As an alumnus, recently I had the nerve-racking pleasure of addressing an Admitted Student Reception for the School of the Art institute of Chicago. I decided I was not going to talk just about design, instead I wanted to talk about what makes a great creative career and how to feed your creativity in the early lean years, where we feel a bit lost. I was inspired to write a piece instead of just winging it. And this slide of my work was projected in the auditorium behind me as I faced a couple of hundred people in the audience. As the blinding light hit my face I was grateful to have prepared a speech ahead of time.

Picture a small black auditorium with this slide about 20 feet tall. And here's what I said, though I absolutely added a few ad-libs for humor.
 Projected design work by Maria Elias

Projected design work by Maria Elias



My name is Maria Elias, and I’m a book designer. I’m also a School of the Art Institute of Chicago Alum.

The work I do is not like other commercial design. I’m not designing for esthetics, or just designing a pleasing product, or to communicate information. Ideally, if you are good, your covers will always do those three things. But more importantly I strive to include 3 other things. And these are the author’s ideas, my ideas, and finally to leave room for interpretation whenever possible

When I decided to go to SAIC. I had a big choice to make. I had a few offers, because I was a good student, had good grades, and had studied art since I was seven (including at LaGuardia, New York’s best magnet art High School). And even though school wasn’t hard for me, I really only loved two things. Luckily they were . . . ART . . . and . . . READING.

The work I do is not common. There are maybe a few hundred full-time book designers in the U.S. and they mostly live in NYC. There are a few hundred more who do the job freelance in other cities. There are an untold number of photographers and illustrators who are commissioned to work on covers, art directed by designers like me.

Designing a cover takes 3 steps.

Step One: Find Ideas. I have to find the best ideas in the book, and show them in my designs.

Step Two: Present Ideas. I have to engage with my team and communicate why I think these are the best ideas.

Step Three: Defend the Best Ideas. I have to listen to their feedback, but be able to defend the most important elements of the work. Even if the best ideas were not mine, but come during this feedback process, it's my job to defend them.

I’d like to tell you a story about my time at SAIC, and how it laid the foundation of the kind of professional I am today.

When I was a freshman. I already knew I wanted to be a designer. So, I took my first intro to typography class with instructor “X”. In that class, we had a lot of frustrating assignments. Assignments that frustrated my “good student” persona. Assignments where there were no “right answers” because they were designed to frustrate you into coming up with your own solutions.

Needless to say, I did not love that class. But as a declared design student, I was going to get through it. So Instructor X and I butted heads everyday as I expressed my frustration to him, but he refused to help me. The semester proceeded and I gained some skill, but l continued to question everything he told us. I argued every point. Challenged every instruction. And while I was earnestly trying to learn, I know I was also being really contentious.

Over the next 3 years, I moved onto other classes, did well, and never had Instructor “X” again. I thought I was free and clear. But then in my senior year I had him again for an advanced type class. I’m sure I only took it to fit my schedule. Did I mention I had 3 part-time jobs in college? So, I was forced to return to this man’s classroom, and I was dreading it, big time. The first day of class I tried to quietly sneak in and take a seat.

But what I found in that classroom changed everything. Instructor X greeted me with a smile and was really happy to have me in the class. What had happened? Had he forgotten how much of a pain I was?

Turns out no, he hadn’t. He actually liked discussing the work and being challenged by his students. He wanted to know I was working things out, not just accepting the prescribed answers. He didn’t want me to take his word for it.  He wanted me to grow. His job was not to leave behind more design “students”; his job was to form the next generation of his design “peers”

As I look at your faces, I envy you. You are going into a safe space where your creativity and ideation process will be challenged and grown. I want you to open yourself up to that experience, because this institution and staff are here to help you learn to find your best ideas, communicate them, and defend them.

While I learned about many disciplines at SAIC, finding ideas, communicating them, and defending them . . .this is the armor that helps creative people survive in the world, where creativity is valued but often misunderstood.

The last thing I want to leave you with is this, because I know your parents are thinking about it. Finding a creative job is a trial and error process. When you leave school you will need to be flexible to find where you fit best. Your dream job may be taken by somebody else. (I know mine was a couple of times over)

Many designers I know were painters in school. Others studied illustration or drafting. Still others start out as designers and become illustrators, or even agents to other artists.

Your strengths will reveal themselves over your career and following them and working hard to uncover your best work is your real job as a creative person. Nobody I know had their dream job straight out of school. The lucky ones worked somewhere they believed in, or for an art director or artist they respected.

But regardless of where you intern or where your first job is, it’s the driven individuals who move past this “assistant/entry level” stage and into roles as creative leads. In my experience these folks go home at 5pm, after a full day of paid work, and start work on their own projects and collaborations. They don’t wait for anyone to give them permission to do their best work, and neither should you.

Your value is something you create with your ideas and your work; it’s not something anyone can give you with a job title, or assignment. So make sure that you are hands down the most passionate and driven artist, so when opportunities arise you’ll be ready.



More . . . Some Things Covered: What Fight?

Check my 2nd post of Some Things Covered: What Fight? A collaboration with Spine Magazine. Was published in September of 2017.

One morning Eric Wilder sent me an email at 9:00 am. He asked if I had seen a new Guardian article about UK book cover design. Did I mention it was at 9:00 am? I'm not a rational person at 9:00 am, so I knew he had to be serious.

continue reading here

Self-care & Intuition

What I remember most about my twenties is having so much energy I could barely get any sleep. Now in my thirties, I have managed to get it up to 6 hours a night. But back then four hours was an excellent accomplishment. And it wasn't just any kind of energy; it was a very specific manic creativity. My idea generator was stuck on full speed. I had new ideas constantly, and they were all variations and solutions for work. For example, 5 different ways to layout type would simultaneously build themselves in my brain. I’d sketch them to remember them all, because they'd disappear if I didn't focus on them. From there I could pick the best ones then render and refine them. It was fun, frenetic, and useful.

But these constantly evolving models had their downside. I couldn’t control how and when they’d come up to steal my focus. So I’d infamously leave places without my purse or keys, walk into furniture, even walk into people. I also have a hard time remembering names of new people. I'm so busy imagining all the possibilities of who the new person is and forget to note what they are called.

So when I was young not only was I absent minded, wearing mismatched socks, and forgetting people. All the comical stuff was manageable. The problem was that all the creative energy had me by the throat. My work is obviously important to me and to my collaborators. And generating so many ideas was very exciting and satisfying. We’d have a solution and then move onto the next problem. But eventually I’d collapse on a weekend and sleep for 10 hours straight. I’d wake up slightly calmer and avoid thinking for five or six hours and then the cycle would begin again.

But now in my thirties, I have learned that even if this is profitable and useful, when my mind works this hard ceaselessly it’s not actually a healthy state. It’s the “sugar high” of creativity and I will regret it later when the consequences are exhaustion, irritability, migraines, and even . . . subpar designs. And maybe most astounding is that it turns out my very best ideas now come when I walk my dog in the park, visit a museum, take a long bath, sit next to people I love, or read for pleasure.

My brain for years fooled me into thinking I could will great ideas to appear. But in reality, it’s when I slow down and behave like a healthy being, instead of an obsessive designer, that the clouds part and rays of insight can finally warm the top of my head. This year I had a lot of highs and some lows like everyone else, but I am determined to grow the “unproductive” side of my life, since it’s from where all the best stuff comes from.

For this post I want to feature some book jackets and covers that take a self-care view on passion, drive, creativity, and accomplishment. But when I started researching books about self-care, I found a lot of books titles that were frankly unappealing. There were a lot that had a lot of quick fix promise titles, so that even if I liked the designs, I felt they weren't in the spirit of what I was writing about. Hurry up and be Happy was not the message.

  The Things You Can See When You Slow down  Cover design by Roseanne Serra

The Things You Can See When You Slow down
Cover design by Roseanne Serra

The message was the title of this book, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down. This book is a gifty paper over board trim, with a simple and colorful cover. The author Haemin Sunim is a Korean Zen Monk. His tone is less dogma and more casual quiet good advice. I actually bought this book. Aside from the happy and non religious imagery, what attracted me most to this design was the spine, which shows designer Roseanne Serra's grasp of the message of the book. The stacked title, makes you slow down to read it one word at a time. A brilliant and subtle design decision that made me smile as I paid my money at the register.

 Do One Thing Everyday That Centers You Cover design by Danielle Deschenes

Do One Thing Everyday That Centers You
Cover design by Danielle Deschenes

This book is also a gift trim and you have to see it in person to appreciate Danielle Deschenes's design. I used to work with Danielle, she's a dedicated designer with an eye for details. So it's not surprising that what impressed me about this minimal design was her attention to detail. What you can't see here is that the dark letters are dark foil. So sometimes when you shift the book in  your hand, the only word that's stands out is the word in white. It's like a code that says what's important is to center, not how. 

 The Tao of Wu Cover design by Andrea Ho

The Tao of Wu
Cover design by Andrea Ho

This one, I am adding because knowing how to evolve is at the center of both taking care of yourself and continuing to grow creatively. Some of us use faith and philosophy to deal with the bad, tough, and material hurdles life puts in our way. Because some of us have harder roads to finding balance than others, we have to be open to hearing advice on wisdom from many sources. How do you take the hard learned life of a Wu Tang's The RZA and make a respectful yet recognizable jacket that shows how much he overcame? Andrea Ho did it by making a simple shape and respectful type. It's extremely tasteful, yet as bold as the Wiu Tang Clan.

PS. You can see more of my favorite covers on my Book Design Heroines Pinterest collection. visit it here.

Showing Empathy

I’ve been thinking a lot about the election. Yes I’m a liberal. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I was displeased with the outcome. And yes, I voted for Hillary.

But what surprised me most was seeing liberal friends unable to control their emotional reactions to the outcome. For them watching someone who lacks empathy be elected president, opened up a flood of emotion that was hard to stop. There were tears for a week, even from some of the cool tempered people I know. The day after the election I teared up listening to Hillary's concession speech.

But for me after 2 days, my emotions dried up, replaced by a hard expression of familiar disappointment. People would bring it up and I would feel my jaw tighten and my lips disappear into a tight flat line. I wanted to share the sadness and frustration of my peers as they continued to get misty, I wanted to cry with them, feel outrage with them, and feel shocked with them.  But that’s not possible for me.

As a person who was born during wartime in Central America, I learned early that peace and civility are actually an exception and not a rule in the world. That people have to choose empathy, and that they can also choose to turn away from it in times of fear. The knowledge that people can turn off empathy is something I have spent my life trying not to focus on. After all, I grew up in a better place, here in the states.

So now I wonder, where did the country's empathy go? Did I imagine it? Did we all? Is it still here? Can we bring it back? All these questions reminded me that sometimes it's the job of book designers to ask these questions visually. We often have to expose empathy or the lack thereof on book covers. And soon I was pulling together this post, a post on how designers show empathy or its absence. Do we yell it, whisper it, suppress it, fight for it, or assume it?

  The Bone Sparrow   Jacket design and illustration by Maria Elias

The Bone Sparrow
Jacket design and illustration by Maria Elias

My favorite option (because that’s my family’s story) is how we flee to find empathy. I’ll start there, with The Bone Sparrow. I designed this book jacket and I also love and identify with the novel. It’s the story of Subhi, a hopeful and naïve refugee born in an Australian detention camp. In the camp the refugees are mistreated, starved, and made to live in terrible conditions. His family fled war, but now find themselves in a camp that is no better than a prison. Subhi dreams of his missing father coming to him in a night sea, that only he can see. The design I created focuses on the dream of freedom, instead of the sadness of the camp. The sea on the jacket represents Subhi’s dream of escape to a place where he can find real empathy and peace.

  Against Our Will  Cover Design by Georgia Morrissey

Against Our Will
Cover Design by Georgia Morrissey

Can you yell for empathy? Can you demand it? In bold type? This book cover tries. With it’s big red and black type, and no art. It’s a protest sign, not just a cover. It screams for your attention and empathy. I read Against Our Will in high school. And it is NOT light reading. It is disturbing and eye-opening nonfiction text and something I think more women should be interested in reading. It’s a feminist classic. Georgia Morrissey designed this paperback edition. The book is about how women and men see rape. It explores the misconceptions that exist and contains interviews with men on the subject of rape. It’s eye opening and includes case studies from men’s POVs on rape. It is one of the first books that stressed that sexual assault is a crime of dominance, not lust. Rape is a crime that requires the loss of empathy for the victim.

  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  Cover design by  Michael Ian Kaye

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Cover design by Michael Ian Kaye

Let's lighten the mood, here is a funny book cover that asks how do we empathize with an autistic boy who is unintentionally funny? The answer is quite clear for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime. Designer Michael Ian Kaye did it by taking the sadness out of the tragedy. He made death, the saddest thing you can think of, a fact instead.

The book’s narrator is an autistic 15-year-old, who when falsely accused of killing the neighbor's dog, must investigate the crime to clear himself. In an elegant and hilarious flip of an illustration, the designer takes a live dog, and makes him a dead dog instead. He shows us a funny and literal take of the plot. One that Christopher, the autistic narrator would approve of even though he would miss the humor.

The book and cover help you empathize with a boy who sees the world so differently people think he has no feelings. But you soon find that you can empathize with and root for this boy, even if he experiences the world from a strictly literal POV. 

PS. You can see more of my favorite covers on my Book Design Heroines Pinterest collection. visit it here.