Ask David Drummond how many book covers, total, he has created in his lifetime, and he admits that the exact number is a bit nebulous.
“That’s funny, I used to get my father asking me that once in a while,” he says with a laugh. “It’s hard to say—I do a lot of book covers.”
In the absence of a concrete number, perhaps the most enlightening metric one can turn to is how many covers he is currently working on: around 30–40, in different stages of development.
The Quebec-based creative launched Salamander Hill in the early 2000s, and in the years since has produced exceptional identities, illustration, packaging and other design work—but it’s book covers that have long occupied the majority of his focus. And not book covers solely for one category or publisher, but for all manner of houses, from tiny independents to industry behemoths.
In his covers, Drummond focuses on developing a visual hook with simplicity, and seeks to keep all the elements to a minimum, even when dealing with the most complex subject matter. Like, say, that of academic presses—for which Drummond is a master of taking otherwise esoteric topics and distilling them down into creations that rests comfortably with the best of the visual landscape on the bestseller list.
In other words, no small feat.
When he began working for university presses on nonfiction titles earlier in his career, Drummond set out to produce covers driven by concept, and in the process created an approachable and alluring portal to the material at hand, contrasting the oft-dry norms of the category.
It caught on—and today Drummond’s clients turn to him for that very approach.
And regardless of whether he’s creating the cover of an academic tome, a novel or a volume of poetry, Drummond recognizes that he’s working on highly personal material—and that through design, Salamander Hill becomes a small part of a hallowed endeavor.
“That’s what’s meaningful,” he says. “It’s very meaningful in that way. Because you’re dealing with somebody’s life’s work, and you want to treat it very seriously and give it the attention it deserves.”
Here, he riffs on but 10 of his 2021 covers.
“In general, my approach to books about Canada or Canadian figures is to make them sort of elevated. So this is a book about a Canadian composer. We had a photograph of the composer—that is him on the front. But I always try and find a way to make books about Canada look interesting so our history comes across as interesting and fascinating. That’s sort of all of the approach with these kinds of books, is to give them some vitality and sort of interest. Because I think Canada has a bit of a reputation for being kind of boring and, our history anyways, not as interesting as our neighbor’s—so it’s sort of trying to elevate it all the time.”
“I actually had to buy [this vintage ashtray] on eBay. That’s kind of an iconic image for Canada—a Mountie on a horse. And I [originally had] more cigarette butts in the ashtray that were almost covering up the Mountie, but the feeling was that that was too much, kind of, you know? Like defiling a sacred image or something,” he says with a laugh. “We had to pull back a bit on that.”
Often, authors provide Drummond with imagery for what they envision appearing on the cover.
“I was given a photograph for that one, of a mountain range. That’s actually a famous mountain range. I think it’s called the Trikuta—it’s a mountain with three peaks. It’s relevant in Hindu mythology. So I came back with [this cover], which is cut paper that takes the shape of the mountain range. And it’s red because, in India, it represents feminine energy. That was the reason for the color. [Often, writers are] a little bit surprised that that’s what I came back with. I think the author for sure was not expecting that. But she ended up liking it, and she’s happy with it. You can imagine, if you give a cover designer a mountain range photograph and then they come back with this, it’s like, ‘What?’”
“Because so many of my covers have visual solutions or conceptual solutions where I have to come up with a new image, when [I’m asked for a] type-only cover, I’m up for it. It’s sort of fun and a little more limiting—you have to be creative with a more limited palette. So this one was just how to show Canadian women breaking barriers or breaking out of boundaries. It’s kind of always like how simple you can go without being too simple, you know?
“My office is very cluttered, so there’s a lot of stuff all over the place. And those were actually blocks from my childhood that I had—colored blocks that happened to be beside my desk when I was coming up with this one. Basically, a type-only cover, but trying to sort of show multi-nationalism. And I cannot tell you how many covers I’ve done about multi-nationalism, especially because it’s a big deal in Canada.”
“You put a lot of yourself into these covers. Sometimes it can be personal, very personal stuff, that you’re sort of using. It’s funny, because I was going through some old slides that my father had. And so that was something that I was preoccupied with when this cover came up. I was just fascinated with the way slides represent an image, how they frame an image. … Slides always had to be marked for the right way to put them inside the carousel. So that slide has a mark on it. That’s actually my father’s mark. So the poet will probably never know that. A lot of it’s coming from you, your own personal background.
“The title is Unbecoming. The slide is sort of disintegrating, or sort of melting, almost. And there’s an image there, but it’s barely decipherable. I just thought that was an interesting [parallel]. A lot of my poetry covers, they sort of look like that—a bit enigmatic. I think it works for poetry covers when you don’t spell it out too much.”
“That’s another one of these book covers that could very easily have been a photograph, even a medical photograph, or something like that. And they were clear not to use the double helix because it hadn’t been discovered at the time that [the book documents]. So you pose yourself the question, “How do you show eugenics in an interesting way, that maybe hasn’t been shown yet?”
“That’s a poetry cover, and it’s kind of dialogues of three famous intellectuals. One is Henry Thoreau; Emily Carr, who was a Canadian painter; and Wang An-shih, a Chinese 11th-century poet. The three sages in this case are three trees. If you get a great title or subtitle, that can really drive a solution. So in this case, a conversation with three sages.”
“That cover, I think I went through—I can’t even remember now—probably seven or eight completely different directions. The poet originally wanted a painting on the cover. … [But] using a work of art, a well-known work of art, sometimes can be prohibitive in terms of expense, so the press sort of shies away from that.
“I do a lot of this, where I create something out of paper, cut paper, and then photograph it. Because these are poems about ecstatic nature, I think the feeling was, this looked kind of like nature exploding. Or being destroyed, which it sort of was. But they wanted a more peaceful, tranquil photograph or image on the cover. So, I think, initially, it was a little darker than this, in terms of the feeling.”
(The words on the cut paper indeed correlate to text within the book.)
“Flarf poetry in the early 2000s was a type of poetry where they would put words into search engines, strange sort of terms, and see what came back—and that became the basis of forming a poem. So in this case, it’s a take off on that. And the longest poem in the book is a monologue spoken by a guinea pig. I’m not sure who said it, but ‘how do you show it without showing it?’ That’s kind of the other thing I’m always sort of preoccupied with. So we show a guinea pig, but maybe show it in a way that’s not … it’s unexpected, you know?”
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.