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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview with Matt Roeser (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Matt Roeser is a graphic designer who likes reading books and then designing new covers for them. He first came to my attention thanks to this post run over at Mad Hatter’s Blog, which features covers that Matt had designed for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Awestruck by the ingenuity and variety of the covers he had created for both ASOIAF and those found on his website, I approached Matt about doing answering some questions. Thankfully, he agreed and goes on to talk about his views on art, passion and books in the following interview:

Q: Hi Matt! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. To begin with, could you tell us a bit about yourself and explain what attracted you towards designing book covers?

Matt: Since I was a child, I've always enjoyed reading and in high school and college, I fell in love with graphic design. In the back of my mind, designing covers for books has always been a sort of dream job for me as it melds these two passions. After graduating college, I went to work for Atomicdust, a graphic design agency in St. Louis. For the past five years, I’ve been making creative matter with them, and a few months ago, I decided that if I'm going to pursue my dream of cover design, I would need to actually focus on creating some covers.

So, I started taking some of my favorite books and giving them the covers I thought they deserved. As a lover of these books, nothing would bum me out more than someone walking past one of these titles in a bookstore because it happened to get stuck in a poorly designed cover. Thus, New Cover was born and my mantra was simple: I read books and then design new covers for them.

Q: Could you give us a rundown of the process behind designing a book cover from start to finish?

Matt: Whether I start fiddling around on the computer or sketching on a piece of paper, my process starts with trying to nail the idea I want to get across in my cover. Once that takes more shape, I try to show that idea through a variety of different styles, whether photography, illustration, or a combination of both.

As I read the book, I jot down passages and visuals that really stand out for each book, so that when I begin thinking about what the big idea will be, I have various starting points directly from the text. For New Cover projects, I typically give myself some sort of deadline and/or restraints. For example, on the Lemony Snicket redesigns, I experimented with what they could look like for an adult audience, as a way to wrangle in all of the possible directions those stories could go.

When do I know that I’ve nailed it? Hmm, sometimes I feel like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was going for.” Other times, I could play around with the art files for another 5 years and still not think it’s ready to go. But part of New Cover was also about getting some of my work out there, so while there are things I would go back and change about particular covers, the focus is more on what new books am I going to tackle, as well as real paying clients.

Q: My introduction to your artwork was through the covers you had designed for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Could you talk a bit more about these covers?

Matt: I decided to take on ASOIAF because I wanted to experiment with redesigning a series of books, rather than just a standalone title. I was halfway through book two of the series when I started working on the covers, and, loving the story so far (and also being unimpressed with the various iterations of the covers throughout the years) thought I’d take a crack at it. I had an old stock illustration CD that had tons of house crests on it, and since that’s one of the most important elements to the plot of the books, I used crests that went along with the title of each book, and gave each a color that, when stacked together, complement each other nicely. Some of my friends have said they don’t think they’re intense enough, so I have thought of going back in an adding some blood splattered across each :)

Q: What are some of your influences?

Matt: There are tons of incredibly talented cover designers out there working, and it’s seeing what they come up with that inspires me to continue to create new designs. But my biggest inspiration is Chip Kidd. He’s worked in the industry for years and has produced some of the most iconic covers around. His cover for Jurassic Park is still one of my favorites to this day and at age 10, it was one of the first “big people” books I read, and I just remember thinking, “That is such an awesome cover.”

Q: In your opinion, why is cover art important?

Matt: Some of the first designs I did for New Cover came from me telling friends about a great book that I read and then they’d look at the cover and have some variation of “That looks stupid (or boring, etc.)” And it was sort of a crusade to prove that great stories shouldn’t go un-read because they get stuck in a questionable wrapper. Ultimately, the cover of the book is what attracts someone to it and grabs your attention away from other books on the shelf, so if the cover is uninteresting, most people would just pass it by.

Q: Is there a particular book or author that you would love to design a cover for?

Matt: Through New Cover, I’ve gotten to pick a few of my favorite authors that I would love to work with, including Kurt Vonnegut, Roald Dahl, and Jasper Fforde. I’ve been fortunate to have some of the (still-living) authors I’ve done fake covers for comment on my work. Jasper Fforde liked my Shades of Grey cover and asked if he could print it on postcards that he hands out at his book signings, so that sort of blew my mind. And Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler wrote me a nice email about the adult covers I created. Mary Roach and Bill Bryson are two of my favorite non-fiction authors that I would love to work with.

Q: Out of all the covers you have designed, which one is your favorite and why?

Matt: That’s pretty tough, as I’ve put time and effort into all of them, so it’s hard for me to play favorites, but some have come out more as I envisioned them over others. If I had to choose, I always lean more towards the covers that have a strong idea behind them that ties into the book and lingers with you after you put it down. An idea that, upon first looking at the cover, you may not fully understand what it has to do with the story, but after finishing the book, you see it in a new light. I think two of my covers that succeed at that are Shades of Grey and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Shades of Grey takes place in a future version of our world where social class is determined by one’s ability to perceive a particular color. It follows the main character of Eddie Russett, a Red, as he begins to discover the truth behind the world he lives in. In the book, when a person turns 20, they take the Ishihara to determine what color and how high of a percentage of it they can see (the more you can see, the higher your rank will be).

Because the Ishihara is an actual test created to determine color-blindness, I used that as the basis for my design, having the title appear in red as Eddie would see it, among a sea of grey.

So, while someone who hasn’t read the book can still get the idea of a color-based theme to the story, those that have completed the book more fully understand how it ties into the tale.

Likewise, with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an amazing novel that deals with two feuding magicians in 19th century England, I wanted to play with the idea of these two strong personalities. Because they’re always trying to one-up the other, I decided I would make dual covers, each showcasing one of the magicians, with the other being just out of the frame (and their name considerably smaller) allowing the reader to decide which character they prefer.

Q: You have designed covers for books from all genres, but the majority of them are in the speculative fiction genre. What draws you to speculative fiction?

Matt: I’m a big fan of stories that maybe start out normal or seem everyday and then have a weirdness factor thrown in. I think that’s why I’m such a huge fan of the TV show Lost, which on the surface is about a plane crashing on an island, but as it digs deeper, there’s a ton of weird stuff happening. And since speculative fiction allows for almost anything to happen, I find that very appealing as a lover of interesting stories.

Q: What are you currently working on?

Matt: Since New Cover has gotten in front of some publishers, they’ve sent me actual books to work on, which has been an awesome outcome to something that started out as just a fun side project. And while New Cover has slowed down a bit (because I’m working on real titles) there are still plenty of my favorite books that I will get to redesigning eventually.

Q: In conclusion,  what challenges are you looking forward to and what is your biggest goal for the future?

Matt: One of the biggest challenges I look forward to is working with Art Directors and publishing houses directly. Whereas I’m not the client anymore and I can have the cover look exactly how I want, when working on real titles, there are several levels of approval the covers have to get through, including sales, various editors, etc. so it’s an exciting challenge to create a cover that I think is unique, but has more mass appeal so that it ultimately attracts peoples’ attention and sells.

My biggest goal for the future is to make book cover design my career. It’s something I’m insanely passionate about and I think that no matter what happens in the realm of publishing in the future (ebooks, printed books, etc.) there will always be the need for cover artwork to differentiate each book from the hundreds of thousands of other books it’s up against.


Bets Davies said...

Fascinating. I've never heard of the company, but it is so much fun. A bad cover can destroy a book and an author's heart. I know that most authors don't have control of what they get. So I try my hardest not to judge. I generally go for the flip through.

I've been lucky in having an indie press--Platte River Press ( that I have been able to work very closely with their main illustrator, Stuart Downing, and it has been a great collaboration! I'm really happy with my covers so far. While I tout collaboration, I also have to say that giving him room to have his own vision was key.


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