Creative Lives — Art director and book cover designer James Paul Jones on freelancing, foundation courses and fearlessness
From being recognised by the Type Director’s Club for his Frankenstein In Baghdad cover, to creating the visuals for The Tiger’s Wife which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, James Paul Jones has designed a diverse range of book designs for an equally as varied range of genres. After working at Penguin Random House, James went on to become an in-house art director before going freelance – and has recently taken on the role as non-fiction art director at Head of Zeus. Here, he fills us in on creating work from a shed in Buckinghamshire, tells us what makes for a compelling book cover, and offers assurance that almost everything will work again if you unplug.
James Paul Jones
Freelance Art Director and Designer; Non-Fiction Art Director, Head of Zeus (June 2019–present)
Buckinghamshire and London
Penguin Random House (UK & US), Sony, Amazon, Granta, W.W.Norton, Simon & Schuster (UK & US), Oneworld Publications
Art Director, Oneworld Publications (2015–2018)
Senior Designer, Vintage Books
Penguin Random House (2011–2015)
Junior Designer and Designer, Orion Publishing Group
BA Graphic and Media Design, London College of Communication (2003–2006)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance designer working mainly in the publishing industry designing book covers. I also work on interiors – from classic fiction to illustrated cookery books. My work involves creatively interpreting the author’s words for the masses usually via a small rectangular format.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
As of June 2018 I work predominantly from my shed at the bottom of our garden near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. The day begins with a morning walk with our springer spaniel puppy after the loving chaos of our two boys’ morning ‘routine’. Then I get to work on a variety of tasks – anything from creating covers and planning photo shoots for cookery books, to commissioning designers to work on briefs for me over at Head of Zeus, where I recently became art director.
How collaborative is your role?
It could be something that I’ll work on solely myself, painting different shapes using woodblock printing processes, to ripping up books and photographing them in my studio. Or perhaps like most recently, I’m brainstorming with photographers and editors on what shots to set up for on a cover shoot with Jenson Button in his Braun-winning F1 car of 2009.
James’ studio in Buckinghamshire
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Pushing yourself beyond the ‘this looks terrible’ stage and fighting through to the great stuff is the most satisfying aspect of the job. Seeing my covers out there, being read in all sorts of places still gets me every time. Instagram has shone a new light on that now with people kindly tagging me in their photos from the remotest of places.
The least enjoyable is the toll it’s actually taking on my body. Physically I’m having to make sure I look after myself, especially when working longer hours at a desk. Thanks to my IKEA adjustable desk I can move between standing and sitting which helps. Plus regular dog walks, family time and fitting in some sport now and then definitely helps and is a huge perk of working for yourself with the family close by.
“Pushing beyond the ‘this looks terrible’ stage is the most satisfying aspect of the job.”
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
A strong typographic sense definitely helps when creating essentially small format posters to promote the author’s words. Having no fear helps – in the past I was far too worried about how something would look, what people thought, but now I just get on with it. As long as you keep having ideas, and are passionate about your vision, you’ll be fine. Everything else you can learn on the job.
What else do you need to take into account when designing a book cover?
Begin! Fail quicker. Allow yourself time to play. Sometimes (rarely) the idea for the final cover comes to you straight away. A good example is my Frankenstein in Baghdad cover. I knew I wanted to combine the two aspects of the novel with contrasting types, and the idea of stitching and stapling them together like Frankenstein’s monster just seemed to make perfect sense. It’s one I’m really proud of and was recognised earlier this year by TDC (Type Director’s Club) amongst some incredible work from around the world. And remember that being original doesn’t mean being first, it means being different and better.
James' cover for We Will Not Be Silenced
James’ covers for Frankenstein In Baghdad and The Tiger's Wife
What do you like about working between London and Buckinghamshire?
One of the main reasons for going freelance was to be there for my family more. When I was working in London commuting for a large chunk of the day I was missing all the things that mattered. Now we all have our meals together and that means the world. Another plus to Beaconsfield was access to London when needed. But mainly I like having the added sense of calm that living out of London brings to me. Almost everything will work again if you unplug. Including you.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
Having the time to explore personal projects further was another reason for going freelance. Some have stayed personal, whilst others have grown into something I couldn’t have imagined, which I hope to share later. The way I manage this is by constantly creating plans, lists and evolving my work schedules throughout the week. Working through the weekend takes it out of the tank for the rest of the work, meaning I’m having to work smarter, in order to complete my client work alongside my personal projects.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug. Including you.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
Adobe CC is the obvious one, along with my iMac 5K 27-Inch. I also use my A3 Lightbox quite a lot. I’ve just treated myself to the latest iPad Pro which I’m incredibly excited (and daunted) by in equal measures. Oh and a notebook – I’m forever scribbling down miniature book covers trying to work out which routes to take further before I get the computer involved. One of my sketchbooks made an appearance on my cover for We Will Not Be Silenced which I spent many a day photographing wrapped up in paperclips until I had the shot just right.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I get inspired by peoples’ lives, and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome. So I read a lot of non-fiction and listen to podcasts: Desert Island Discs, Under the Skin with Russell Brand, Joe Rogan, Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place are all excellent, inspiring and thought provoking.
James in his studio in Buckinghamshire
James' book covers for Miami and Salvador
How I Got Here
How useful have your studies been in your career?
My art foundation course was everything. I’d encourage everyone to enrol in a heartbeat. It opened my eyes to a world where what I did for fun could be a viable career option. The tutors at Coleg Menai in North Wales encouraged us to be ourselves, try new things, whilst also importantly, equipping us with the necessary skills to make a mark out there in the big wide world.
After graduating, what were your initial jobs steps?
I realised early on that it was essential to have some contacts before graduating. I started calling in favours which helped to build up a roster of freelance clients. I started my own design company towards the end of the second year, working on websites, record covers and some freelancing with the Orion Publishing Group.
“I realised early on that it was essential to have some contacts before graduating.”
When the time came to leave university, the creative director Lucie Stericker (and one of the most important people in my career) asked if I fancied joining them for a few days a week on a freelance basis. From there I became a junior, before a designer and then heading over to Vintage as a senior for Penguin Random House UK.
Has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I worked on The Tiger’s Wife, (convincing the sales department that a yellow cover would sell) which went on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction. Quickly followed by the Keith Richard’s autobiography Life, along with a few other covers which helped my name get out there in the book design world.
James' cover for The Good Immigrant
Do you have any favourite moments in your career?
In 2016 I worked on The Good Immigrant for Unbound. Upon receiving the brief, my heart sank realising I had to try and get all the 21 contributors names on there…my head went into a bit of a tailspin. But after turning that negative into a positive, I hit on the idea of representing the whole cover typographically, as some sort of gig poster. A manifesto-style poster to present this book as a movement that needed to happen. The book went on to achieve more than anyone could have imagined and it’s one of my proudest career moments to be involved in such a timely project.
How important would you say social media is to you?
Whilst at Vintage I created a new series design for Jeanette Winterson. Creative Review featured them and praised their boldness in approach, while Mashable did a huge article on them, claiming they were the worst series design ever created, and went on to name others.
After that I realised it was all a bit silly really, and now I post more often but I’m on there less. Once posted I limit myself to certain days and times to peek in, otherwise it’s easy to get far too distracted. Not worrying too much about what is liked or not is the key.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
If it’s book design you fancy, then get in touch with relevant art departments. Choose publishers whose work you admire, and who you think your work would be a great fit for. If you don’t have any book cover projects under your belt then create some for your favourite books. Be proactive and get yourself out there. But most importantly have fun. Life’s too short not to.