Everyone knows the writers. A few know the editors and publishers. But the first encounter a reader has with a book is often through its cover. Which is almost never created by the writer, editor or publisher. Indeed, it is the work of the designers at publishing companies that catches the most attention in bookstores – online or brick-and-mortar. A complex interplay of colours, images and text, a brilliant book cover is proof of artistic creativity of the highest order.

That is why we asked five design heads at India’s English language publishers to tell us about one of the best covers they designed – or loved working on – in 2017. Here, they take us through the journey for each of them.

Bena Sareen, Aleph Book Company

How I Became A Tree, Sumana Roy

“As I was reading it – this unusual and fabulous account of the author describing her intimate relationship with trees – I found myself doodling stems and foliage emerging from the heart of the (imagined) writer. I thought of her hair being transformed into tree branches. I also had the colour scheme in mind. I didn’t want too many shades. I was actually just looking at black and white initially.

My biggest frustration is that I’m not an illustrator who visualises very clearly. So I usually convey my vision through an illustration I commission. That’s how a lot of designers and art directors work, right? You can’t design everything yourself. And it’s about finding the right illustrator. All cover design involves marrying the right talent together to bring out your vision.

And while searching for someone, I chanced upon this artist, Elisa Talentino, whose work seemed to share the same inspirations and intimacy with the natural world. It seemed completely married to the text! It was unbelievable. So I contacted her and she gave me permission to use her illustration. And the author loved it.

My selection of the title font, Rainy Wind, also enhances this meditative look and the organic nature of the content. I hunted pretty hard for that too, and thought it really worked well with the illustration. An understanding of typography is actually the most complex part of design. It is the main yardstick I use to assign work to freelance designers or while hiring people. Over the years of running a department, I’ve found that that’s not something that you can teach. It’s really innate. We can all go to design school and learn the theory and different classifications of typeface and what emerged in which period, etc. But you can’t teach them how to marry that to an idea. It’s got a lot better in India over the last few years but I still find that it’s the hardest skill to imbibe.

Ahlawat Gunjan, Penguin Random House India

Indica, Pranay Lal

“This is something that happens rarely, but it happened that unanimously everybody liked this cover.

The book has so much to offer! But how do you boil down something which is contextually correct, aesthetically beautiful, and visually captivating for a reader to pick up the book? So arriving at a meaningful collage was the most challenging part. What helped me was the way Pranay has put the narrative together in such a lucid fashion. It completely excited me and I was passionate about doing justice to it.

After a session with Pranay, I developed several options. Just by grabbing some images from the internet to get the direction right, out of which he liked one and that is what I worked towards. And the concept was that it should talk about the sky, the land and the water – all three components of natural history – on the cover. It captures it all very well.

And then Pranay helped me plug in pictures from his collection. With non-fiction you have to be contextually accurate. I can’t just put a dragonfly or a dinosaur from the wrong period. So you have to be really careful with the imagery. It took me about a month and a half from start to finish.

The cover has these folds and folds to it. Just like the way Pranay is slowly, chapter by chapter, unfurling the natural history. I tried to bring the same ideology to the cover. The book has a very formal look outside, but the minute you open it, it has a surprise of this very fresh colour of yellow. And the kind of paper and the design are meant to be sympathetic to the reader. This is a project that I’m extremely proud of.”

Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books

The Open-Winged Scorpion and Other Stories, Abul Bashar, translated by Epsita Halder

“I remember reading up about this. The open-winged scorpion does not exist. There is something called a scorpion fly, but I couldn’t seem to find any mention of a winged scorpion. Hence, no image of it either.

This is a collection of short stories by Abul Bashar, and one of them is called ‘The Open-Winged Scorpion’, which also gives the volume its name. In the story, there’s a beautiful description of the creature: ‘At first, it appeared like the glitter of a heap of gold. Then something like diamonds. Then a cluster of precious gems. The creature was shining with its precious stones and gleaming metals. Its wings pulsated. Maybe from anger. Or pleasure.’

But if the open-winged scorpion does not exist, where do I get an image? I started looking for images of scorpions, looking for something illustrative rather than photographic to gently underscore its unreal, imagined existence.

And I found a series of insect illustrations, done by colonial entomologists, in the style of the flora and fauna illustrations they made in whichever part of the Empire they landed up in. It was a copyright-free image, so I downloaded it. Step two was to locate the wings. I found a butterfly whose wings seemed open to some photo-manipulation, and then I cut the wings off and put them on the scorpion.

Then I tweaked the colours of both, especially the brightness/contrast and the colour saturation, because I also wanted the whole look to be slightly unnatural, slightly exaggerated, since there is a thin line between this being a real insect and not. This was a bit tricky, because the colour families of the wing and of the scorpion were slightly different, but I got both to a point where they seem to meet, so that the wings appeared as though they had been on the scorpion all along.

When the book is published, the rest of the scorpion will appear across the spine and the back cover. So when you’re reading the book, someone watching you will get to see the open-winged scorpion.

And there are these flecks of colour that I’ve added, the sparks of light and colour from the story.

The typeface is Perpeptua. I am partial to using serif type, as I’m sure many others are, too. I’m instinctively against using too many typefaces on the same cover. It’s not that I haven’t done it, but I like to stick within a certain family. Because the image was strong, and would be stronger in its entirety, I wanted a classic typeface. And I didn’t want it to compete with the visual. It accompanies the image, a quiet presence on the cover. Because, well, you’ve got an open-winged scorpion sitting there in all its glory – you don’t want anything else getting in the way.

I want your eye drawn to the open-winged scorpion, shining on the bookshelf, just as it shines in the story.”

Bonita Vaz-Shimray, HarperCollins India

Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, Manu Joseph

This took some time to get right, as the first two concepts we focused on didn’t work out because of the style. They weren’t telling enough, and in fact somewhat misleading when put together.

Our initial plan was to keep it within the context of Manu’s earlier two books (Serious Men and The Illicit Happiness of Other People) with a similar style of illustrations to conserve and continue that look. But then we realised that this is a completely different genre for Manu. His journalistic skills have been put to such good use here. This is a political thriller, so it had to look like one.

The editorial team had initially suggested a scene for the cover, a car chase which takes place around the climax of the novel, but that wasn’t commercial enough. Nor did it make a point. It is now part of the back cover. Another one we could have had was a scene of the debris after a building collapses, which is how the blurb starts. But that, again, wasn’t something that would have worked out visually.

During discussions over the cover, Manu mentioned that one of the scenes that had struck him the most was Akhila (one of the other central characters in the book) addressing a crowd of RSS people. We thought this would make an arresting scene.

We chose a very noir approach to reflect the thriller aspect. That’s why you have the black, with a bit of red popping through. We didn’t want to be “in your face” with something obvious, so we didn’t use any saffron or any other clichés. The whole thing came together because of the medium that we chose. We used a “vector” approach, so as to not make the illustration too realistic.

It’s one of our most provocative covers of this past year. We deliberately designed a sort of commercial looking cover, coupled with the noir look, so that the book could reach out to a much wider audience.

Designing a book of commercial fiction is particularly difficult, because you are trying to get through to a much large audience. It’s a lot harder to strike that right balance. And I’m constantly looking for fresh talent that can do this well. With this cover, once we approached Sanchita [Jain] she really came through.”

Sanchita Jain, the designer and illustrator for the cover, adds: “We wanted a cinematic feel and a very modern outlook for the cover. We also had to show the political turmoil. What we needed was her RSS clothes to stand out, and one point that stood out in the brief was that it had to look menacing. So I thought, why don’t we try a sort of noir outlook, with high contrasts. And one thing we were very clear about was that her red stilettos had to stand out, which is kind of iconic about Akhila. And then we tried different postures for her and arrived at this one.

The font used here is Geometos rounded. I used this because it’s visually clear. The letters stand out really well and also because the title is so powerful, the font itself had to show that. I didn’t want to use a thriller-like font for this. I wanted to maintain an elegance and an edginess to it, which the font supports.

In the end we also decided to make the character of Akhila bigger. We even made the stilettos longer, and now, if you see, they flow out of the cover. We wanted her to appear as the larger figure. And it really shows.”

Gavin Morris, Juggernaut

Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra

This is my favourite cover from 2017, if we are talking purely about the design process and eventual outcome

As usual I received a detailed brief from Chiki Sarkar, Mishra’s editor for the book, giving me suggestions in terms of possible directions, other books in the same genre, and a solid synopsis. The book concerns the reactionary, right-wing ideologies that have come to dominate our present political landscape. It has a real global breadth. So, initially, to avoid trying to sum it up in one image, I pursued a simple typographic look using bold sans serif type in a range of violent colours (we would have used neon Pantone inks for this). The Farrar, Straus and Giroux cover in the US actually did something simple and typography-led, which I liked. But I felt that for our market we needed something bolder, brighter and less minimal.

Eventually I started toying with images of violence, war and horror, all of which stem from the politics of our age, focusing on imagery from the subcontinent. I started collaging, using available imagery for the most part and buying a few more from Getty Images, to come up with what I thought worked. The UK edition, published by Penguin Books, had followed a similar trajectory and had chosen a font the author was particularly fond of, and had wanted on ours as well. So I contacted Mishra’s publishers in London, and then bought rights from the foundry.

The font, Caslon Great Primer Round, is rather jolly and rotund, and contrasted nicely with the aggressive unsettling images beneath it. Just because I have little self-control, I dropped in a not-so-subtle skull and crossbones over the type to finish it off. Once approved, I continued the collage over the spine and back and printed it on unfinished paper.

I can’t say the cover is elegant or beautiful, and I do think it is literal, but I didn’t want to be subtle or clever. I wanted to convey the contents and get noticed.”