How do book covers get designed?

by Catherine Casalino

Catherine Casalino is the book cover designer for Darren Shan’s The City series and many other books, all of which you can see on her website at

When I heard editor Jaime Levine describe Darren Shan’s Procession of the Dead for the first time, I knew I wanted to design the cover. The book sounded dark and mysterious, and I thought there would be a lot of opportunity to create something special.

There were a few guidelines— for example, they wanted the book to look different that Shan’s popular YA books— but other than that, I was given the manuscript and just started to read it and look for ideas. I quickly got swept into the post-apocalyptical world of The City, and the story of Capac, a man who can’t remember his past, who comes to work for the city’s ruler, The Cardinal.

While I was reading Procession, I came across this scene where Capac visits The Cardinal’s office and notices that he has all these puppets hanging from the walls. And in the midst of all these puppets, The Cardinal is playing with this shadow puppet theater. While Capac is watching, The Cardinal moves his hands away from the shadow puppets . . . and they continue to move. I read that scene and thought, “Wow, something else is going on here . . .” I wanted to evoke that mood with the cover— something creepy that makes you wonder what’s going on.

That was the jumping off point. Then the challenge was to translate this idea into something that would work as a book cover . . .

I decided that instead of having an image with type on it, that the title type would become part of the image and that the letters in the words would function as little shadow puppets.

As a graphic designer, I’m a huge collector of “things that might be useful.” I had several boxes of small metal letters that I had picked up a few years ago at a Marshall’s in Connecticut, and they ended up being perfect for the project. (I think they’re intended for scrapbooking). I taped the letters to thin wooden skewers and stuck them in florist’s foam. I placed the set up behind a sheet and lit everything from behind before photographing the whole set up.

Getting the title and author name to be legible was really tough since the whole set up was so delicate. You’d move one letter and it would screw up the shadow of the letter next to it. It took many hours to get the set-up how I wanted it.

I’m really glad I took the time to push the concept, because everyone was really happy with the final product. I also got to print the jacket on special linen paper, so it looks more like fabric with light coming through it.

After Procession was published, I found out Grand Central was also going to publish the two other books in Shan’s The City series. Since the books in the series can stand alone, I wanted to make the covers have a connection without looking like a strict 1-2-3 trilogy.

I decided to use the same metal letters again, but in a new way, for Hell’s Horizon. I thought it would be fun to make the letters appear large for the second book. I lived in Queens at the time, and always loved seeing the famous Silver Cup sign coming over the 59th Street Bridge. Signs like that are a real hallmark of cities and it was exactly what I wanted for the second book— a wider view of the world where the books take place.

I hired photographer Ryann Cooley to work on the project with me. When I told him the idea, he got it immediately and set to work scouting locations that could be our “city.”  The cover ended up being 2 photos. Ryann shot the building on location in Queens, and then he shot the metal letters in the studio. We lucked out because the day we planned to shoot was really cloudy and ominous looking— perfect for the mood of the book. 

Again, I wanted to enhance the image with the production of the jacket, so we used an additional red ink to really make the title look like it’s glowing.

The third book in the series was City of the Snakes. After the first two designs were received so well, there was a lot of pressure to make the final book look really strong— sometimes it’s hard to keep the momentum going when designing a series!

After being inspired by the Silver Cup sign for Hell’s Horizon, I started to brainstorm about other things that are hallmarks of a city— graffiti immediately came to mind. I had also been keeping Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in the back of my head as I was working on the series, because I felt like it was the right mood. In the movie there’s a stenciled Twelve Monkeys logo that keeps on showing up throughout the city. The design idea for City of the Snakes ended up being a cross between that logo and a Banksy.

I did the illustration myself, looking at biological drawings of snakes as a reference (below left).  I had my heart set on actually spray painting it, which was a bit of a technical nightmare because the illustration was so complex. I watched a few YouTube videos of Banksy at work and saw that he used multiple stencils to create his graffiti pieces— so I ended up making 4 stencils, cutting out the pieces with an X-acto knife, and spray painting each piece up on my roof.  I then photoshopped the final art onto a photo I shot of a wall (below center). The title was made from the same metal letters that I used on the first two books. We printed the cover using a silver ink on the gray wall, which gives the book a nice sheen (below right).

It was so much fun working on this series, and I love that I got to try all different things from photography to stencils! I was lucky to have an author and editor that were so open to my ideas for the covers and really let me run with the designs.

2 thoughts on “How do book covers get designed?

  1. This is really cool! I’ve been learning graphic design for some time now, so it’s really interesting to see how a real artist makes book covers. Thanks!

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