Donna Payne: Director Of Art, Faber & Faber

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Donna Payne, 43, is the director of art at Faber & Faber. She lives with her husband Christien, an English teacher, and their children Hal, 9, and Robin, 3, in Tooting, south London

The sound of my daughter Robin singing through the walls wakes me at 5.30am. I get up, shower and dress in my uniform of black, grey and denim from brands like Zara and Gap. Our mornings are organised chaos – making packed lunches and eating porridge together as a family. I leave for work at 7.30am then walk 25 minutes to the station in my FitFlop boots, while Christien drops the kids at our childminder.

There are five of us in the art team at Faber’s Euston office and we design about 350 book covers a year – I juggle up to 30 covers at a time, each taking between two and 12 weeks. I began designing coffee table books and children’s books before starting at Faber. I get most inspiration away from my computer – I might be making dinner and an idea will pop into my head, so I start designing as soon as I arrive while the concept is fresh. I sketch an illustration on paper to show the cover team before we send it to a designer, or if the brief is for a photographic cover, I use a picture until we commission a photographer.

I read a lot of our titles, and before I design a cover I skim the book to get a feel for its tone, but I don’t always want to know all the details, as then I become the reader rather than the designer. Customers tend to look at a cover and decide if they want to buy it in a few seconds, so we need to convey quickly what kind of book it is. We often use colleagues and friends instead of models – my son starred on the cover of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, which was a huge campaign, so every morning I’d walk past his face on a billboard.

It’s gratifying when everyone likes a cover. People have been known to stand up and applaud

With more people browsing online sites like Amazon and the Kindle store, it’s important to consider how the book will look as a tiny thumbnail, which means covers are becoming more clean and simple. People are starting to appreciate hardbacks again, so we use beautiful paper and finishes, whereas with paperbacks we go for a more commercial image which is immediately accessible.

I answer most of my emails in the afternoon: we use designers who work all over the world and send their visuals for the team to discuss. A cover has to pass nine people before it’s approved – marketing, sales, the book’s editor and all the other designers – so we meet weekly and stick four or five options for each book onto an easel and give feedback. It can be nerve-wracking but designers grow thick skins – mine is as tough as leather now. It’s gratifying when everyone likes a cover immediately – people have been known to stand up and applaud at meetings. I’m most proud of last year’s cover for Gillespie And I by Jane Harris – other designers had worked on it before me so getting it right was brilliant. The successful book jacket goes to the author, who has final approval. We designed the cover for Jarvis Cocker’s Mother, Brother, Lover last year and he wanted the background to be the same colour as a bar of Bournville chocolate, so we had to buy a bar, colour match it and send it through to New York so he could approve it.

Christien picks the kids up at 5.45pm and I aim to be home by 6pm. They go to bed at 8.30pm, and Christien and I eat an hour later, usually something quick like a stir-fry. We love to watch US comedies like 30 Rock, I usually fall asleep on the sofa, before taking myself up to bed at 11pm to dream of book covers.


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