. Here are some other works by Nina Tara:


Behind the Cover – Patrick Insole
(The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman)

by Diana Sousa

BehindTheCoverThis week we’re joined by Patrick Insole, designer and art director for Headline Publishing Group. He was responsible for making the UK cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, published by Headline.

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How did you become a designer? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

I originally trained as an illustrator and, for a long time after graduating, that continued to be my ambition – I certainly never set out to become a book designer. My first job out of college, drawing and designing 3 dimensional maps, was really just a way to provide a regular income while I got my intended illustration career up and running.

My first job in book publishing, as a junior designer at Walker Books, was little different – despite loving books and reading, at the time I didn’t really consider it as a long term career option. Once there, though, I quickly fell in love with designing books – it marries the skills of an illustrator with those of a designer in a way that felt natural, and working alongside such talented and passionately creative people, not just other designers but everyone involved in the publishing process, I learnt such a lot, as I continue to today.

How was the process of developing the cover for such a genre defying book? Was there a clear goal in mind?

It’s actually really refreshing to work on something that is so difficult to categorise – so many of the covers we work on have, to some degree, to conform to the conventions of the book’s genre. The cover for Ocean At The End Of The Lane was very much a blank canvas, and a very open brief. That can be quite scary for a designer, and certainly at the outset there was some anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to come up with any ideas, but reading the manuscript, the book is so rich in imagery I needn’t have worried. As with many of Neil’s books, though rooted in reality, magic permeates through the story and I knew I wanted to make a cover that somehow combined this sense of the strange with the everyday, the difficulty being how to portray these contradictory qualities without giving too much away, or being too descriptive.

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with Neil Gaiman, any ideas or suggestions?

Neil has a very open-minded approach to his covers – allowing us pretty much free reign to explore ideas and to see what we come up with. Once we’d got some ideas that we liked we sent them through to Neil and between us we pretty quickly settled on a version of the final cover. From there it was just a case of refining the details.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

We actually got to the final cover quite quickly – there were a few other ideas that we tried (see below) but quite early on in the process I stumbled across the image of the diving boy taken by the very talented photographer Hengki Koentjoro, which I felt worked perfectly – dark and mysterious with a suggestion of travelling from one world to another.

Ocean_roughs_Page_1   Ocean_roughs_Page_2

Ocean_roughs_Page_3   Ocean_roughs_Page_4

From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer have free reign?

It should be, and usually is, a very collaborative process. I work as part of a team of in house designers working for the publisher, so every cover we work on there’s a constant dialogue, sharing ideas between ourselves, the author, editor as well as the sales and marketing teams, so whilst ultimately the publisher and author have the final say, usually what we end up with is something that we’ve agreed on collectively.

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this book cover, interesting facts you’d like to share?

It was actually an unusually straightforward process in the end – the expectation, when working on covers for such high profile authors, is always that it’s going to take longer and be a more difficult process, but sometimes as in this case, an idea can stick surprisingly quickly. For me, though, this was a very special project to work on. Neil has always been one of my favourite authors, so having the opportunity to design a cover for his latest novel was, though daunting at first, a real privilege and an ambition fulfilled.

Finally, what are some of your favourite book covers, whether they’re recent or not?

That’s a tough one! So many great covers, that I like for so many different reasons.

I love covers by Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand’s classic American designs for books like Kafka’s Amerika and Nicholas Monseratt’s Leave Cancelled (respectively) – such clean and simple designs that feel as fresh now as when they were first published in the 1940s. In the same tradition, though much more recent, Jon Gray’s cover for Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also one of my favourites.


Thank you Patrick for your time!

If you want to know more about Patrick’s work, you can follow him on Twitter! I hope you liked this interview, and here are some other examples of his book cover design.