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10 Questions for Tom Etherington

Tom is a book cover designer living in Sheffield

10 Questions for Tom Etherington

Tom is a book cover designer living in Sheffield

This is 10 Questions, an interview series between INABC and our talented friends from the Book Cover Designers’ Directory. Today, meet Tom Etherington. Tom has worn many design hats over the years: he worked in-house as a designer at Penguin UK, where he was the art director of The Happy ReaderHe is now freelance and based in Sheffield, designing book covers, art books, album covers, and magazines. You can visit Tom’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. Based on experience, what city stands out to you as the most inspiring place to visit if you are an artist?

Tom Etherington: I’m sure all US-based designers would roll their eyes at me, but I really love New York. I bet the reality of living there is tough, and I’m always shocked when I hear how much rent is. But, I still think there is nowhere like it. Every time I go there I feel so inspired, it’s the most cosmopolitan, unique, exciting place – the art, the music, the people. I would move there in a second if a publisher would have me…  

3. Do you show your designs to any non-coworkers before submitting them—a trusted husband or teenage daughter? Who and why?

Tom Etherington: I quite often run things past my partner. She is a reader but has nothing to do with publishing or design, it’s nice to get an outsider’s eye on things. She is also very honest, which is helpful: “It’s okay, but it’s just another one of your photos in a box” – brutal. Her favourite compliment is ’this doesn’t even look like you designed it’ – so flattering.

4. Tell me about someone from your past who played a role in you becoming the designer you are today. What did you learn from them? Or, how did knowing them impact your career trajectory?

Tom Etherington: My dad is a photographer, he left school at 16 to work for the local newspaper, and is now the team photographer for Mercedes F1. He’s lived and worked through the decline of local newspapers, analogue to digital, travelled the world and met so many people (Keith from The Prodigy is the nicest celeb he’s ever photographed). He introduced me to so much, I was going to the Photographer’s Gallery, reading Creative Review and messing around on Photoshop from before I can remember.

Also, my old art teacher, Bo Jones, has a huge role in who I am today. When I was 10 I went to a small school in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Bo would tell stories of the days when he was a punk in Berlin, the graffiti scene, conceptual art shows he made, performance art pieces he did. It all sounded so magical and exciting, he showed me the possibilities of art, and how exciting a life making art could be.

5. Where do you work?

Tom Etherington: When I left Penguin two years ago and set up as a freelancer in Sheffield, I was excited to get an ‘art studio space’. I found a space with a photographer called Owen Richards in an old metal works, which is now art and music studios. I had a romantic vision of being an Ian Curtis like figure, strolling through a post industrial wasteland in a trench coat, but in reality I was wearing long-johns for 9 months of the year and doing zoom calls with a below-average country rock band rehearsing next door. Owen and I have since moved, and share an office with a design studio and another designer. Being freelance, I’ve found it so important for my sanity and general well-being to be around other creative (and very nice) people.

6. Spread good design. Who is one (non-book-cover) graphic designer or artist that we should check out? 

Tom Etherington: I’ll give a shout out to my studio mates:

Owen Richards is a photographer of portraits, landscapes, and in a previous life he photographed pretty much every band in the early 2000s.

Eleven are a design studio, and also do so many amazing things in Sheffield. They ran an architecture festival called Sheffield Modern and got an orchestra to perform Terry Riley’s In C, in the paternoster lift in The University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower.

Kate Lyons is a designer, responsible for Five Points Brewery branding amongst over things.

Oli Frape is lettering artist who has sadly just left the studio, moving to Bristol (the Sheffield of the south).

7. 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? 

Tom Etherington: I always wonder if those things are mutually exclusive, can something not be exciting, new and still be a big seller? I really don’t think cover design is in any threat of becoming too esoteric or avant grade! While there are so many amazing covers every year, overall I think publishing is a deeply conservative area for graphic design. I understand that genres need signifiers, and some covers need to look a certain way to attract the right customer, but I think publishers rely too much on lazy cliches, spelling things out and copying other successful books. I think you have to treat readers with respect, if they are reading challenging, exciting fiction, they deserve a challenging, exciting cover. As a designer I want to make a cover that somebody wants to own, not something that is shouting out to be bought. 

So I guess Jamie’s point is true, but maybe unhelpful. Perhaps I need to wrestle with him in the pub car park next time I see him.

8. 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? 

Tom Etherington: It feels increasingly rare to get a cover approved first time round, but when it happens it’s a great feeling, and they tend to be the more successful covers. Cover approval is a weird alchemy, I think a good brief, clear direction and a publisher that trusts it’s designers and art directors is key. I don’t think 50 visuals and 10 rounds of changes ever produces a good cover.

9. If you’re a freelancer, what’s something that you miss about being in-house? 

Tom Etherington: The thing I miss most is the people, I was lucky to make so many great friends while working at Penguin, and definitely made the most of lunchtime pints and afterwork pub sessions. I also miss the time I was given to spend on covers. I think this is relatively rare in publishers, but something I really admire about Jim Stoddart, my art director at Penguin Press, was the space and time he gave designers to work on things. He gave me the time to make mistakes, build my confidence and develop as a designer. 

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? 

Tom Etherington: There are the usual responses: 

“Any author’s I would know?”, 

“Penguin? Don’t you just do orange and white stripes”, 

“Don’t judge a book by…..” and I have left them and gone to the bar.

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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