Secrets From a Bestselling Book Cover Designer

An Interview with Zoe Norvell, Cover Designer of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough

I remember when I was unemployed and living at home with my parents (at the age of 27), and my Dad gave me a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? I was super depressed about living at home, not knowing what the hell I was I going to do with my life, and getting the book from my Dad was like him saying, “Hint hint, son, you need to get your shit together, have you thought about grad school?”

Most books and articles about twentysomethings focus on the problem: why we are doomed, in debt, depressed, lazy, unlucky, entitled, or addicted to Facebook. Instead, I wrote about the solution, so that anyone going through a quarter-life crisis can turn a moment of being stuck into a breakthrough and find meaningful work.

My principal goal with The Quarter-Life Breakthrough was to write a career advice book that millennials would actually want to read. I wanted it to feel like the complete opposite of homework: something fun, cool, and exciting. My mission was to empower my generation to spend their days doing something that matters.

In trying to flip the narrative around millennials from “we’re screwed” to “anything is possible,” I knew I wanted the book cover to reflect this fresh, creative, positive outlook. I also knew I wanted the cover to very clearly speak a youthful audience: this isn’t your parents’ career advice book.

While I was going for 20­-something resonance, I also knew the typical “millennial” career book cover meme with the awful circle things coming out of the clip art hipster guy’s head (Facebook icon, Twitter icon, iPhone icon, laptop icon, money icon, etc.). was completely played out and awful. What is it about New York City advertisers that they hear the word millennial and assume we’re just a faceless loser with a Tweet coming out of our nose and an iPhone hanging out of our ass?

When I received the cover design for the book, I was thrilled with how it turned out. I think it’s an author’s dream to have a cover that reflects their words, so I wanted to capture the collaborative design process my talented cover designer Zoe Norvell went through, which hopefully can help you with your next book cover or design project. Zoe has previously designed covers for successful books including Anything You Want by Derek Sivers, Son by Jack Olsen, The Dismantling by Brian Deleeuw, Do Over by Jon Acuff, and Unabrow by Una LaMarche.

Here are Zoe’s answers to my questions about how she developed the cover for The Quarter-Life Breakthrough.


Smiley (author): Zoe, what was your initial thinking when approaching the cover for The Quarter-Life Breakthrough?

Zoe (cover designer): When I get the design brief for a book cover, the art director brings me up to speed with a list of words establishing the chosen tone and audience for the book. This is the outcome of strategy meetings she’s had with the publisher and editor. My art director at Penguin introduced The Quarter-Life Breakthrough to me by explaining: “This is a business book, but fun,” “about achieving,” “they want this to be hip and cool looking,” it must “speak to younger generations.”

As soon as I began to read The Quarter-Life Breakthrough myself, this chosen direction felt totally right. Your writing is personal, so the cover shouldn’t feel mechanical or mass-produced. The author is young and speaking to his peers, so the design needed to speak to that same 20-something audience, of which I belong. And finally, the message is uplifting and energizing, and the cover needed to exemplify that.

While I read, I write down all of these reactions so that as I work, I can look back to these words to make sure I’m headed down the right track. My #1 goal was to produce something that looked youthful and contemporary, as well as bold & original. I really wanted this to stand out when sitting beside other career/advice books.

Sketches by Zoe Norvell

Smiley: Did you have a first draft that ended up not working out?

Zoe: In addition to the initial mood words from the publisher, I continued to write down any words that related to the much broader themes of the book: breakthrough, literally breaking through, feeling trapped, freedom, career ladder, etc. This is a very loose brain dump and anything goes. Nothing is too out there. It’s an exercise that takes me beyond any obvious associations I have with these words. Sometimes it takes me somewhere amazing and sometimes not. In exploring the word “trap,” for example, I drew a desk chair within a giant bear trap to symbolize feeling trapped in a job you hate. Interesting, but not right for this book. Much too negative. This exemplifies the problem your addressing, instead of your solution! There were a few other ideas like this that made sense in my mind, but didn’t work on paper. Luckily, I figured this out from a 10-second sketch and didn’t wast any time executing these. All part of the process!

You make an interesting metaphor in the book that I also wanted to explore. You describe careers as a series of lily pads, where “each lily pad is a job or learning opportunity, and you can jump in any direction that makes sense for you.” I thought this was a beautiful way to explain your message. It echoes the overly used, all-too-familiar career ladder and takes it a step further. I brought this idea to life in a simple and bold illustration. But in the end, I think that until you’ve read the book, the lily pads mean nothing to the viewer. If your title was “Hopping Lily Pads,” and you really wanted to make a brand of it, this would be a good solution, but at face value it is too specific.

Early cover drafts by Zoe Norvell

Smiley: Tell me about your design process for the cover. Why the lines emerging from the center? Why these colors? Why this font? Is the title font hand-drawn?

Zoe: What is this book about? The title kind of says it all: It’s about creating your own Quarter-Life Breakthrough. What’s that? It’s kind of self-explanatory. So why not let the title speak for itself?

Hand lettering can transform words into artwork, negating the need for an additional illustration. The burst artwork accompanying the title is a simple way to signify a breakthrough, a moment of clarity, and excitement. This book is uplifting and the burst and title exude positivity. I wrote out the words in several different handwritings/styles and applied them all to the artwork. In the end, I think the team ultimately chose this handwriting because it was the most bold and unique of the bunch.

Hand lettering by Zoe Norvell

Smiley: Often, career advice/business self-help books have fairly straightforward covers with bold text and minimal design concepts. This cover takes a different approach, it’s a little more artsy. Why? Do you think 20-somethings/millennials are bored of traditional self-help/ “career-y” book covers? Are there any trends in book cover design with respect to designing for a millennial audience?

Zoe: For a generation that has grown up with computers, hand lettering definitely seems to appeal to young millennials. This technique is very much in vogue right now, and can be beautiful when done right. This cover doesn’t look like a lot of self-help books out there, and why should it? This is not the same, old, tired message. This is a message tailored to a young generation of job seekers with new priorities. When this book is sitting on a table in a bookstore (or in an online gallery), it will stand out amongst its neighbors. Not only do I think 20-somethings are bored with traditional self-help books but I think they overlook these altogether. If the design looks dated, they’re going to think the advice is dated too, or “this isn’t relevant for me.”

Cover designs by Zoe Norvell. Final cover design on far right.

Smiley: Is it common to have a designer, editor, publisher, and author all agree on the same cover design?

Zoe: NO. Definitely not. It is a rare treat! I was thrilled when everyone agreed on one design — especially when it was also my personal favorite! When this does happen, however, you know it’s right. Cover design is a collaborative process. I’m reacting to and pulling from material, in this case a strong manuscript. My designs are then shaped by good art direction. Together, with the keen eye of Tarcher art director Jessica Morphew, we nailed it!


Reading over my interview with Zoe, it’s evident that clear communication and collaboration are the key to effective design. In the case of this book, the author, editor, publisher, art director, and designer all agreed that it needed to feel fresh, exciting, and inspiring, and I think we ended up with a great product.

THE QUARTER-LIFE BREAKTHROUGH by Adam Smiley Poswolsky will be in bookstores October 4, 2016. Pre-order today and get free gifts (including a beautiful Breakthrough Goal Map you can print at home!). Special thanks to cover designer Zoe Norvell, art director Jessica Morphew, my editor Jeanette Shaw, and the entire team at Tarcher Perigee/Penguin Random House. Images courtesy of Zoe Norvell, all rights reserved.