The “Cover” Girl

They say don’t judge a book by its cover… but more often than not, that’s exactly what we do. And Mumtaz Mustafa, a young Pakistani Rhode Island School of Design graduate and senior Art Director at HarperCollins Publishing in New York, is the woman in charge of ensuring that our inexorable judgment is not only positively inclined, but we like the book on the stands so much that we actually go ahead and buy it as well.
With the recent eBook revolution and digital reading technology reaching critical mass and swiftly changing the dynamics of the publishing world, however, Mumtaz’s job is not an easy one. But with hundreds of book cover designs—some of which have also made it to the New York Times Bestselling list—to her credit, this Karachi-born artist makes it a point to keep her designs nonpareil, impressively diverse and visually appealing, because after all, a book’s cover can be just as important as its content.


How strong has your connection with art & design been over all? Were you an artisy child or did you develop an interest later on?

I was always very inspired by my mother who is an interior designer and owned a shop called ‘Limelight by Aghas’ when we lived in Karachi. Without any background in design, she was one of the few women at the time to design her own fabrics. She used innovative materials (at the time) such as fiberglass and wrought iron and created furniture and accessories that were beyond the norm. Thanks to her I grew up among beautiful things, and was always inspired by her creativity. My father convinced me to follow her footsteps and apply to art school, and I eventually ended up attending RISD and graduated with a BFA with a concentration in Graphic Design.


So how exactly does one land a job at HarperCollins?

HarperCollins Publishers was my first real job out of college and I started there in the capacity of a design assistant nearly ten years ago. I think it was persistence that worked in my case. My first interview was ‘informational’ as they were on a hiring freeze. After a series of four interviews and many grueling months of working as a catalog designer at a toy factory during the day and at Banana Republic in Retail on nights & weekends, I finally got the call I had been obsessing about!


How long have you been with HC now? Tell me a bit about your progress inside the publishing company,

It’s going to be 10 years in February of 2012. Four promotions and many years later, I am now a senior Art Director.  Initially I worked on cover mechanicals and image research. I used to call myself the mechanical monkey (mechanical design is layout out the back ad and flaps for a book cover). I learned about color corrections, type design, photo retouching all at HarperCollins. After my first year of intense training, I was given the opportunity to design book covers. This entailed corresponding with sales and marketing, as well as communicating with author’s, editors and publishers; you know, ensuring a smooth flow of the cover design process from the actual concept to the final book.


How different is the job description of an art intern, for instance, and the kind of work that an art director does on a daily basis?

An intern works on image research, scanning images, and basic mechanical design. An art director designs book covers, hires potential freelance designers, illustrators and photographers. We basically art direct our in-house designers. We have to keep a careful watch on release dates and make sure the books make it to production well in advance of the release date. This can be a stressful process as I have had to take covers off press because ‘Sue from Costco,’ for instance, decides that she does not like the color blue! I have had to work on over 200 design comps for some of the covers I’ve done—my job is definitely not as easy or fun as it sounds!

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Can you give me a brief overview of how the publishing cycle works? Also, where exactly do you come in?

The process starts once we acquire a book, which could be via an auction we pursue, or a blog we are fascinated with. These days with all this social media and technology, the business of publishing is changing its form rapidly and on a day-to-day basis. We are constantly looking to reinvent ourselves. Once the book is acquired we have a launch meeting with the executives where the book is discussed in detail. Potential audiences, positioning and marketing strategies are explored. Packaging and over-all look is also discussed in the initial meeting. After that, we have planning meetings where the look and feel is further explored. Finally, we have our cover meeting where the art department gets a chance to show off! We present five to ten ideas to our publisher and editorial team. That sets the design stage for me. I can get lucky and have something approved in the first round, which then makes its way to our account representatives at Barnes and Noble, Target, Costco etc., to get more feedback. The sales team has a huge say in cover design. The author and agent also get the opportunity to weigh in their feedback. At the end of the process, the final product is a culmination of ideas and thoughts of at least 10-15 people.


Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were unable to come up with anything creative for a book cover? An artist’s block of sorts?

This happens more often than you would think; usually when I’ve already presented over 80 covers and they just don’t know what they want! Sometimes it’s a battle between us and the agent. Once in a while, I have had authors send in their own cover designs, which is also pretty comic.

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What has been your most successful book cover design so far?

This is a tough question. I have worked on a large number of books that have made their way to the NYT Best Seller list. A personal favorite would be ‘Reconciliation’ by Benazir Bhutto because it was close to home and I helped with the acquisition of the book. Unfortunately it made its way to the NYT best seller list after her assassination. I also enjoyed working on a Book called ‘Somewhere Inside’ by Laura and Lisa Ling, which is told in the sisters’ alternating voices, and is a window into the unique bond these two sisters have always shared. I went to LA to shoot the book cover photo for this and met the Ling family. They were so amazingly gracious and hospitable. It was really an honor to work on their book.

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And what designs of yours are you personally most proud of?

At this point I have probably designed over 1000 book covers, so it’s a little difficult to choose a few that I am most proud of. My preferences tend to change over time. I recently rebranded some of Tim Dorsey’s books which were a lot of fun because I illustrated entire covers and had the budget to do fun effect like sculpture, embossing, and glow in the dark ink. It’s not often that I get total creative freedom so this one was particularly fun for me. One of the first books I ever did was the reprint for ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. It was something I was very proud of at the time. I have also done a great deal of freelance design for Random House, Simon and Schuster and Disney among other publishing houses. Recently, I have also been doing a great deal of eBook Cover design which has been a lot of fun. These are particularly challenging because we have to think in a different language and the time frames and budgets are very different from print design.


What according to you is the difference between a HC book design and a book published in Pakistan? Clearly we’re still a long way from producing quality work. What do you think is stopping us from getting it right?

I have not been back home for three years so I’m not in the design loop as far as Pakistani book covers are concerned. I will make sure to rummage around this December when I visit for sure and take note!


We’re really proud of the kind of work you’re doing, especially since this kind of achievement and profession is not highlighted in the Pakistani community as much as it should. What do you think are the reasons behind that?

I know Oxford University Press is doing some great work. It would be fantastic if we were to open up more publishing houses and showcase our local authors. Media and Advertising has come a long way… I’m hoping Publishing will be next in line.


Tell me about your involvement with Development in Literacy Pakistan and LRBT.

I have been involved with ‘Dil’ and ‘Your Dil’ for over 6 years. I started with redesigning their logo and have designed a number of invitations and gala related materials for them since. I recently got involved with LRBT and helped out with last year’s gala and designed their print materials for the ball as well.


You were recently involved in some flood relief activities as well?

Yes, we hosted some events in NY to collect donations for the Pakistani flood victims. A few of us got together to collect money and put together 400 relief boxes which were shipped via to Pakistan via PIA. In the process I found myself living among an endless amount of boxes. I live in a studio apartment and we would have people come in every day for weeks and help us pack the boxes. By the end of it I decided it was probably easier to just send the money home via reliable agencies, especially since I have a full-time job and couldn’t commit more time to the process.

I recently also worked on another project that was very close to my heart. I designed the identity for Caravanserai—Introducing American audiences to some of the most exciting and dynamic artists from the Muslim world. Caravanserai music and film residencies celebrate global diversity with the arts, building bridges to a better tomorrow. I am also part of their committee and am very involved in the launch of this organization.


And finally, who’s your favorite author? Or better yet, the one author you cannot stand yet you’ve had to design a book for them!?

I can’t answer the second part of your question because I might lose my job! Generally, I’m a sucker for the classics such as Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Chekhov and such. I was recently introduced to’ Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rilke by a dear friend and it’s become something I read once a month. I don’t read as much as I would like to anymore simply because I have to read so much for my job. I would like to take three months off and catch up on all my reading…. Books I want to read NOT what I have to!

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