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70s soft porn and setting roses on fire: Here's how to make a striking book cover

We chatted to Conor and David from Workgroup about how they do their work.

THE SAYING GOES that you should never judge a book by its cover – but maybe when it comes to Conor Nolan and David Wall’s work, you should.

The pair – whose business was called Conor and David, and is now called Workgroup to reflect the larger team they run – work with a range of different clients (from cafés to bands) and also create the covers for Roads Publishing‘s (run by Danielle Ryan) classic books.

I visited their studio to find out how they put the covers together, and learned that sometimes the most simple of images had an incredibly complicated birth.

IMG_8711 Drawings for use on a cover of one of the forthcoming Road's children's classics.

The pair explained that as the Roads series features classic books, they wanted to take a fresh look at the imagery. This meant, for example, no monsters in the Frankenstein cover (instead, it’s a snow globe with a shadowy figure in the distance).

The images are also usually handmade. ”Everything goes through the computer at some point, but if you do it by hand or if you do the process, that maybe slows things down a little bit,” says Wall.

You leave yourself a little bit more open to things that are unexpected along the way that you learn from or you respond to.

Without that approach, they can miss out on the chance for “happy accidents to happen”, he says.

Here, they talk us through some of the work that went into the striking covers.

Soft porn collage 

222007-LCL-AW

This classic book – considered very racy at the time – is about sex and relationships. “[The image] is a collage,” says Wall. “But they’re all taken from…”

Nolan finishes his sentence: “1970s porn mags.”

Adds Wall: “They’re racy lingerie.”

“[The books] are all classics which by definition have a place in a culture, that people have an idea [...] of what Dracula looks like or what the Great Gatsby looks like,” says Wall. So for them, the approach was take a bit of a sideways look at things.

As part of their research, they would visit bookshops to see what the existing covers look like.

“Bookshops are really visually noisy places,” says Wall. “Part of the cleanliness of the design is to be a bit of a breath of fresh air in that context, because all of these things had very strong imagery associated with them, we were very eager not just to be another take on that.”

The covers “are more thematic explorations”. 

“You can see they are fake like Hollywood”

222007-LCL-V2

This cover image features an architectural figurine in the foreground, representing the main character looking at the Hollywood Hills.

“These were all sets so they are set up as flat and you’re meant to see the stanchions behind the facades, so you can see that they are fake like Hollywood, we were playing off that idea a bit,” says Nolan. The set was then photographed.

The pair say they wanted to figure out areas where the books could ”be unique and stand out on a bookshelf”.

Then there are practical considerations – Wall says that because the books are mostly white, there is a coloured frame along the edge of the cover where people hold the books, to avoid them losing their sheen over time.

‘They’re amazing and grotesque’

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The cover of Heart of Darkness is photoshopped – but the image comes from an item found in a second-hand store.

Wall explains that they found these in a charity shop:

IMG_8708 Source: Aoife Barry

“They’re bizarre little yokes – they’re knd of amazing but they’re also grotesque,” says Wall. They broke up the items and photographed them, then used Photoshop to turn the insect into a heart-shaped fly. 

When creating a cover image, they “look at themes, symbolism, character, particular narrative events”, says Wall, as well as relationships between characters.

Setting flowers aflame

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For this cover, the pair had to learn about the best way to set a rose on fire.

“We ended up buying bouquets of roses and roasting them in the oven to harden the petals so that we could set them on fire,” recalls Nolan. 

You can’t set [fresh] roses on fire. We had to become experts in how to make roses flammable – the easiest way is to dry them out first, or else they just curl up.

A familiar face

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Here’s another example of how they took existing images and tweaked them digitally.

“We got peacock feathers up on Capel St, scanned them, then incorporated them into this drawing, which is based on a photo I took of Conor when we were in college,” explains Wall.

“I do have the Grecian look,” jokes Nolan of the resulting photo. 

“We must have done 40 of these to get it right”

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Sometimes, it’s the simplest images that are the trickiest to create.

“We knew we wanted something that was dense and black that reflected the tone of the publication,” explains Nolan. “And getting a perfect or seemingly perfect circle from a spray can… became quite a job.”

Wall takes up the tale: “We got a friend who is a graffiti artist and painter to help us with it.

We must have done about 40 of these to get that. Just to get the right one basically with a bit of work afterwards to make it right. I think it was better for it.
There are things you could do on a computer with the click of a mouse but you wouldn’t have the authenticity of it.

In an era of Kindles and ebooks, Workgroup want these books to be beautiful to look at and to hold.

Explains Wall:

“I think it creates an onus that if you are going to produce a printed book, it is an object then and there is a lot of consideration around how you are going to produce that object – people will collect them and hopefully have a nice display of them in their homes.”

Read: Look at these stunning images that capture Ireland in its glory – all taken by amateurs>

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