Maliah Zubir on designing a cover for a poignant story — 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, hear from Maliah Zubir, the cover designer of The Magic Circle. Read on to find out about what finding inspiration is to her and how simplicity and writing style informed her cover design!

"... after considering Charmaine’s elegant writing style and the themes of loss, and relationships across generations, the sparse image of the broken circle was what was best for the story." Maliah Zubir

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

Graphic design is like finding a good metaphor—it’s about finding the right image that will encapsulate your idea, and finding the right balance and harmony to make that design work. You can’t overwork a metaphor, just like you can’t overdo good design. But looks like I just used a metaphor as a metaphor!

As for mediums, although I usually work digitally, I’m drawn to designs with a tactile feel. Whether it’s using die-cuts, special colours or embossing, you can tell it’s a conscious decision by the designer. It feels more personable that way.

Describe your creative design process.

I like to start with mood boards and colour schemes. This process helps me organize my different ideas and directions, but it also helps me communicate my ideas to clients better than I can myself. And the right music always sets me in the right headspace to start designing.

What do you do when you hit a design roadblock?

I take a break. Inspiration will come naturally; when you watch your favourite television series, when you see new album art. Rather than finding inspiration, I find it harder to start the design engine again.

In This Is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami likens finding inspiration to searching for a water vein: “I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity…But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another.” We will always encounter roadblocks but it’s about finding the working rhythm that suits you.

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

Dragonfruits! I’m drawn to its vibrant pink, the interesting textures of its skin, and I love how its inside is a complete contrast. In the same way, I aspire for people to find something new to like about my art style the more they look at it.


On book design, what was your main inspiration for the cover design of The Magic Circle?

The title itself is very evocative. Initially, I was inclined to more ornamental styles due to some of the book’s fairytale influences. But after considering Charmaine’s elegant writing style and the themes of loss, and relationships across generations, the sparse image of the broken circle was what was best for the story.

If you could use just three words, how would you describe the stories in The Magic Circle?

Masterful. Brave. Poignant.

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

Every type of design has its objectives and challenges. The truth is, we do judge books by their covers and sometimes rightly so! From the cover, a customer can discern how light of a read this book may be, what is the story they can expect from it—the list goes on. That was the scariest thing for me; not knowing whether my book cover design will draw a customer to the book or distance themselves from it.

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?

Maximise on the medium of print. Book cover designs aren’t only about the front—most often we actually look at the spine first. If we saw books as a complete product rather than just its cover, or its spine, we can at least see the value of print and why it stays no matter how fast technology advances.

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

I would love to work on a series or a collection by a single author! I love the idea of continuity and balancing variation with consistency.

Above is an image of the cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray redesigned by Maliah Zubir.

The Magic Circle is also 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.