Creative Lives — We discuss flexible, future-facing skill sets with Vintage’s senior designer, Julia Connolly

Posted 01 August 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

As part of such a fast-moving industry, the team at Penguin Random House imprint Vintage have had to learn to be adaptable. “It’s no longer all about print for us,” explains senior designer Julia Connolly, who counts flexibility as an essential part of the job. Working across anything from sport to history and nature writing, she is responsible for the design of over 30 different titles at one time. Dealing with a broad spectrum of topics means that on any given day Julia could be switching between painting to proofing final prints. Here, she tells us how her love of reading led her to work in book design. 

Julia Connolly

Job Title

Senior Designer, Vintage Books, Penguin Random House (2011–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Designer, Penguin General (2007–2011)

Education

BA Graphic Design, Northumbria University (2004–2007)

Website

In the studio

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I design book covers for Vintage, working across all our imprints and genres – from fiction to sport, history to nature writing. I’m responsible for taking a brief from conception through to final artwork. We also work with the marketing department to help create the wider campaign for certain books. This might mean making posters, wrapping paper or an animation. 

What does a typical working day look like?
Generally 9.15am to 6pm, and my commute is about an hour. I usually have around 30 titles I’m responsible for, all at different stages – some just briefed and others about to go to print. So a typical day could involve sitting down with an editor to get feedback on a design, finalising artwork on another jacket and then getting out my paints to begin on another. An ideal day for me would be not having too many emails, meetings or admin to deal with, and having time to really get stuck into a new project.

How did you land your current job?
I was offered an internship at Penguin General after having my portfolio on show at the D&AD New Blood exhibition. After that I managed to stay on as a temp until a year later when a position became available. I loved my time at Penguin General but after four years I was looking to progress and heard about a design vacancy at Vintage. I had long admired their publishing list and beautiful covers so I jumped at the chance. I’ve now been here for almost six years and was promoted to senior designer in November 2015.

“When I was filling out UCAS applications to study English, my parents encouraged me to wait and do an art foundation year first. Best advice ever.”

Inside Vintage Books

Where does the majority of your work take place?
Mostly sat at my computer in the studio. It’s a very relaxed environment and a close-knit team; we go to a lot of exhibitions together and are always on the lookout for opportunities to enhance and inform our design. Occasionally I will work at home when inspiration strikes or I want quiet time to illustrate something. We often have manuscripts to read so I tend to do this during my commute. 

How collaborative is your role?
Every project involves working with the book’s editor, who we work with closely throughout, and who supplies the project brief. It ends by working with a production controller to determine stock, finishes and ensure we are all happy with the printed jacket. Depending on the type of cover it might also involve working with our picture researcher or commissioning an illustrator or photographer to do a shoot. Sometimes all the designers collaborate on a series such as our recent Vintage Minis

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
It’s such a great feeling when you hit on a design that you think works perfectly for the title, and even more so when the editor, author and sales team feel the same. The least enjoyable aspect is probably the simultaneous deadlines and a large workload. I will spend quite a bit of time outside of work thinking about a brief or searching for inspiration, but generally I have a pretty good work-life balance.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick; illustration by Chloe Giordano

Making of the book cover by Chloe Giordano

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on The Comet Seekers – I got to commission a wonderful embroidery artist called Chloe Giordano who stitched the whole jacket design. 

What skills are essential to your job?
As we work across a whole range of subjects, the design styles can really vary so you have to be flexible. People skills are very important, as is attention to detail when preparing artwork for print.

Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I’m lucky that my job is more than enough of a creative outlet but I enjoy helping out friends and family whenever they have a need for some design or illustration. 

What tools do you use most for your work?
Essentials are a Mac, Photoshop, InDesign, a Wacom tablet, my progress list and a pile of A4 paper for doodling on. On top of that I’ll often use Pinterest for collecting project inspiration and our huge studio library of books on photography, art and typography. 

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; illustration by Petra Börner

Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
An illustrator. Though once I got to college I realised that I was better suited to being a designer. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
A passion for reading, which I can thank my mum for. My parents were always very supportive of me having a creative career – even when I was filling out UCAS applications to study English they encouraged me to wait and do an art foundation year first. Best advice ever. 

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My degree was a really helpful grounding in design – particularly for knowledge of software and typography. It also opens doors. I would’t have landed my internship without being part of a graduate exhibition. 

“It’s such a great feeling when you hit on a design that works perfectly, and more so when the editor, author and sales team feel the same.”

Julia at work

Julia at work

Julia at work

What were your first jobs?
My first relevant role was an internship at Navy Blue in Edinburgh during my second year at university. I worked on corporate brochures and annual reports, and while I didn’t feel it was the right area of design for me, it was a great experience. I loved the atmosphere of the studio and knew then that I wanted to be part of a design team rather than going it alone as an illustrator. 

Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
John Hamilton at Penguin General, for giving me a shot and then letting me hang around for so long until a position became available. From the start he encouraged me to take risks and avoid the expected. 

“My degree was a really helpful grounding in design – particularly for knowledge of software and typography. It opened doors.”

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
It’s no longer all about print for us. In 2013 the team started our CMYK tumblr site to promote our titles and explain our design process. We now have a FacebookTwitter and too. We are also starting to use animation, film and photography.

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
Time management. I definitely had a fair few late nights when learning to juggle a large workload.

In the studio

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
There’s always more to learn and I hope to keep growing as a designer. For a long time my aim was to work on a full text design of a cookbook, and I’ve luckily just been the given that opportunity. It is going to be a lot of work and a real learning curve but it’s been great fun so far – especially getting to sample the food on the photoshoots! 

Could you do this job forever?
Yes. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling, varied job role and I feel privileged to work with some of the best designers I know. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Progression for a senior designer in publishing could be to become an art director or a freelance designer. Right now I am really enjoying life at Vintage. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a designer?
Work hard, learn as much as you can from the team and have a positive attitude. Share your ideas – it is always beneficial to get a second opinion and really helps push your designs further. 


This article is part of a feature on Vintage Books.

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