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We spoke to Senior Designer Alex Kirby about the process of designing the cover for The Zoo by Christopher Wilson.

Untitled designThis book centres around 12-year-old Yuri, a food tester for Stalin. It’s a touching and witty satire, told through the refreshing voice of one gutsy boy who will not give up on hope.

The brief called for a fresh, confident, funny and moving design. Although set in Russia, it was clear the cover shouldn’t mimic Soviet propaganda posters which could restrict the book’s broad appeal.

Even at this early stage just the title excited me – The Zoo – two short words, a mere six letters . . . such rare freedom for a Designer!

Generally speaking, I have a set process that I follow for every job and when all the steps of this approach are fulfilled, it tends to yield my strongest covers.

First up is reading the book. In today’s era of eReaders, printing an entire manuscript may appear old fashioned, and certainly frivolous, but it allows me to easily make notes of keywords, phrases, locations and so on – basically anything that could feature on the jacket.

After finishing the text, there were two key elements that stood out. The first was the central character – Yuri – with his unbreakable spirit and wry observations, all told with a glint in his eye. The second was the grandiose, drunken banquets hosted by Stalin. Attended by his Generals, I felt the luxurious dinner table they sat around could form an effective framework for the cover.

With this in mind, I moved onto the next key phase – research. I perused related articles, checked out other jackets and ran extensive picture searches. Most images I find don’t make it to the final cover, but they become handy reference points and can inspire ideas later down the line.

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I also shortlisted various typefaces from the era, via the excellent Fonts in Use and What the Font sites, finally opting for CastleType’s gorgeous Zamenhof Inline.

Next, onto layout. As mentioned before, a short title is an absolute gift for a designer. I enlarged ‘Zoo’ – arranging it like serving platters on a table top, with the author name set as cutlery around a plate. In the background I added a tablecloth texture complete with wine glass rings.

Given how crucial Yuri is to the story, I knew he too had to feature on the cover. The tricky part was how.

The eureka moment transpired after hours of trawling the web. The Nevalyashka doll is a classic, much loved Soviet era toy. Peeping out from behind the ‘O’, it’s mischievous smile and wide, twinkling eyes capture Yuri’s character perfectly.

The final jacket has a matt laminate finish, combined with an embossed silver foil title. Opening the book reveals multiple Yuri’s adorning the endpapers.

Working on The Zoo was creatively rewarding, from briefing through to execution. Happily, the response to the cover has been as positive as my experience was designing it.