Judging a book by its cover: Q&A with our lead designer Ifan Bates

We’re often complimented on our covers, most of which are designed by Ifan Bates. Here we talk to him about his working practice, his proudest covers and the jobs from hell

WE HAVE all heard the phrase ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ but, of course, that is a load of tosh. You can totally judge a book by its cover. Having a strong jacket, and one that conveys the theme, mood, tone, appeal and content of the book, is vital, perhaps especially so for a small independent publisher fighting for shelf space in bookshops.

We frequently get complimented on our book covers – one journalist recently said of The Mating Habits of Stags, ‘If the book is half as good as that cover then it is going to be amazing’ – which, of course, makes us very happy and is proof that working with good designers, and having a clear idea of what you want a book cover to do, make a big difference.

The vast majority of our book covers are designed by Ifan Bates (below). He can seemingly turn his hand to any style or genre and his work has graced the covers of spy thrillers, literary fiction, comedies, dystopian fiction and memoirs. Here, our editor-at-large Scott Pack interviews Ifan about his work.

How did you get into the world of design? Was this something you studied for and always wanted to do?

It was, actually. When I was younger I loved the artwork on my heavy-metal albums and then later I was very into ID, The Face and Edge magazines, among others. I even remember drawing page layouts in biro when I was eight or nine. I eventually went to Wolverhampton University and got a BA in Graphic Design 1999.

And how about book design specifically, how did that come about?

By luck more than design. Becky, my much better half, was holding an art workshop in North Wales, into which wandered one Scott Pack and his family, and the rest is history…

Scott: It was in Ruthin, which we visited on a family holiday, and Becky Adams was artist in residence there. We all loved her playful creations made from fabric and found objects. A year or so later, when I was pondering a cover design for a novel I was publishing, I wondered if a hand-stitched design would work, and contacted Becky. She made a cover by hand and then Ifan turned it into the digital files we needed. I have worked with Ifan ever since.

Could you describe your working space? Do you have a desk at home or work in an office? What software and hardware do you use? Do you play music while you are working? What is around you when you work and does that help or hinder you?

My work space is at home outside Cardiff, in our converted basement. It’s very ‘design studio’ – white, clean and uncluttered. I have worked at many design agencies in the past, so that ‘studio’ feel for me is important.

I listen to a lot of YouTube channels – like Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin and a few others. Musically, anything a bit odd/noisy like The Fall, Thee Oh Sees and lots of things in between. I can’t work in silence.  

I try to be disciplined when I work so nothing really distracts me (apart from my three-year-old daughter Flora – but that’s a nice distraction to have).

And your working process: how do you kick things off when you receive a new brief for a book design?

I read the brief (obviously), then more than likely I will walk away from it – maybe do another job, just to digest it. Sometimes I think of an idea. If not, I just play around until things happen. There isn’t a defined process, to be honest.

How many iterations does a cover tend to go through until everyone is happy?

Most of the time it takes two or three, which is great and to be expected. It helps if the client knows what they want from the outset. The jobs that turn into monsters are the ones where the client clearly has no idea what they are after, but those occasions are rare.

Would you consider that you have a signature style, or a particular style of design that you like to work within?

Doing everything in a similar style would be really dull. I like a designing a variety of styles.

Time to plug some of your covers. What are the favourite book covers you have designed?

An Isolated Incident – I like to set a mood, and I think that one is very atmospheric, whereas The Beat of The Pendulum is abstract and intriguing.

We’d be lying if we pretended it was all fun and games. What parts of the process are the most annoying? Any pet peeves?

See my answer above, to the question about how many iterations a cover needs to go through!

Do you just design for publishers or do you work with self-published authors too?

So far only publishers – but if any self-publisher wanted my services, I’d be happy to help.

And how would someone get in touch with you or check out your portfolio if they were keen to work with you?

I am contactable through my website www.beakdesign.com.

Published on
February 1, 2019