A Language of Images: Insights & Book Cover Design from Rodrigo Corral
The book cover design extraordinaire and artist walks us through New York and the world at large, as only he can see it.
by Rodrigo Corral
IMAGES PROVIDED BY RODRIGO CORRAL STUDIO
During my subway ride this morning, a well-dressed man, wearing a pressed, sherbet-colored shirt, turns to the woman next to him and says, “You’re going to work, I’m going to heaven, let’s get married.” I look at them and so does everyone else on the train, pulled out of their inner worlds, the games on their phones, the books they’re reading.
I look from them out through the subway windows. In the blackness I see a male and female astronaut exploring deep space, him extending an arm. The image still in my mind, I walk up the subway stairs on my way to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux offi ces. I follow the routine walk that I walk. I take my time during this morning ritual, and I see some of the same people every day: the doorman spraying down the sidewalks, the guy walking around with a ukulele in his hand, the sanitation worker, the Duane Reade employee loading a truck or unloading a truck, the FreshDirect delivery men. And of course, the construction—it’s so loud, and there’s so much of it. I want to see this setting as beautiful, but it has a flow that doesn’t stop, one that borders on being out of control. The image that comes to mind is an aerial view of a freeway system; it transforms into an olive branch of multiple arms splitting off into more arms. Your mind wants to follow all of them, but keeps jumping onto the newest ones being created.
I arrive at the office and sit down at my desk, bringing my thoughts back to what I’m working on today. What am I doing?
I’m designing the cover for Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, a novel by the Icelandic writer Sj.n, about a 16-year-old orphan who works as a gay prostitute. Set in 1918, the story is richly layered with images of cinema because the main character loves to watch silent films, as do the rest of the people in the small town where he lives. It’s a beautiful tale of personal identity, and ultimately how we create our own stories. I begin to look over notes from the book to decide on a concept; I’ve designed the covers for three other books by Sj.n, and this will relate to those but have a distinctive design.
I spend my days immersed in manuscripts and designing, moving back and forth between FSG, where I’m the creative director, and my own studio. Wherever I am, I’m always on the hunt for images that I can one day attach to ideas and ideas that I can connect with images. At FSG, I have the privilege of working with a great team on some of the best fiction and nonfiction books out there. My studio, where I host four designers/artists, gives me the freedom to work more directly with authors, partner with other fantastic talent, and explore personal artwork.
Whether the project is reviewing manuscripts for authors, illustrating articles for The New York Times, designing branding for films or creating artwork for my own projects, I’m a translator, creating a language of images from ideas, visuals and words.
I liken it to what cinematographers do—every frame is carefully composed to give you hints or a clue about the narrative through color temperature, lighting, angle and cropping. For me it’s all about the cumulative power of the design decisions and how they make you feel something from the final artwork.
I’m less concerned with what they make you think.
This afternoon, I finish reading a memoir manuscript about a man who comes home to take care of his parents, both of whom are terminally ill. The three of them are brash and hilarious even in the midst of these dire circumstances.
They’re constantly cursing at each other, but they do so with love. I choke up reading it. The story is so ridiculously sincere and heartbreaking—their family dynamic makes sense to me, like one I’ve known myself. The cover of the manuscript reads HOME IS BURNING. No, there’s something missing. How about “HOME IS FUCKING BURNING”? That feels so right. It makes the cover.
I’m so lucky to work with authors who bravely tell their stories, making themselves vulnerable as artists. It’s an incredible leap to craft a story based on a person you’ve met or an idea you loved; to start with a small seed of an idea and make it a fully formed universe where the reader can get lost. I’m deeply vested in wanting these projects to be successful.
When I read these manuscripts—both fiction and nonfiction—I’m trying to play psychologist to the writer: Why did you give three years of your life to make this book? What was it that gave you the power to carry it through to completion?
I want to translate that to a visual language.
So I read closely through the story, and images arise from scenes, the feeling of a book, or the writer’s voice. When I was working on the cover for Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head, I easily connected with his story and its visual setting. Apatow grew up on Long Island, as I did, and the kids around him pretty much had their lives set up for them, in terms of what they were going to do for a career, etc. Apatow didn’t have that, and neither did I. The book is a fantastic read—it’s brutally honest. You feel how this fear of uncertainty affects him, you feel the unsteadiness of the ground beneath him.
I experience that, too: You spend your life trying to get away from this anxiety by working as hard as you can to be successful, but you never really escape it.
You learn to live with that feeling and let it drive you. When I was working on the cover, I thought, If I were to text Judd about his book, what would I say? His face morphed into an emoji representing this intense uncertainty, and that became the cover. In an interview he did before the book was published, he said, “I love this cover because, sadly, it captures most of my personality. Fire and tears. Maybe that would have been a better title for the book!” Reading what he said was gratifying—it confirms I channeled something that resonated with him.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on text, but every once in a while the design comes to me immediately. Being decisive and taking chances is a big part of what I do. It’s exhilarating to create these images, and I want others to feel that high as well. After all, the readers are, like me, the translators of the text—as they read, they conjure up their own images.
So I never want to explain away the book with cover art. It’s important that each design keeps an element of mystery, so that the viewer can engage with it. My hope is that there is a process of discovery on their part as they articulate what that image means.
With other books, readers’ contributions are more literal, as when they reinterpret the cover design, making it their own. The cover of The Fault in Our Stars was my attempt to illustrate the yin/yang of life for a story about two teenagers who are dying. The black-and-white clouds symbolize being grateful for your time here juxtaposed against the realities of dying at such a young age. The design also echoes the text bubble conversations found throughout the book. Thousands of John Green’s fans created their own visual translations of their experience with his book, combining the colors and the clouds and sharing them across the internet. I loved seeing how personal those interpretations were.
After work, I take the train downtown and then walk to our home off Wall Street. My brain summons an image of a spinning kaleidoscope of black Lincoln Town Cars. They no longer line the streets waiting for stockbrokers because so many companies have left the area. Even the New York Stock Exchange is slowly giving up its lease. So the city’s Financial District is imaginary now, invented, just like the value of money always has been. I look at the sidewalk while I walk and imagine a solid gold penny pressed into the pavement. People walking by it, walking on it, disregarding its value. I’d like to put these all over the city one day.
The day’s not done. I enter my apartment though the design studio door. The team is there working on elements of an art project related to money and finance, and an illustration I’m creating for a magazine article. I cross over from the studio to the apartment and play Legos with my son for a while. He loves to figure things out, and it’s such a pleasure to watch him. In a way, there’s something analogous in what I do in my design work and personal projects. I’m continually trying to solve these visual riddles. I don’t think of it as work, but as figuring out the next puzzle, playing the next game.
I sit down next to the FedEx packages on my dining room table to eat dinner. In them are more articles, another manuscript. The image from my walk to work this morning comes back to me. An aerial view of a freeway system, now a paisley textile finally splintering off into nothing.
Rodrigo Corral creates conceptual design and art for print, brands, interior spaces and film. In addition to running the Rodrigo Corral Studio, he is the creative director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and creative director at large for New Directions. Known for delivering some of the most iconic visuals in publishing, he has designed covers for the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz and bestselling authors Chuck Palahniuk and John Green, among many others. Instagram: @RodrigoCorral_ Twitter: @Rodrigo_Corral