Sara Wood, associate art director at Ecco, described Census by Jesse Ball (Ecco, Mar.) as “a richly emotional story about a widower father and his son, a young man with Down syndrome, who embark on a mysterious census-taking trip through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, A–Z. They meet interesting characters throughout their travels, and share fleeting moments of intimacy with their census subjects. Throughout their journey, the father is forced to contemplate his own place in this world, his mortality, and open-ended worries for his son’s future.”
Because the book’s content merited, Wood said, “an equally special and nuanced cover,” she started brainstorming jacket ideas using “beautiful photography,” including the images below, taken by Mitch Epstein (l.) and Stephen Shore (middle, r.).
The two photographers “are known for their gripping images of weathered Americana,” she said. “I loved that these three photographs communicate the quiet isolation of a long journey. As in Census, they only give the viewer subtle cues as to exact time and place, which felt fitting for these early cover sketches.”
The photos were just a starting point. “I wanted to try some directions that put more focus on the broader themes of the book, like death, memory, and the relationship between father and son.” To do this, she picked up on a recurring symbol: an aquatic bird called a cormorant.
In the novel, the father carries with him a book by a woman who has a lifelong obsession with the bird, and he refers to it often. “He shares her fixation, and it becomes clear that the cormorant serves as a symbol of death.”
First, Wood tried representing father and son by showing a pair of feathers.
But the images didn’t quite do what Wood wanted. “This approach felt as though it minced the symbol a bit—and possibly brought to mind quill pens, which was not helpful.”
She then illustrated a single cormorant, preening. “I wanted the bird to appear as though it lies in wait, peeking through its feathers as it prepares itself for flight.” The gif below shows her process, and her discovery.
“In my act of illustrating the cormorant, I’d created a sort of underpainting to fill color beneath my drawing. It was purely utilitarian, but as I was going through my file, I realized that this quick, blind underpainting was far more interesting than the labored rendering above it. And what better representation of the story than discovering hidden and unanticipated beauty?”
The final jacket, below, has a light touch, rendering the more spontaneous image with a subdued color palette. “I love when a design process can surprise me,” Wood said, “and this one certainly did.”