By the Cover: Meet Vanessa Han, Freelance Designer

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Eric Smith

Staff Writer

Eric Smith an author, blogger, and literary agent based in Philadelphia. When he isn’t busy trying to discover new books, he sometimes tries to write his own. Blog: Eric Smith Twitter: @ericsmithrocks

vanessa han books

There’s a lot that goes into the production of the books you love, you know, in addition to all the writing. Publicity, sales, editorial, production… there are so many parts that come together to make a book happen and get it into your favorite local bookstore. And there’s one in particular we notice quite often, but never really dig deep into.

The cover.

Just who is it that makes our books look so lovely? Can you tell when a book is designed by a particular designer or illustrator? You’d be surprised. Welcome to By the Cover, where we spotlight some of the artists that make your books look so gorgeous.

Meet Vanessa Han, a NYC-based graphic designer that enjoys feasting on copious amounts of plain pizza and hot cheese popcorn. She has three rescue bunnies and now has fur on almost every article of clothing in her closet. Her favorite band is the sensational 2000’s rock band, Evanescence. Don’t judge her!

When not designing, Vanessa is hitting the books while she attends school at The City College of New York. Visit her at

How did you get your start, working in publishing and designing books?

We had a free reign project assigned during my senior year in college. I chose to design a book based on my cousin’s illustrations. It was the most fun I had with any other assignment through out my time in school, so I figured why not go into publishing.

I started designing fashion textbooks with Conde Nast and quickly realized there’s no real creativity in that. You slap some type on a beautiful photo take someone else took and that’s your cover. I needed to make a move. I managed to score an interview at Penguin Young Readers and here I am four years later, still designing book covers that I really work hard on. It’s 10,000% more creative than textbooks.

Z1-ZodiacDo you have a favorite project in particular? What about it made it so special?

My baby is the Zodiac series written by Romina Russell. There’s a lot of history behind the cover, but the final is one of my first comps. I am not an illustrator; I enjoy taking body parts from different people and frankenstein-ing them together, but for this series, I really took a stab at trying to draw all of the constellations and their figures. I’m very proud of myself for sticking it out. This project took me out of my comfort zone.

How many books do you find yourself working on each year? Do you often get a chance to read the entire book before working on a cover?

When I was working full time, the average was probably 35 books. I’ve slowed down since I’ve gone back to school. I’d say maybe 10 book covers with a few interiors mixed in there.

Depending on what stage the manuscript is in, we have a draft available to start the project. I really do try to read the book in its entirety before starting, but sometimes it just isn’t ready. When that happens, I rely on the art form the editor has drafted up. There are pros and cons to reading the book beforehand. A huge pro is being able to sneak in an Easter egg. Can I say that or do Easter eggs only apply to movies?

How many mock-ups and comps do you generally whip up, before leading up to your final?

I try to aim for 4-5 comps in the first round. They’re usually well thought out. Also, you learn people’s taste. if you’re working with a particular person who loathes pink, you’re really not going to have a comp with pink. Conservation of energy! Save the extra clicks on the mouse.

After an initial comp is chosen, the number of adjustments can range anywhere from 10 changes to 50. It depends on how picky I am and how picky an editor is. Sometimes projects go on forever and you’ll have about 100 brand new ideas. That’s only happened to me twice. It’s exhausting. I start to wonder if anything on the cover is spelled correctly.

Do you have any favorite unused covers you can share with us?

YES! One of my favorites has a beautiful tree that my buddy, Maggie Olson, whipped up in five minutes. Another has a tubby, floating dog… I mean come on! He was awesome. Another was a modern Frankenstein story and finally just soft creepy looking cover. They all rest in the Killed Book Cover graveyard.

cover graveyard

What’s the process like going from designing a hardcover to working on a paperback release of that same book? Sometimes the covers are drastically different.

I’ve been lucky, not many of my titles have changed when going into paperback but the process does suck. Take The Well’s End for example. The hardcover was awesome! I mean, I thought so! That’s actually me in the mask!

But… we redid it in paperback. Don’t get me wrong! The paperback is cool too! Those are my creepy hands on the cover. But you’re reinventing the wheel and that’s the one thing teachers always told you not to do.

Can you share a favorite example?

The Well’s End and Man Made Boy. Of course I do have a favorite in each case.

ManMadeBoyThe Wells End

Any advice for aspiring book designers?

Don’t let criticism get to you! And, for your own sanity, do not get offended when your favorite cover isn’t chosen, killed, or just isn’t the fan favorite. Be sad for a second, but brush it off and start again. Because book design is a team effort, it’s not going to be completely your project. Don’t let the final design that you love or don’t love define you as a designer. If you really hate it, it’s probably going to change when it gets to paperback anyway!

And finally, can you show us some of your favorite projects? We’ll share them!

I have a ton! But here’s a select few.