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Behind the scenes: Jenna Lee, designer
Posted 08.02.2021

Behind the scenes: Jenna Lee, designer

Jenna Lee is a mixed race Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman whose contemporary art practice explores the acts of identity/identification, label/labelling and the relationships formed between language, label and object. Being a Queer, Mixed Race, Asian (Japanese, Chinese and Filipino), Aboriginal Woman, Jenna’s practice is strongly influenced by her overlapping identities, childhood memory as well as maternal teachings of subject and process. Jenna is the cover designer behind Tony Birch's three (yes, three!) books out in 2021.

What is your approach to book cover design?

It always begins with research in a few forms. The first time I work with an author I research them, and anything they’ve written in the past, along with any covers they have. I always read the briefing material and any form of the manuscript I am sent. Then I usually do visual research relating to the themes mentioned in the brief.

I love to experiment with hand-rendered elements. That might be textures or text or illustrations; I don't think I am yet to do a cover (where I wasn't supplied an image) where I haven't created some form of a bespoke element by hand. I think the process of creating with my hands helps my mind wander to places I wouldn't have ended up if I was just on a computer.

I think being a conceptual artist, as well as a designer, really helps me to push the design a few more steps. Just like in my art I am always trying to reduce things down to their most important elements. I want to be able to say more with less.

What was your inspiration for the cover concepts for Whisper Songs, Ghost River and Dark As Last Night?

The author is always my primary inspiration. It's crucial to find out where they are from, what else have they written and what themes are important to them. At the end of the day, I am creating images that articulate Tony's words and vision. He is sharing a part of himself with the reader and I want them to understand some of who he is and his story from the cover designs.

Whisper Songs was the first cover I designed for Tony and it has set the scene for them all.

Blood, Skin and Water are the sections in the poetry collection and were the fundamental themes I needed to capture. Tony had provided the initial inspiration of blood raindrops but had mentioned it might be too dark – in a way, pushing that idea to blood tears/raindrops made it even darker. That's why I wanted to balance that fairly heavy imagery with the use of font, texture and composition.

Qualities of light were the main inspiration for Dark as Last Night, we wanted this one to be strongly connected to Whisper Songs, being a collection of short stories as opposed to a novel. The circles are in the same composition as the blood drops but can be read as dust particles floating in the light or stars scattered across the night sky and the single white dot could be read as the moon. This representation of the moon carries directly through to the cover of Ghost River.

I am very fortunate to live in the area of Naarm that Tony is often writing about. The energy of place spoke to me, I walk my dog along the stretch of the Yarra River that Tony writes about in Ghost River. I came up with the idea for the cover on a walk along there – my partner had just finished reading it and was telling me about a part of the book that stuck with her. Without providing any spoilers, that is the reference for one element represented on the cover.

What mood and feel did you want to convey with these designs?

I wanted there to be a subtle, yet unsettling beauty. Reading Tony's words and knowing many of his novels, there is that element of clever, dark humour and beauty. I am personally very drawn to stories, designs and art that are stunning yet disturbing. Things that take the air out of your lungs and that stick with you long after seeing or reading them. The eye with the blood drop was the first image that popped into my head on reading the manuscript and brief.

What was it like working with Tony Birch on these projects?

He was so trusting in my vision and provided the most poetic suggestions. I was so overjoyed reading the brief for Whisper Songs, as so many of the themes are ones, I work with myself in my practice. Not everyone would go for a design like this but after sending a 'sneak peek' with a few designs, this one was settled on immediately. I think within half an hour it had been approved. We are yet to meet in person (most of the designing happened during Covid lockdowns here in Naarm) but we have planned to meet up on a dog walk at some point soon.

The old saying is 'Don't judge a book by its cover' but a cover is often a reader's first impression of an author and their work. What do you think the key ingredients are for great cover design?

I honestly think 'say more with less'. I love a cover which can cleverly articulate complex themes and messages with a simple image/icon/cover. I think that gives the reader agency to interpret the cover and story in their way while also articulating the core of what the author is conveying. Allowing the reader to form their deep connections with the story.

I would love nothing more than for someone to finish reading a book I have designed for and for it to 'click' – that ahhh moment of 'I see what they did there' while still capturing enough of the book's essence to make someone want to pick it up.

I won't deny that a cover being photogenic also helps in this day and age, books can now go 'viral' with the help of Instagram. Not that this is at all the marker of a good book and/or cover, but people want to share what they find visually appealing.

What would your advice be for aspiring book cover designers?

I still consider myself an aspiring book designer but I do have plenty of experience with typesetting and still work a lot with curators and art institutions designing exhibition identities and catalogues. I would say hone your typesetting skills; understanding the fundamentals of good typesetting also helps you break those rules and experiment later.

Also, explore bookstores as much as possible. See what jumps out at you and ask yourself why. Learning to articulate this to yourself can be very helpful in your own design decision-making.

I was very lucky to have formed some deep connections with some amazing poets and authors through various creative/First Nations social events and entered this industry on their mention to publishers. Which is something I cannot stress enough, regardless of the creative area, relationships are everything. Some people call it 'networking'; I hate that. I find that forming connections with like-minded people and expecting nothing but friendship and conversation open so many doors naturally. People want to work with people who get excited about the same things, have the same passions and worldview.

In saying that, you also need to have the work to back it up, make sure you have a focused folio on hand you can send back to demonstrate your skills. When I first wanted to get into this, I simply played with designs for covers of books I loved. Even as a concept-only image they helped me get those first few jobs.

What's a day in the life of Jenna Lee – Designer look like?

I would love to say I have an amazing routine that starts with an early alarm, a healthy breakfast and yoga.

But honestly, I walk into my home studio space around 10 am – still in my pyjamas and second coffee in hand. I usually do all my emails like this, then finally get changed for the afternoon of work. To be fair if I have Zoom calls my day is a lot more 'normal' in that I get changed and start work at a regular time. I am a full-time self-employed person so I tend to work most days, not always full days, and then take blocks of time off when work slows to go out and about. My partner is a nurse who works shifts so this means that we can have the same work routine.

I am also an artist: I work conceptually with old colonial books as my primary medium. So books are essential to my everyday. I collect books, make art with books and design books, which sadly means I don't read books as much as I would like. I guess it’s a case of that saying that 'chefs don't cook at home'. When I do it's primarily poetry and graphic novels – I always have one or two of each on the go. My 2021 goal is to read more so I will see how that goes!

You can read more about Jenna Lee's work here, and follow her on Instagram.