Jessica Kusuma on designing covers that evoke emotion — Singapore Lit Prize feature

This July 2018, in light of the biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), we’ll be featuring our writers who’ve had their works shortlisted for the SLP 2018! Ethos is proud to have five titles on the shortlist this year—Phedra, 17A Keong Saik Road, Bitter Punch, The Magic Circle and Giving Ground—and beyond the SLP, we’re most interested to find out what went into the creative process behind these books.

A good cover catches the eye, compels you to pick up a book in a busy bookstore, and often gives a unique take on the story. Throughout this series of 'Judging a Book By Its Cover', we discover books through their cover designs.

This week, we have Jessica Kusuma, the cover designer of 17A Keong Saik Road. Read on to find out about her design inspirations and the food item that best represents her art style!

"For book covers, you have one image to give people a glimpse into your story and evoke an emotion."  - Jessica Kusuma 

What is design to you and what mediums are you drawn to?

Design to me is an art of solving problems. It is not just about making things look beautiful. There should be a purpose. I like to create designs that are meaningful and have an idea behind it. It makes it much more interesting.

I’m a graphic designer so I mainly work in digital. But I always start with manual sketching. I still practice calligraphy and try to incorporate hand-drawn illustrations to my work any chance I get. I also love photography.

Describe your creative design process.

First, I listen to the clients/brief and try to understand their vision and goals. Usually, during this exercise, I will have a certain vision in my head where I think the art direction should go. I then do my research and find inspiration images to piece the vision together. I get inspired by anything around me, it could be music, movies, pictures, food, nature or even random conversation. Once I gather enough inspirations and thoughts, I start designing.

What do you do when you hit a design roadblock?

I simply take a break from the project and come back to it the next day. That helps me see things in better perspective.

If you could describe your art style with one food item what would it be and why?

Hmmm, this is a tough one but I would say chocolate lava cake. It looks appetizing from the outside alone but the burst of gooey chocolate inside is what makes the cake. The lava represents the concept & design thinking which makes the whole cake even better.

On book design, what was your main inspiration for the cover design of 17A Keong Saik Road?

For this cover, I play with the idea of looking into the past with courage. The author decided to tell a story that she had kept for years. So the action of tearing a paper is a representation of her courage. The image of Keong Saik Street on the cover was presented in a brighter and colourful way, as a symbol of her making peace with her past.

I wanted a nostalgic element but with a brighter and cheerful note. That’s why I used hand torn paper elements in the design, paired with handwritten typography for the title.

If you could use just three words, how would you describe the stories in 17A Keong Saik Road?

Courageous. Inspirational. Emotional.

What do you think is the difference in designing covers for books as compared to other creative projects?

For book covers, you have one image to give people a glimpse into your story and evoke an emotion. People have a very short attention span so the challenge is to make their eyes stop while scanning through shelves and shelves of books.

With the advent of e-books and digital platforms, some say that book covers are increasingly taking a back seat. How do you think book cover designs can evolve with this trend?

I don’t see any problems. You still need a cover to entice people to buy the e-books. I believe images play a big role in our day to day decision to purchase anything. But in the future perhaps animated covers could be a thing.

If you could design a cover for any book in the future, what would that book be about?

Not anything in particular but I would love to work on design books as that’s what I’m passionate about.

Do check out Jessica's latest artistic work for Chinatown Crossings.

If you loved this article about the cover design of 17A Keong Saik Road, why not participate in this contest and vote for 17A Keong Saik Road as your favourite cover design for SLP! Stand a chance to win a copy of the book as well!

17A Keong Saik Road is available on our webstore, and in all good bookstores.

P.S. For the first time and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council, the public is invited to attend the SLP awards ceremony. Come meet your favourite authors! Free registration here