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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Cover design by Pete Adlington

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The Lonely City is a memoir/nonfiction book written by Olivia Laing and published by Canongate. In her writing, Olivia questions: What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens?

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives — from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

The cover of this book was designed by Peter Adlington. Pete is now a Senior Designer at Faber & Faber after working at Canongate for six years. In the interview below, he walks through his creative process for designing this book cover.

What was your general goal and inspiration behind this cover?

For Lonely City, the goal was to reassure Laing fans that you were getting what you loved from the last books and for new readers I think it needed to look high-end, smart, aspirational and tell you that here was writing on the same level as Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Rachel Cusk etc etc. maybe unlike those comps though, we wanted to show the personal story as well so the cover had to carry deep emotion.

What was it like working with the publisher Canongate on this project? Did you have a lot of freedom?

At the time I was in-house at Canongate working as Senior Designer and in fact, I had been there since I started my career as a junior 6 or so years previously so working with Canongate was as it always was, pretty relaxed and with quite a long leash as to what you came back with. Working in-house allows, in my own opinion, a bit more of an opportunity to take risks as you’re not worried about putting publishers off with some more experimental ideas that might not be appealing. Freelancers can definitely find the room to chance their arm, but it might come after having built up a strong working relationship with the publisher in question. Canongate is known for its modern design ethic, something that the Art Director, Rafi Romaya, worked hard to cultivate from when she took over in 2011 so whatever the brief you would expect to be allowed to come up with something exciting.

I didn’t work so much to guidelines as past precedent; Olivia is a well-established author with a good few books to her name and these books often followed a certain aesthetic. Olivia’s covers were all smart and photographic although it has to be said that she has a very definite idea of what she likes and working on her books carried more pressure to please her tastes as well as that of her audience (not always compatible things, some authors have terrible taste and are best kept out of it). For The Lonely City, the brief was to try and use imagery to convey the loneliness of New York but in a way that could stand up to the high art subject of the book. It’s part memoir but also art history so it should sit happily in the Tate as well as Waterstones. Initially the view was to go down the photographic route, but other more graphic options would be considered.

In terms of colour, purple is very prominent in The Lonely City cover. Is this something you set out from the start, or does it develop as you go along?

For Lonely City, the purple colour was actually completely influenced by an image that Olivia had sent me of the NYC skyline taken by renowned photographer, Nan Goldin. Initially I had used this image but when we came to license it, neither I nor Nan’s gallerist in NYC could reach her to get permission so after a long search we found the current image which contained the same mood and colours. So in the case of this book, that purple colour was really the strongest feature and one that we worked very hard to keep once we knew that the Goldin image was off the cards.

The author Olivia Laing mentions quite a few artworks throughout the book, did any of those influence you while you were doing your research, or did you focus mostly on the story?

Nan Goldin’s photography, which is spoken of in the book, was a key inspirational feature for the cover and even though we couldn’t use it in the end there is a legacy there with the image we did use. What I did with the cover that I think is quite unusual was to use a graphic device to add a viewer’s narrative. Olivia’s own story intertwines with that of the artists she talks about and so by adding the window device I think I was bringing the art and the story together. So in answer to the question, both! It’s much more than a dry book of art history and it’s more than a memoir so I tried to embody that on the cover. I think if we’d focused on one artist or artwork it would be to the detriment of the scope of the book but also to the human story at the base of it.

Does your work process differ when designing for different genres considering that In Miniature is nonfiction (read about it here) while The Lonely City is more of a memoir and personal account?

I think in terms of process, getting from A to B, not massively. I will read some or all of the book, look for any visual motifs and get a feel for mood. I’ll draw some rectangles and sketch some loose ideas but not for very long, and then I’ll start looking for imagery to either influence the design or use on the cover and start playing with fonts. For Lonely City I produced a lot of graphic designs initially but Olivia loves Nan Goldin so I was also trying to use one of her images on the jacket which is how we came round to the cover we have. I think with non-fiction it’s easier to get started as it’s less about the mood of the writing and more about conveying factual (or theoretical) content in a style that creates intrigue. A novel reveals itself to you slowly and requires a closer reading for me.

You can read more about Peter’s work on his website.

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Interviews with book cover designers

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Malu Rocha

Malu Rocha

MA Publishing Student at City University

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