In conversation with Jessica Sullivan



Jessica Sullivan is a book designer, art director, and the Creative Director for Greystone Books. She has worked with publishers and authors, art galleries and museums, and chefs and restaurants to create elevated, meaningful editorial design.

You designed one of my favourite covers, Out North by Craig Jennex and Nisha Eswaran. What was the creative process like for that?

This was such a rewarding project!!! I wanted this cover to be something really special, to live up to all the great work the authors had done. The first step for the cover design was to review all of the submitted visual material—and there was a lot. Nonfiction titles need to be immediately understood, and so I started by thinking about ways to communicate the obvious: LGBTQ+, Canada, archives. 

After a few exploratory rounds, nothing was quite living up to my expectations. But the Arquives had a great button collection they wanted to highlight, and I had been reserving them for the endsheets. I suddenly realized they captured a perfect snapshot of the history and archive, they amalgamated everything I was trying to capture so authentically—history, a sense of time and place, people—and the cover was born!

What aspect of cover designing do you find most interesting? 

Every book genre is so different, the purpose or intent for fiction, nonfiction, literary nonfiction, children's book covers is unique. Idea generation for any cover is probably the most stressful phase. I try not to overthink it at the beginning, (or I might psyche myself out). I try to let concepts fall naturally into my consciousness after talking to the editor and reading as much of the manuscript as I can. Then I like to distill the main subjects, themes or events down to a list of visuals. Once I have a bunch of ideas I start working on how to make them visually compelling—this is the most interesting phase—where you begin to see what's really working and which ideas to discard. The shortlist is the fun phase, where you can freely play with colour and type and composition without overthinking. 

You're now Creative Director at Greystone Books. What was your path to getting there? 

Directly after graduating from Emily Carr University, I got a job designing books at the now defunct D&M Publishing, where Greystone was one of their imprints. Over a decade later, when Greystone became a solo publishing house, I became their Art Director. Then I moved to a Creative Director position at the custom illustrated book publisher, Figure.1, where I designed and directed highly complex art books and cookbooks for about 7 years. 

During the pandemic, the possibility presented itself to return to Greystone as their Creative Director and provided a rare opportunity for me to jump back into trade publishing—which I had really missed.

Out of all the gorgeous covers you've designed, what's your favourite and why?

Like being asked to choose a favourite child, this is an impossible question!! But the experience designing the sustainable seafood cookbook LURE for chef, and ocean advocate, Ned Bell, stands out as a career highlight. Right from the initial meeting, when I discovered I was allergic to crab, after devouring Ned's famous crab tacos, it was destined to be a memorable project! Ned was completely open to all of my ideas, and trusted in every aspect of the proposed design and art direction for the photography, (which I also prop styled—both food and live creatures!). For the cover, I worked with the now late Dale Nigel Goble's illustrations for the section openers. Sometimes a designer's favourite work never makes it through all the levels of approval, I felt like Ned's support for everything we were creating buoyed this one into reality.

What are some recent projects of yours that have just hit the shelves?

Where the Power Is—a super interesting book which reconnects First Nations Elders, artists, scholars, and other community members with historical objects housed at the Museum of Anthropology UBC. I laughed, I cried, I learned a lot while designing this massive and important book.

Mennonite Valley Girl—such a fun read, Carla Funk is a great writer.

The World I Fell Into—confirms why I think horses are scary.

Hidden Kingdom—out soon, and such a fascinating topic for our world!

If you could recommend one book to my readers, what would it be? 

I think everyone should always be reading a minimum of 3 books: one for fun, something that feeds your soul and lights up your brain; one that continues your knowledge and understanding of others; and one that enlightens you on the current state of the planet.

I'm currently reading: 1) The Dinner by Herman Koch, 2) Truth and Reconciliation: Calls to Action, and 3) The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki (a cover I will soon be redesigning!)

Stay up to date with Jessica's work by visiting her website and following her on Instagram.