In conversation with Gill Heeley



Gill Heeley is a Senior Designer at Canongate Books. She has worked in the industry for ten years, previously working in-house at Penguin General, a division of Penguin Random House UK. She has worked on covers for authors such as Elizabeth Strout, Ian Rankin, Deborah Levy and Sophie Mackintosh. She lives and works in London.

Could you tell me a bit about your creative process when designing a book cover?

Usually I’ll be given some of the text to read, whether it’s a full manuscript or just a few chapters. I always like to read as much as possible before starting a brief, to get a feel for the writing, the characters, and the tone of the book. I find it really difficult to design anything good without having read anything, especially for fiction titles. I make notes and jot things down as I’m reading through the manuscript, and I like to sit with it for a time (if deadlines allow) so even if I’m not designing anything yet I will be thinking about the book and letting it sit with me for a while. I do some visual research for each book and create a sort of moodboard to draw inspiration from. 

After I have procrastinated for as long as physically possible, I will start to get some ideas down on the page – sometimes I will have a very strong idea or concept but usually I will explore a few different ideas in a very rough way, before picking which ones have legs and working them up a bit more. More often than not I find my first idea was the strongest, and after I have circled around it a bit I will usually come back to it in some shape or form.

Once my roughs look slightly less rough, I then share them with the creative director ahead of showing them in the design meeting. I always think this is a valuable part of the process for me, to get input from others and talk the designs through, which often pushes me as I may have been looking at it too long by that point. 

Small Bodies of Water, Canongate Aug 2021

From where do you typically draw your inspiration?

I’m very lucky that living in a city like London means I have access to so many great exhibitions, galleries and museums to take inspiration from. Lockdown has made that a lot harder so it’s great that things are opening back up again finally! I’m hugely inspired by designers and creatives of the past, as well as so lots of amazing designers working today. 
You designed the original cover for The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam for Canongate Books which I adore, what was the process for that like?

This one was a little bit different to usual as the author Tahmima was very involved right from the start. We met and looked round a bookshop together before I started designing anything, which was a great chance to talk with her about the book.  She summed it up as ‘feminist geekdom’ and wanted something really striking for the cover. The book is a smart, witty portrait of a modern day start-up so the cover had to feel contemporary and bold with a slight nod to tech. 

After a few rounds that didn’t quite hit the mark, Tahmima invited me to lunch at her husband’s own music tech start-up space in London, a good chance to see a real start-up space and to chat more about the design. Now I look back at some of those initial covers, I am glad the process pushed me to where we ended up for the final cover. 

After lunch I went back over some of my early ideas and revisited a simple sketch I’d had around a lightning bolt, this time repeating the motif and having the bolts emanating from Asha in the centre. I experimented with some bold colour palettes and slightly fractured type and was on the way to the final approved cover. 

The Little Book of Hygge is one I display proudly on my shelf, and its cover is one I see everywhere. Is the concept of Hygge something that resonates with you?

Definitely! Probably even more so over the past year of lockdown and spending so much time in my flat, it’s become even more important to make it a warm, homely environment.  At its heart, hygge is about enjoying simple pleasures, moments and people in your life, and this is something that really resonates with me. 

What are you currently reading? Are there any books on your to-be-read list that you're dying to get to?

I’m reading a couple of manuscripts for work right now. Next up on my reading list is Real Estate by Deborah Levy and also Where the Crawdads Sing which I never got round to reading! I usually have a couple of poetry books by my bed too, as I like the ease of dipping into them in-between reading things for work. Right now I’m enjoying Alice Oswald. 

Who inspires you most in the art world? 

Some of my favourite artists and creatives are Paul Rand, Henri Matisse, Edward Bawden, Vivian Maier, William Morris, Emily Sutton, Saul Leiter, Alvin Lustig, Petra Borner, Elliot Erwitt…to name a few!

The Water Cure, Penguin 2019

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