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Looking Back to the Future: Designing a Penguin Sci-Fi Series

By Rebecca Bedrossian

Tucked away in a quiet corner of London’s Notting Hill is a five-person design studio just shy of its 15th anniversary. La Boca (Spanish for mouth) may be small, but the graphics it produces are big and bold. From album art to editorial, and from movie posters to book covers, the vibrant color and crisp lines appeal to our imagination.

The studio’s design aesthetic has one foot planted in the past and the other stepping toward the future. This blend of contemporary and vintage styles made La Boca the perfect choice for the book covers for Horror Stories, True Names, The World in Winter, War for the Oaks, and We Who Are About To. All are re-issued classics that are part of Penguin’s science fiction list.

Penguin art director Richard Bravery found exactly what he wanted with La Boca. “When it came to briefing,” Bravery recalls, “my job was to set the tone of the commission, and theirs was to interpret that visually.” He kept the brief deliberately indirect, which allowed the La Boca team the freedom to develop their own ideas.

I met up with La Boca founder and creative director Scot Bendall, who now works from the new La Boca outpost in Amsterdam, to discuss these out-of-this-world book covers, sci-fi, and design.

Create: Has La Boca designed many book covers?

Scot: For years we specialized in design for the music industry. A few years ago, an art director suggested we apply the same working methods to book covers. He gave us our first project in 2009. Since then, book covers have become an integral part of our work. 

At their core, both book and record covers create a visual presence for something that has no physical form. We always try to see ourselves as a connection between an artist and their audience. And whether that artist is an author or a musician, we find the process to be quite similar.

Books and records are smallish objects that users interact with quite intimately. They are objects to be held, so it’s important the designs connect and withstand close scrutiny and repeated viewings.

Create: How did La Boca come to work on this series?

Scot: We were approached by Penguin. As soon as I saw the brief, I knew we had to throw ourselves into it. We’re quite big science fiction fans and Penguin sci-fi releases are legendary around here.

Create: How did you begin the design process? Did you read the books?

Scot: The first step in designing any book is to read it first, if possible. As these were classics being republished, Penguin supplied us with previous editions. I always find the process much easier if we’ve read it first, as invariably the ideas start flowing while you’re reading. Of course, there are occasions with new books where we don’t get this opportunity. And we’ve worked on many film posters where we hardly ever get to see a film first as it’s often still in production. You only really know if the poster is successful after it’s too late.

Once we read these Penguin titles, we compared notes before working up initial sketches and ideas. We had four illustrators working across different elements, which posed an additional challenge of making sure the overall art direction enabled the designs to form a family.

Create: Describe some of La Boca’s design influences.

Scot: We approach each project as a new problem to solve, so we try not to repeat ourselves. Many clients will ask for something similar to an image we’ve created before, but I itch to create something new and appropriate for each brief.

Color has always been very important to us—and retina-testing if possible. I also like tactile images; I want to feel how our images would be in real life. Generally, I don’t like shiny things; I never wear jewelry or use glossy paper if I can help it.

Create: Where did you find inspiration for this series? There are elements of vintage sci-fi book covers, a nod to pulp fiction, and a bit of 1980s airbrushing thrown in. They are delightful.

Scot: We didn’t really know how people would react to the covers, as the heritage of Penguin Sci-Fi is so strong. Because the books are classics, we wanted to nod to the past, but we didn’t want them to become pastiche. The goal was to make them feel familiar and new at the same time. 

Create: Tell us about the technical process.

Scot: This process was quite similar to all of our projects: First, ideas and mockups were sketched on paper; second, initial designs were explored, drawn up, and tweaked in Illustrator; third, final parts were transferred to Photoshop for coloring, lighting, effects, and composition; fourth, on to InDesign for layout, typography, and technical elements such as barcodes. Lastly, an extra step for this project was to use After Effects for the animations. 

Though we haven’t quite got there, next year I’m sure we’ll be doing steps one and two on an iPad with the Adobe mobile tools! I'm already finding it intriguing, so we’ll start playing with that soon.

Create: What’s your favorite book cover in this series, and why?

Scot: Horror Stories is the favorite in the studio. It wasn’t the easiest cover to create, but the end result sits quite well with the content of the book. I like covers that reveal themselves the more you delve into the story. We have references in this design that you’ll understand the more you read. This creates a cover readers will refer back to and, hopefully, grow to like. Or it might simply be that everyone loves a pink skull.

Create: What specific challenges or constraints do you face in designing a book cover, as opposed to a poster, an album cover, or other print design platforms?

Scot: The small size of a book is often the biggest problem. With album covers and posters, there is usually enough space to create tension between an image and typography. On a book, the combination needs to be more considered. The publisher inevitably wants the text big, even if it’s not the most elegant solution. Then, there are the ubiquitous quotes to incorporate into the design.

Create: In your opinion, what should a great book cover do?

Scot: A successful book cover creates enough intrigue for someone to initially pick it up, and then secondly want to read it. That said, it shouldn’t give too much away about the content. It’s more about creating a mood or triggering an emotion through the design. I also like to picture the book itself appearing within the story. If I can imagine the cover image within a scene, then the idea probably works.

Create: If you could redesign the cover of any book, what would you pick?

Scot: Anything by Philip K. Dick, please.

Create: Tell me about the animations for this series. Are they a natural evolution for book-cover design in the time of tablets and e-readers?

Scot: The animations were designed for online usage. Like many designers, we are great book-lovers, but it’s just a (sad) fact of life that most information comes to us in digital form nowadays. We wanted to see if animated covers would create more intrigue when viewed online—instead of the usual static pack-shot. We’ve also been experimenting with an augmented reality app for the book covers, to see if we can connect digital and print in a meaningful way. More to come.

Create: What’s on the horizon for La Boca?

Scot: Next year our studio turns 15 and we’re going to party like it’s 1999.