In conversation with Kate Sinclair



Kate Sinclair is an exceptionally talented artist working at Penguin Random House Canada. Her illustrations, animations, and designs have made it onto some of the my favourite book covers. Kate's clients have included leading publishing houses including Faber & Faber, John Murray, Hodder & Stoughton, and Cornerstone. 

I'm delighted to have Kate joining me on AD's In Conversation With today to talk about her passion for art, some design folks who inspire her, and how she overcomes challenges in her role. 

When did your passion for art begin? 

I’ve always liked art, but it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I developed a serious interest in it. I did a lot of science courses at university. I was on track for medical school, but I ended up turning down my spot and doing a Master’s degree in England instead. I studied late-Victorian eating disorders.

After I graduated, I got a job at Penguin Random House UK. I started in marketing with an intent to move to editorial. I didn’t have a design background, but I felt drawn to the art department. I loved the work they did—the paper, the dyes—everything. I wanted to learn. I started teaching myself Photoshop and meeting as many designers as I could—Suzanne Dean, Richard Bravery, Jack Smyth, Heike Schüssler, Alex Kirby, Jonathan Pelham and so many others. I came to art by way of publishing. 

My first passion was books. Everything else came after. 

Design by Kate Sinclair

What did your journey into the publishing industry look like? 

It wasn’t a clear path. I had just finished my Master’s degree, and I was in a foreign country. I interviewed at the Wiley Agency and a few other places. I didn’t know anyone who worked in publishing, but I was determined. I took the first job I was offered—a contract position at Penguin Random House UK. The job was in marketing—which wasn’t my first choice—but I was open to whatever experience I could get. And I loved it there. 

I’m in awe of your portfolio! Many of the books you’ve designed, I’ve picked up and admired over the past year. What was the design process like for Mona Awad’s All’s Well

Thank you! I was definitely intimidated to work on that book. I love Mona Awad’s writing, and I wanted to make something her audience would like. Sometimes when I feel that kind of attachment to a book, I lose the ability to think creatively about it. I become so focused on doing well, my mind goes blank.

Luckily, I have a few coping strategies for this. I keep a folder of interesting and provocative art on my desktop. It gives me something to look at when I am stuck. It also helps me stay off the internet (very important). And gives me ideas. After this, if I still feel stuck, I’ll try putting the brief away for a while. I’ll get a notebook and write down everything I can remember about the editor’s pitch. This doesn’t always work, but it can help identify the most arresting aspects of the book. 

I used this strategy when I was working on All’s Well. It helped me to think about the project more objectively. Once I’d dissected the brief and written down the key details, I realised I had a lot working in my favour: 

1. A great title

The title All’s Well is great for two reasons: 

i)  Form: The letters are visually organised. A-L-L-S (4), W-E-L-L (4), M-O-N-A (4), A-W-A-D (4).  Every word is the same length and the title lays out well. It has symmetry. The only drawback is the apostrophe in All’s. This slightly knocks the alignment, but the title is otherwise balanced, so it’s not an issue. 

ii) Content: In addition to its pleasing visual properties, the title All’s Well is pithy, ironic, and zeitgeisty. This is a bonus. 

2. A cool vibe

Witchy—Shakespearean—revenge—campus mutiny. 

I couldn’t ask for a more compelling series of words. 

3. The perfect painting

Once I found the painting of the swooning woman, everything fell into place. The drama of the image—a woman struck through with arrows—and the title All’s Well. It just worked. The painting was a lucky find. 

Design by Kate Sinclair

What advice do you have for designers to overcome challenges in their roles?

I’ve been fortunate enough to find unofficial mentors in every job I’ve had. You just need one or two people who are willing to take a chance on you. Be authentic and seek out people you admire. My advice: keep a bowl of snacks on your desk. People will gravitate toward you if you offer them food. It’s just a fact. If you feed them, they will feel happy around you. For many years, I was known for having mini KitKats at my desk. This helped my reputation. 

Many of the designers I talk to have a “baby” they feel attached to, whether that’s a first project, a book they designed that charted on the Times or Globe and Mail bestseller list, or one that finally made it out into the wild after months of revisions. 

What’s your most memorable project? 

That’s a hard question. All of my projects are memorable in some way. The author of a poetry book I designed got my cover tattooed on her arm. It was amazing. But I try not to get too attached. The book belongs to the author and the audience, not to me. It’s hard. I’ve been designing books for two years and I still find it surreal to walk into the store and see something I’ve made on the shelf. The physical object is so permanent. It’s unnerving. I sometimes find it hard to look at the books I’ve designed. I’m afraid I’ll notice something I wish I’d done differently. The urge to edit never goes away. 

In terms of recent projects—I loved the design process for Naben Ruthnum’s A Hero of Our Time. The brief was incredible. A “vicious takedown of superficial diversity initiatives.” The editor wanted something “playful and mean” for the cover. We had a lot of fun. One of the early designs featured a grinning corporate executive getting stabbed in the chest. It was wild. But I love the cover we ended up with. A man standing on the roof of an office tower. Like a depressed superhero. Or that episode of The Office where Michael Scott tries to jump off the roof of Dunder Mifflin to prove a point about employee satisfaction. I had to splice together three different Getty images to make the cover work. The resulting man is about five times too big for the building he is standing on. He is probably 15 feet tall. This was unintentional, but I think it’s funny. It adds to the surreal vibe. I love this aspect of the design process—that element of serendipity—it can lead to fun surprises. 

Design by Kate Sinclair

You’re also an accomplished illustrator. I just picked up a copy of Sunday Sketching by Christoph Neimann — it’s wonderful. Who do you look to for inspiration? 

I’ve never published or sold an illustration so I’m not sure I’m accomplished. There’s a lot I’d like to learn. Christoph Neimann is amazing. I also love Richard McGuire. I love his sequential drawings. And his book, Here

My other favourite is Chris Ware. He’s so popular among designers, it almost feels cliché to say it, but I really think he’s a genius. He makes me cry. I think he and Richard McGuire are similar artists. They both seem to be troubled by the concept of time. Chris Ware has this vignette in Building Stories that I’ve never been able to forget. It’s so simple. Nothing happens. It’s just one page. A year in the life of a mother and her daughter. We see them eat breakfast. The seasons change. We notice that the mother and daughter are almost never looking in the same direction. It’s as if they’re constantly missing one another. Or getting distracted. The mother keeps losing track of the daughter. Time passes, and they’re looking in opposite ways. There’s something so sad about it. I’m not sure how other people interpret this comic. The first time I saw it, I hadn’t read Building Stories yet. I had no context. But it didn’t matter. It’s one of those pieces that hits differently every time. I wish I could create something with that kind of depth and ambiguity. I think it’s art. 

Illustration by Kate Sinclair

Illustration by Kate Sinclair

Illustration by Kate Sinclair

I’m sure your reading pile is stacked high. What’s the last book you read?

I’m currently reading Essays I by Lydia Davis. I'm enjoying it so much. The essays explore a broad range of topics—writing, jury duty, the word gubernatorial. In one of the essays, Lydia Davis shares some of her favourite sentences in literature. Here are a few I particularly liked:  

  • “A man wants an aeroplane to like him.” (Russell Edson). 

  • “He told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue.” (Lucia Berlin)

  • “Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine.” (Denis Johnson)

Each of these sentences reads like my favourite kind of short story. Brief, surreal, unsettling. I love the tension between the simplicity of the form, and the strangeness of the content. It reminds me of Kafka, who I’ve also been reading. 

I have Investigations of a Dog on my bedside table. That collection includes a story called The Burrow, which I highly recommend. It’s about a paranoid mole. Outside of this, I’m reading mostly poetry. Beth Bachmann, Louise Glück, and Catherine Barnett. It’s insane how many good poems these writers have. Like this one. And this one

In terms of collections, I can’t recommend Catherine Barnett’s Human Hours enough. 

Design by Kate Sinclair

To see more of Kate's work, visit her website.