Friday Book Design Blog: 3:AM Press

Jonathan Gibbs

3am one Friday Book Design Blog: 3:AM Press
The first time I saw these covers, probably independently of each other, I wasn’t sure about them, but the more I look at them – and the more I look at them together – the more I like them.

They are covers of chapbooks mostly, and feature the illustrations of Christiana Spens who is director and designer of Blue Pavillion Press, of which 3:AM Press is the literary imprint, having grown out of the online literary magazine of that name.

Here is Spens on the inspirations for her illustrations:

I have probably been most influenced by the illustrations in Folio Society books, which my father used to collect, and give me as birthday presents over the years, as well as early twentieth century fashion and costume illustration (which I obsessed over when I was at school). Those illustrations were very much rooted in good drawing skills, and an Old World sort of glamour, or romanticism, that I have loved and emulated from a young age. My father was also an architect, and so I grew up with architectural drawings lying around, and I think that might have influenced my emphasis on line and shape, and, again, underlying good drawing.

3am two Friday Book Design Blog: 3:AM Press

It is hard to articulate what specifically I am aiming for with this style of illustration, but I suppose it is a traditional and romantic, and quite simple vision of elegance and story- telling, where narrative is hinted at but not told all at once. I want readers (or potential readers) to have a first impression of a story that is intriguing, but does not say everything at once. The cover is a clue to the rest of the story – a sort of glass slipper or a crumb on the way to Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house.

Not all the books feature Spens’s drawings, but these are the ones that caught my eye. I like the openness of the style, which ranges from the naïf ‘from life’ of the binoculars and corkscrew to the more fashion illustration style of Flesh and The Guest List, with the occasional splash of colour. But it is the bars of colour, used as frames, (tape, in fact, Spens says) that set off brilliantly the spare line drawings. They’re like something out of heraldry – with different combinations or lines and angles indicating different processes or intentions.

3am four1 Friday Book Design Blog: 3:AM Press

I also asked Spens if being both director of the press and its designer/illustrator made it difficult for authors to say No to her suggestions:

Authors can and do say ‘no’, and then we talk and try and reach some kind of agreement on a design. But visions rarely match exactly! The process works best when everyone understands that we share the same goal, which is to introduce the story to new readers, while understanding practical considerations and time limits.

It can be hard, on a personal level, to have to play both roles, because people assume some sort of personal interest in my choosing a particular design, when usually I am more interested in having a design fit the other titles on the list, get finished on time, and look right according to my experience of what sells and what doesn’t.

I think, in a way, being director as well as illustrator has made me much more pragmatic than I would be otherwise. At the same time, illustration is probably my favourite part of the whole process; drawing is still a moment of escape.

3am three Friday Book Design Blog: 3:AM Press

And it’s that link between design and ‘brand’ – here, a small, independent press – that makes these so successful. As Spens says:

the design style parallels our vision as publisher, which is to be in the tradition of small counter-cultural presses, to have a clear link with similar projects of the past, but with a recognisable look of our own. We want the books to be distinct from more mainstream designs, preferring simplicity and clarity to covers that are busy, containing lots of quotes, selling points, and clashing patterns and colours. We wanted to channel something more relaxed and elegant.

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