Literally, Darling would like to introduce a new series following millennials with unexpected careers. Have an interesting career? Want to know how to get that position? Contact us with ideas and maybe we’ll feature your dream job next!
First up, an interview with Daniela Medina, who designs book covers for Penguin Random House, a global publishing company. Being surrounded by books all day? Sign us up!
LD: How did you first get introduced to cover designing as a career option?
Daniela: I was a recent creative writing MFA graduate and broke-ass New Yorker. After I graduated I was having the hardest time finding a writing job, and let me tell you, if you’re ever curious about just how quickly you can go through your savings, be unemployed in New York for a few months.
It was only when I got it into my head that I needed to cast my widest damn net over all the oceans, and seas, and lakes did I start to consider a job that didn’t involve writing. Once that happened, I applied to every entry level position I could find. I applied for an art assistant position at Penguin and got called in for an interview. I was pretty upfront about not having a background in graphic design, but I guess my art director saw I wasn’t a complete idiot and knew a lot about books and writing, and had faith I could make it happen. That, and I also wore an actual suit—tie, button-up, oxfords, et al.—to my interview, so maybe I stuck out.
[Ed: note: Daniela also has a really awesome fashion blog, so this is probably true.]
It was a rough beginning, but I asked for a lot of work, stayed at the office really late, came in on weekends, took a lot of classes, and gradually it came together. And now I’m a designer. I would have to say the universe threw me a huge curveball when it came to having this as an occupation—I always thought I’d follow in the footsteps of my dad as a writer.
LD: What kind of background did you come from?
Daniela: I grew up in a pretty creative environment. I considered majoring in art, but for some reason it didn’t feel right, so I decided on English and started taking a lot of creative writing classes. After college I knew I wanted to be in New York and had fallen in love with the idea of being a professional writer, so I enrolled at The New School. I was there for two years in their nonfiction MFA program, and about six months after graduation I started at Penguin. I guess the route taken wasn’t the most orthodox, but I wouldn’t be so quick to discredit it: that very strong background in literature and writing has helped me with my work tremendously. And I’m pretty happy because I’ve found a way to mesh two passions, so, I’m into that.
LD: Describe a typical day.
Daniela: I get into the office around nine and check my email, then get started on the most pressing tasks. Some days that’s getting mechanicals—the layout for the cover, spine, back cover, and copy—routing to managing editorial, or other days that’s doing image research* or getting covers to the printers. And of course, most of the time it’s designing the actual book covers. Some require a lot of heavy Photoshop work, and I’ll find at the end of the day I’ve saved approximately five different versions of the same file, but they’re all just a little bit different; because I’m neurotic and never quite sure which one I’ll need in the future. Other covers are very type-driven, so I can spend the majority of the day simply looking for the right fonts, of which we own thousands and thousands. That is, of course, unless the book calls for something more natural, in which case hand lettering or sketching will become involved, and then I have to scan that in and play with it in Illustrator. If I freelanced something to a designer or commissioned an artist, sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping tabs on how that process is going.
Then there’s touching base with authors and editors, making sure everyone is on the same page. Twice a week we have a meeting with our publisher to discuss upcoming book titles with the editors and what they’ll want on the covers. And then we go from there.
I work on the commercial side of Penguin, so I get my hands involved in a lot of mass market stuff. I’ve worked on mysteries, what we refer to as “cozies” (think pet sidekick mysteries), chick-lit, military history, thrillers, erotica, general fiction, sci-fi, celebrity titles, self-help, nonfiction, memoirs, but my all-time favorites are the classics–those are my babies.
LD: How long does it take to design a cover?
Daniela: It really depends. I’ve had covers I’ve worked on for over a month, going round after round, and others I’ve gotten approved right away.
LD: What is the most difficult part of your job? What’s your favorite part?
Daniela: Having spent so many years fantasizing about my own novel and what it would look like, it’s easier to be compassionate and understanding when a [new author] starts to get picky. I’ve spent my fair share of days hunched over my desk, head in my hands, wracking my brains, not being able to figure out why I can’t get the look right.
However, when I do finally get it right, and I get that email from the editor saying how the author started crying when he or she saw the cover because it was as if I were in their head, and they’re so happy because it’s exactly what they could have hoped for—exactly what they could have hoped for this labor of love that is their baby, that they’ve dedicated so much time and energy to… that’s pretty good.
LD: Where do you find your inspiration?
Daniela: Just walking around New York. This is a fascinating city, you never know what you’re going to see. People tend to be more themselves here than I’ve experienced anywhere else. Also, my co-workers. They’re all insanely talented. It’s kind of intimidating, but in a good way. They push me to want to do better.
LD: What does a career arc look like for this position?
Daniela: I imagine it would look something like graduate from art school, start off as an art assistant or junior designer, become a full/senior designer, move up to assistant or associate art director, get promoted to full art director, then senior and executive, then eventually creative director.
LD: What kind of qualities should someone have who wants to go into this field?
Daniela: Well, for one, a love of books. This is a niche area of graphic design that can test your wits, so you’re going to need a strong appreciation for what you’re working on.
Also, and perhaps this comes from a biased perspective, but I would recommend that any interested candidate take some writing workshops. Or sit down and read a shit ton, and analyze and critique written works. It’s one thing to design a beautiful cover—which is difficult enough in itself—and it’s another to design a beautiful book cover that does real justice to the words inside. It can be tempting to treat these books as personal art projects, but that’s not what they are, not really. It’s important to remember that the words written were chosen for a reason—to evoke a specific emotion from the reader—and a designer has to respect that. It’s a balance one has to juggle, because you have to be true to yourself, you have to be true to your publisher and editor, but you also have to be true to your author, whose work is the entire reason you have this job to begin with.
Daniela: Just keep on keepin’ on. Seriously. Shit gets rough, but you’ll get through. I follow Humans of New York, and I read this really beautiful statement made by one of his interviewees recently: “As long as you can take one more step, take it.” I think that’s a powerful mentality to have for anything you do in life.
* “Image research is a fancy way of saying I peruse stock sites to find the images I need. Sometimes I get lucky and find the absolute perfect image, but what usually happens is I have to pull different images and stitch them together. For example, for the ‘After Hitler’ book, I had to create a panorama of an entire demolished city for the mechanical, because panoramas just weren’t really a thing in the trenches of World War II. So I had to go around and pull different images of destroyed buildings and piece it all together in Photoshop. Image research is the biggest pain in my ass because it takes for-fucking-ever and the image you need that you think is simple and straightforward never exists. The problem is that you’ll think you’ve found something that works, go to play with it in Photoshop, and it’s like, ‘NOAP.’ So then it’s back to the grindstone.”