In Conversation With Laura Boyle


Laura Boyle is a Toronto-based Art Director at Dundurn Press. Boyle studied Art History at Concordia University, then majored in Publishing at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Graphic Design at the Ontario College of Art & Design. 

This year, Boyle celebrated a milestone of one decade since joining Dundurn Press. Throughout her time with the Canadian owned publishing house, she's worked on an array of award-winning covers across many genres, and her approach to each design is carefully considered.  

Knowledge of the audience that will be buying it plays an important role in determining the approach to the cover,” Boyle tells me.

When Laura and I connected, she shared what it was that led her into the publishing industry, a typical day at the office, and the design process for The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia.
Laura Boyle

What led you into the publishing industry? 

I dreamed of working with books since I was a kid. So much so that I actually worked at a used bookstore between the ages of 8 and 10, getting paid in books to dust and putter around the shop. The place was chaotic and musty and the owners smoked in the breakroom (it was the nineties) and I fully loved being there anyway – it was the kind of place where something magical was most likely to go down. In retrospect I'm not sure what the owner got out of the arrangement, but I guess she knew she was fostering my love of books. I started a poetry press around the same time, mainly just featuring my own poems but also those of my friends, selling the chapbooks to my parents' circle. 

I had the benefit of being surrounded by artists, writers and editors in my community, and my neighbour was (and still is) the Publisher at Goose Lane Editions, and my friend’s mom is the Creative Director there. So that's where I'd go on Job Shadow days. Someone mentioned to me recently that it must have been helpful to have the kind of awareness of publishing, since many people don’t even realize that there is a job associated with the creation of books, beyond Editor, the one title everyone knows.  

Flash forward a few years, I completed my BFA at Concordia University, and for a while I pursued a career in gallery curation. But I eventually returned to my interest in books and set about on a pretty direct career path to working in publishing from then on, taking the Toronto Metropolitan University publishing certificate, and completing graphic design diplomas at OCAD and Toronto Metropolitan. I was lucky (I think) to not have to complete any internships, taking a job at a small educational publisher where my official position was Junior Editor, but where I ended up doing quite a lot of design work. From there I was hired as the Marketing Designer at Dundurn Press, 10 years ago. I worked my way through several positions at Dundurn, to where I am now. 

Owl's Nest Bookstore / Courtesy Laura Boyle

You currently work as Art Director at Dundurn Press. What's a typical day at the office look like for you?

I love my job because my days are so varied. Sometimes I will work on the interior layout of a book — typesetting, doing image editing, or inserting corrections. I also work on ads and other materials to help the Marketing team promote our books. I do image reviews to make sure that photographs and figures we plan to use in our books are high quality. I attend a lot of meetings, and field random requests.

My main responsibility though is ensuring the success of our covers, which I manage on a couple levels, from the day-to-day running of the actual process, ensuring everything is properly scheduled and on track, to the more title-focused work of researching themes, comp covers, designers and images.

I spend a lot of time managing the selection process because each cover goes through several rounds of feedback. I do collect as much intel as I can before I assign or begin working on a cover, and then after the designs are ready, I try to focus the discussion surrounding the cover.

I also do my best to consider and advocate for the interests of everyone — the artists, the authors, and our own team. It’s handy that I have a lot of experience as a freelancer, which means I can ensure that I don’t make unreasonable requests. I also have experience working on editorial, marketing and design teams, and even as an author, so I do see my job as being a go-between among all types of vested interests. 

Babble On by Andrew Brobyn

You designed the cover for award-winning novel, The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. Tell me about the process from concept to finished jacket.

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia's The Son of the House was acquired in 2019 by our publisher, Kwame Fraser. It was originally published by Penguin South Africa and by ParrĂ©sia editions in Nigeria, so it had two great existing covers, but we decided to put a new spin on it, which is commonly done by publishers to rebrand a book they've acquired, and to target a new audience and/or market. 

I knew I wanted to find an illustrator to work on it, and I was looking for a bold, contemporary style. Even though the book spans a few decades, the writing is vivid and modern. I did a ton of research to find the right illustrator, and I ended up coming across Aaron Marin, AKA Neu Tokyo, on the website African Digital Art. Neu Tokyo is a collage artist currently living in New York and his work is phenomenal, so I was excited when he agreed to work on The Son of the House.

He put a lot of time and energy into the illustration, creating a variety of mockups and bringing in images that he had researched. The photographs of the women on the final cover are from the 1956 Nigerian Royal Tour in Lagos, documented by the renowned New Zealand photographer Bryan Brake, a photojournalist who died in the 80s. I had the chance to negotiate the rights to use the images with the curator of the New Zealand Museum, which houses Brake's estate. The flowers are the Nigerian national flower, the Costus spectabilis, and they are from a botanical plate from 1905. These flowers repeat on the back cover for a unified spread.
Once Marin and I went back and forth about the direction for the illustration a couple of times and settled on the final details, we nailed down the shade of orange used, and I worked on the typography. I used the tall and narrow sans Headliner One for the title and wove it in and out of the illustration for a more dynamic feel. I especially love when the type and image interact in some way on a cover. This is not a rule by any means, but when it can be done effectively, I think it's nice to integrate text and image. 

Around the same time that we were finalizing these details, Dundurn unveiled the rebranding that had been in the works for several months. The Son of the House became one of the first books to feature Dundurn's new logo and colophon. And then of course, the final touch to the cover came when we had the honour of adding the Giller Finalist badge to it!

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

You've worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction, and young adult books. Is your approach different for each genre?

The basis for my approach to every genre is similar – I delve in, immerse myself in the book and become familiar with all the accompanying materials, its target market and comparables. Every author I work with is given a Cover Concept Form to fill in, where they indicate their own vision for the cover. Sometimes I end up following that closely, and sometimes I take a different approach. 

But each genre needs to be considered in specific ways, and knowledge of the audience that will be buying it plays an important role in determining the approach to the cover. Non-Fiction requires more research in terms of its competitive covers, in order for the book to stand out from them while still being immediately identifiable for its content by the viewer. I’d say that I require a lot more input from Marketing for non-fiction books, because their sales are directly impacted by the targeting done by the cover. 

With Fiction, the unique themes, character arcs, and setting of the book play a much greater role in the design, and designers use a more intuitive approach that is led by a strong connection to the book, which is achieved by reading it closely, becoming familiar with the author’s vision for it, and seeking inspiration in contemporary design. 

Memoirs are much harder to pin down for some reason, perhaps because visually they exist in a world somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. We are appealing to a market that is closer in makeup to people who read fiction, but still need to signal that it is a true story.

And of course, YA contains within it all of these genres, but is also marketed to a completely different audience. Sometimes a concept I come up with for Adult Fiction originally looks too YA, as seen on the Jade is a Twisted Green progression of mockup to final.  And sometimes early mockups for YA books veer too adult  the trick is always in appealing to the right audience. 

Jade is a Twisted Green by Tanya Turton

I’m sure you feel a connection to each book you’ve worked on. How do you feel when you see a finished copy in store?

I feel delighted whenever I see any of the books I’ve worked on out in the wild. I’ve been designing books for a decade and yet I get the same thrill now as I did the first time I spotted one on a bookstore shelf. 

I sometimes snap a pic of it to share on Instagram, especially when I see it in a display and particularly when it’s in a window display! It’s not just about the cover – I’m proud of Dundurn’s team of dedicated pros who make sure the books we publish get out into the world. 

What’s the most memorable book you’ve ever read?

Whoa, I have to pick one? That's a seriously tough question. 

Last year, I had the pleasure of working on the cover for Persephone’s Children by Rowan McCandless. It is a memoir in fragments, and it is one of the most fascinating and original pieces of non-fiction I’ve read.

In it, the author explores the trauma and recovery process of leaving an abusive marriage. She uses
structurally inventive essays to explore themes of oppression, loss, and self-worth.

One essay is formatted like a crossword puzzle. Another is told through a compendium of door keys which are featured beside each section. I spent a lot of time mulling over how to create a cover for this book, since it really is like nothing I’ve read. I explored ideas related directly to the title, but eventually moved away from that imagery because they were too on-the-nose.

Around the same time, I had gotten really into collecting and illustrating seed pods. I was pacing around my studio trying to come up with an idea for this cover when I spotted a little pile of them, and something clicked. Trees, plants, and seeds appear as metaphors throughout the book, and in fact many of the very seeds I’d illustrated are mentioned. There is a passage in which the author describes the red berries that grow from the mountain ash from which the name Rowan originates. It’s also significant that Persephone herself was bound to Hades because she had eaten seeds while in the underworld.

It was wonderful to be able to apply some of my artwork to a cover of this incredible book.

Follow Laura Boyle on Instagram for cover updates. Visit Dundurn Press for information on titles mentioned in this post and news of forthcoming books.