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10 Questions for Karl Spurzem

Karl is a book cover designer living in Los Angeles

10 Questions for Karl Spurzem

Karl is a book cover designer living in Los Angeles

This is 10 Questions, an interview series between INABC and our talented friends from the Book Cover Designers’ Directory. Today, meet the hilarious Karl Spurzem. Once upon a time, Karl and I shared a cubicle wall as co-designers for the Portfolio business imprint at PRH. It’s been fun to catch up with this guy, from two desks that now sit on opposite sides of the country. You can visit Karl’s portfolio site here and his Instagram here.

1. Visually take us through your professional journey. Create a diagram that summarizes your career to date.

2. When did you realize that you wanted to become a book cover designer? Did you stumble into this career or did you intentionally pursue it?

Karl Spurzem: Very intentional, once I realized the job existed. I didn’t study art or design. I was a filmmaking student who got hired to the college newspaper as an illustrator without any interview or portfolio. They later made me the art director. Love you forever, Daily Nebraskan. 

After graduating, I could’ve shipped off to LA and be a big hotshot in the movies, or I could’ve taken some theater posters I’d made for friends and some newspaper graphics and sell myself as a designer somehow. I figured I’d get benefits sooner in design. I live in LA now and I’m wildly glad I don’t depend on that industry to survive.

There was a silly eureka moment. I was staring off into space in my dingy college apartment, pretending to look at job sites and wondering how much I’d have to learn about web design to be employable, when I realized that all the books over on my shelf had to be designed by someone. “Covers are just posters for books. And I like books!” I was dead set from then on. Thankfully Princeton was willing to teach me book design from scratch.

3. How do you use Instagram?

Karl Spurzem: Terribly. I’m allergic to self-promotion. I’ll post work on my feed when I remember, otherwise it’s mostly DMing memes with friends. I’ve been through the rise and fall and general toxicity of too many social media platforms to give any of them much brainspace anymore. I refuse to be a “creator.” The more Instagram resembles TikTok’s endless flood of #Content, the less likely I am to even bother.

4. What’s your ideal auditory environment while working?

Karl Spurzem: Music keeps me sane. It’s up there with food and shelter on the hierarchy of needs. I have a great set of speakers at my desk and, if I have to work anywhere else, I bring big headphones. Really helps when I struggle to tune out nearby noises and conversations.

My soundtrack for this Q&A was some Black Sabbath and a jazz record, Yussef Dayes’ “Black Classical Music.” Great Sunday.

5. Do you use any tools besides the usual Adobe products? What are they! 

Karl Spurzem: My phone camera is probably the most valuable design tool I have. Reference, inspiration, “scanning,” it does it all. The iPad/Pencil combo is a close second. I’ve made a lot of artwork in Procreate that I wouldn’t be able to do any other way.

6. What’s one creative skill you wish you had time to pursue so that you could incorporate it into future designs?

Karl Spurzem: Sign painting. I don’t have the hand for it at all and am endlessly jealous of everyone who practices the craft. Shoutout to Philly’s Keystone Sign Co. for running a fun little workshop for the Princeton art department a couple years ago. I had a great time while proving I have zero skill with a brush.

7. We all know that great covers get killed. How often does something you submit get chosen in the very first round, and how often do you have to go through multiple rounds before you get an approval? 

Karl Spurzem: More than two rounds of new comps is pretty rare, thankfully. Usually by that point we’ve found a focused direction to move in and we’re out of the “throw things at the wall to see what sticks” phase. Those really long cover processes always seem to come from vague briefs with a lot of outside pressure to Get It Right. The process works so much easier with robust concept conversations up top. When it’s bad, it’s like someone saying “I’ll know it when I see it.” They won’t know it. They are lying.

“…I don’t really think about style that way.
It’s like picking clothes.
Context and formality and audience all matter.”

8. Some of us don’t think we have a certain design style. Some of us think we do. If you think you have a style, how would you describe yours? 

Karl Spurzem: I probably do but I don’t really think about style that way. It’s like picking clothes. Context and formality and audience all matter. I try to find the right style for each project, or a few style options. My focus is more on process stuff. I like doing the concept work and the research. I like making my own artwork and imagery when it fits. If I can offer a range of style choices that make it easier to pick the right one, perfect.

9. I loved it when Jamie Keenan said “It’s not an art director’s job to make your Instagram grid look nice.” How do you balance creating a cover that has mass market appeal with creating something truly unique? 

Karl Spurzem: Important step in the design process: recognizing when you do or don’t have a chance to make the cool design stuff you love making. Another important step in the design process: sneaking some part of yourself into the work anyway so you can at least respect it. 

Ideally that book cover with all the mass market appeal you put in is unique enough that other publishers start using it as a comp title.

10. The INABC Exit Question. You’re at a party and you just told a stranger that you’re a book cover designer. What’s the most common response you get from people when they hear this? 

Karl Spurzem: “Any books I would know?” It’s a rare (and lovely!) surprise when they actually do.

For more Q&As from our pool of talented designers, explore the 10 Questions series page.
Special thanks to Amanda Hudson for creating the series’ blog post cover design.
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