Behind a Great Cover: Talking to Designer Michaela Sullivan about “Call Me Zebra”

Sarah Harrison Smith on February 15, 2018

Zebra_cover.jpegSometimes the look of a book is almost magnetically attractive. For readers gripped by cover love, the question is: Why? What is it about a particular combination of color, image, and texture that makes us think that this – this one book among thousands -- is the book we want to read?

Take Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s new novel, Call Me Zebra, one of our Best Books of February. This hilarious, unexpected novel about an eccentric young woman’s adventures in self-discovery through love and literature has a cover that’s pure eye candy. The book looks like a gift, wrapped in paper patterned with big, loosely-painted polka dots. Sophisticated colors -- lemon yellow, plum, tangerine, and raspberry -- have an almost edible appeal.

WhenCover.jpegThough polka dots are on trend this season, the colors of Call Me Zebra signal the subtleties of pleasure rather than the bold certainty of fact. See Daniel H. Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing for comparison: that abstracted traffic light on his cover tells a totally different story, which is good: it’s a totally different kind of book.

The Zebra jacket has tactile interest, too: it’s not just the dots’ hues that are enticing. Each has the glossy shine of jelly beans, though the creamy background they’re set on is rough to the touch. You want to feel this book, run your fingers over this book. Secretly, you may even want to lick this book. Sold yet?

Sullivan.Michaela.jpgMichaela Sullivan designed the cover of Call Me Zebra. Over her 30-year career at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she’s created jackets for books by Philip Roth, Jhumpa Lahiri, and recently, Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink.  She is now Vice President and Creative Director at the HMH, a role in which she oversees books for adults and children as well as culinary and lifestyle titles. That’s a big job, one that doesn’t allow her time to design as many jackets as she’d like. But sometimes a particular book will grab her attention.

“I think designers can definitely have an affinity for certain titles and I think there is something about this title, Call Me Zebra, that already has you wondering. It provokes you to want to work on it. What is that saying, ‘You had me at hello’? I was definitely intrigued. The title is also almost like a dare; like a manifesto, a declaration, and so it was important to me that the cover would be very poster-like and bold. That the title speak loudly because the character’s voice is kind of demanding that.”

After seeing the title, she read a brief synopsis, then the novel itself, and eventually a “pub card,” with notes from the author. Sullivan explained, “Publishers give the authors the opportunity to say what it is it that they are interested in for the cover. But designers don’t necessarily want to know what an author is interested in for the cover; it can be more helpful to know what they really wouldn’t want.”

In this case, the author had something useful to say. “This author wrote on her pub card that she had an affinity for the art work of Andy Warhol, which told me that she was interested in bold graphics and color and impact. It also made me think about repetition, and that seemed important in relation to the novel. So I just kind of went off and started looking for imagery that fit the quality of the book and title.”

To Sullivan, the cover conveys the author’s tone and spirit, which Sullivan identified as “energetic” and “ecstatic.” “Ecstatic isn’t perfect. It’s bold and fresh and new and you haven’t seen it before.” The loosely painted dots also have a quality of roughness. “I didn’t want this to be slick or perfect. I definitely could have done a series of perfect, round dots but there’s an edge to this book. The main character is a refugee. There’s a certain messiness to her life. So it was definitely more interesting for me to hold on to roughness rather than perfect and pop-y.”

Look closer at the Call Me Zebra jacket and you’ll notice that some of the dots contain sketchy line drawings – a woman’s fiercely gazing eye in one, the distinctive markings of a zebra’s hide in another. Intriguingly, none of the images is complete, though some are repeated. “I was trying to capture how we take on identity,” Sullivan says, an important theme in the novel.

As for color, Sullivan says that although the word “Zebra” is in the title, she didn’t consider a black-and–white cover. “That’s the last thing you want to do. I did have a design that worked with stripes but they weren’t black and white. You want to celebrate the writing by presenting it as ‘This is more than you think it is.’ There’s a lot more here. Maybe you should question the word Zebra.”

The only black on the cover is the title itself, which is all lower case, in a curvy, plump type face that is strongly reminiscent of the 1970s and, with its retro style, conveys a touch of irony. Sullivan says that the type, Cooper Black, “has kind of a bad reputation. It’s not a classic typeface, not a classic sans serif or a classic serif. It’s not a well-respected typeface, so it was a kind of an interior smile for me to use it successfully. It’s like a private joke.”

Visually, the curved edges of the type have what she calls a “bloopy quality” that goes well with the rough outlines of the wet-look dots. Like the dots, Cooper Black is distinctly on-trend. In April of last year, The Guardian newspaper published an article on its renewed popularity, “Just My Type: How Cooper Black Became 2017’s Most Fashionable Font.” For writer Ellie Violet Bramley, the type has a quality of “buffoonishness”--an adjective that perfectly suits the weird, exuberant humor of Call Me Zebra.

Sullivan is proud of the cover’s total effect. “It’s all working well together. That’s important for getting somebody’s attention.” And in the end, getting the attention of a potential reader is her measure of success. “That’s all the designer wants, is to give the book a chance. While the reader is clicking around or browsing in a book store, for them to stop for a moment and start to read the flap copy.” Please, go ahead and read not just the flap copy, but all the pages in Call Me Zebra. This is one book you can judge by its cover.

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