In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.
A Conversation Between Jenny Qi and Hilary Steinberg
Jenny Qi: Can you talk about how you decided to go into the arts and then visual art in particular?
Hilary Steinberg: Growing up, I always enjoyed the arts as hobbies, especially drawing. After playing cello in my middle school orchestra, I enrolled in the local performing and visual arts high school as a music major. During my sophomore year, I took an art class as an elective and was sold. I switched to art as my major starting junior year. I ended up getting accepted to an art college for illustration, but made the decision to attend my local university as a graphic design major. I originally made this pivot for familial and financial reasons, but I’m so glad I did. I feel that my abilities became more well-rounded by studying graphic design.
Now that I’m ten years into my professional career, the answer to why I’m in this field is pretty simple… I enjoy it. Despite all the frustrations I’ve had with different jobs, managers, and work environments, I still enjoy designing. I can’t really see myself wanting to do anything else!
JQ: We have a rather unique relationship in that we’ve been friends since middle school. Because we’ve been friends for a long time, you knew so much about me and this book before I even approached you to design this cover (which I absolutely love, thank you!) I think this book cover process is also unique in that you were working with a photo that I’d taken. Can you walk me through your design process and what you were thinking about?
HS: Well, first off, it’s a really cool photo. There’s a lot of interesting detail and movement in the clouds. So having this strong imagery to work from was a great advantage.
When I read Focal Point, I feel like a lot of the poems relate to memory, time, and grief. And then, looking at the photo again, I was visualizing the clouds as this stream of memories, thoughts, and feelings that originate from a person’s birth and flow outward across time. Maybe the older memories are further away, more spread out, and harder to distinguish. And then there are little spots in the clouds that are so sharp and detailed—like when we remember certain things people say, certain smells and textures are so strong in our memories years and years later.
I didn’t do much editing to the photo itself aside from increasing the contrast a bit. But I added these blurred light textures which created some interesting shifts in color and I especially wanted this to be visible around the edges. I was thinking about these old family photos my grandparents had in their house, many of which are now in my dad’s house. At one point I scanned some of them for my aunt and uncle’s anniversary and had to do a lot of editing because of the light and color degradation over the years. So by adding the textures to your photo I was trying to make the cover feel like these old photos—where the memory is still there but there is a bit of age, fading, and change. But these changes in the photos wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t on display in frames and exposed to light, looked at, and well-loved.
JQ: Let’s hone in on the text on the cover. I love how you wove it into and mirrored the image. How did you decide to incorporate the text in this way? How did you choose the font?
HS: There is so much rich imagery in the poems that feel like a detail in a memory that can be mentally revisited and still feel so tactile and present. So when I thought about the text I wanted there to be a physicality about it, like it was holding real space in the composition and not just floating on top. The idea of the perspective came naturally when I was thinking of the clouds as this stream of memories because I wanted to emphasize the distance in the image and how it relates to the passage of time.
For me, choosing typefaces is a pretty intuitive process. Depending on the project I can usually have an idea of what will work. I know I wanted the letterforms to be on the simpler side because I didn’t want the text to fight with the image, but I also wanted to make sure that everything remained very readable. I ended up using Bebas Neue, which is popular for good reason because it’s attractive, modern, and clean.
JQ: I’m also curious about how you might have approached this project if I didn’t already have a photo in mind?
HS: That’s a really tough question to answer. I think I would’ve read through the book slowly while doing some stream of consciousness sketching just to see what comes to mind. Then, I probably would’ve refined several ideas and presented them to you for feedback. My first instinct is that I would create imagery through drawing or painting, but it could’ve also been fun to play with some photos of cells under a microscope. There are a multitude of directions this could’ve gone!
JQ: Going back to the subject of fonts, I’m going to adapt Dorothy Chan’s very fun question and ask what are your favorite and/or least favorite fonts and why?
HS: Y’know, everyone likes to shame Comic Sans but I find it to be very inoffensive. It can work well for things designed for kids, and there are so many worse options out there, like Curlz MT. Curlz MT is like the PT Cruiser of typefaces, and by that I mean it’s an abomination and shouldn’t exist. It’s incredibly ugly, it’s unreadable and it’s obnoxious, and frankly, I don’t care if my Curlz MT opinion offends anybody. I don’t know if I have any favorite typefaces off the top of my head, but lately, I’ve been enjoying working with and lettering slab serifs.
JQ: You do a lot of different kinds of visual art and design work, and this was actually your first book cover, which is amazing. Can you talk a bit more about your other work and how designing a book cover was like or not like those other projects?
HS: I took Publication Design twice in college because it was one of my favorite focuses, so I have actually designed a few “fake” covers! I think the main similarity between designing a book cover and something else, like a postcard or a social media graphic, is that you have to grab the viewer’s attention in literally one second. It’s such a tiny window of opportunity, and it can be frustrating because you could spend hours on a project for it only to get scrolled past because it’s missing that special ingredient that makes someone stop and digest the piece. That’s also the biggest difficulty with design, whether it’s a book cover or something else, even a painting or drawing. The trick is to accept it as a challenge or a puzzle to solve, because when you nail that element that makes people stop and look, it’s exciting.
As far as what makes designing book covers different from other projects, it’s definitely the content of the book itself. It gives you a wealth of inspiration to draw from, which is a refreshing difference compared to a lot of other design projects. When I finish a book, it’s always fun to reexamine the cover because then you can understand why the cover looks how it does, and what elements from the text inspired the design.
JQ: What have been some of your favorite projects? And/or what are you excited about working on next?
HS: Since most of my professional career has been in working for various companies, my favorite projects are ones where I really get to stretch my design legs and have more freedom. One of my favorite projects that is more recent is working on a show at my station, Vegas PBS, called STEAM Camp. It’s a science show for kids that combines easy experiments and interviews with local experts. I worked with the producer/director and education specialist to develop the branding for the show as well as graphics for social media and lesson plans for teachers. Designing for kids is a really fun change of pace because you can really have fun with it, especially for a program that is so interesting, exciting, and optimistic.
JQ: In addition to your professional design work, I know you do a lot of illustration challenges and things like that. Can you tell me more about your motivations for those and what that adds to your creative life?
HS: I retained my love of drawing and illustration over the years but after college, I started struggling with that side of my creativity. I think having to use my creative brain in my day job makes it hard to want to be creative for fun in my off time. I also started wrestling with imposter syndrome which made me doubt my own ideas in my personal art-making. Prompt lists and ‘draw this in your style’ challenges are a great way to get yourself drawing with less pressure. Plus, it’s a great way to connect with other artists online and see how other people approached the same challenge. The more I do these challenges and work on my self-confidence, the more I want to create my own drawings and illustrations. Hopefully, with time and practice, I will be able to regain balance between both sides of my creative passions.
JQ: I love that and totally relate to a lot of what you’ve said. Where can people reach you if they want to follow your work or work with you?
HS: You can follow my work on Behance, Twitter, and Instagram @hildosaur. If you’d like to work with me, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JQ: P.S. We just learned that Focal Point was a finalist for the 2022 Eric Hoffer da Vinci Eye Award for cover design, so yay Hilary!
Hilary Steinberg is a graphic designer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Outside of work she enjoys drawing, movies, video games and exploring new places. She received her bachelor’s degree from UNLV and has worked in entertainment, gaming, stationery, e-cigarettes, and currently public media. She goes by the moniker “Hildosaur” in online spaces as she equally loves dinosaurs and wordplay.