Illustrator Charles Williams on how to create magazine and book covers

Advice, tips and insight into working with art directors, sticking to briefs and what you can bring to the table.


Charles Williams (who runs commercial type studio, Made Up) illustrates, designs and creates bespoke psychedelic typography for the likes of Bestival, Bonnaroo and a number of editorials and publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Last time we spoke, the British freelancer explained what it’s like to design music festival identities, but recently he’s been putting together cover illustrations for specialised medical editorials such as Optometry Today (cover seen here), the Pharmaceutical Journal and his first book cover for a scientific National Geographic publication.

Charles’s popular typography is often made up of isometric grids, continuous lines and a 3D aesthetic.
Learning to work with esteemed art directors, sticking to a brief that sometimes can’t be changed and keeping within those tight deadlines are all important skills as a freelance illustrator. If you haven’t already worked for editorial clients, we’re sure your time will come soon enough. We asked Charles for his advice, some quick tips, and some insight into the collaborative and creative process.

We discuss what’s expected of you as the artist, how to collaborate with the art director and common restrictions to be aware of.

Image: Initial sketches and final cover illustration for Optometry Today, January 2018 issue

Miriam Harris:  How strict is the brief?

Charles Williams: "It very much depends on the publication. For the Creative Review Annual that I illustrated (seen here), the brief was that it just had to be an ‘A’; other than that I had total freedom.

"For the Science magazine cover I was given a synopsis of a very complex scientific theory that had to be illustrated using the metaphor of a rollercoaster journey, so it was quite specific.

"The overall style, form, colours and finish are things I generally have control over on all covers, as they are components of the finished aesthetic."

Image: the Annual Creative Review cover illustration, 2016


MH: What materials are you provided with to get a feel for the topics in the magazine?

CW: "Usually just a short brief and perhaps a paragraph about the issue. The cover generally has to be bold and have a big impact, so that is more of a focus than conveying the specifics of the contents, though that obviously plays a part, to varying extents."

MH: How much input are you expected to bring to the table?

CW: "A lot! I think when clients have seen that you have done a few covers in the past, and they like them, then they want to see what you can bring to their job.

"Sometimes the art director will come to me with a strong concept they want me to explore, but they will usually caveat with the instruction that I am free to explore as well; very little ego is involved - it’s just about coming up with the best solution."

Image: Cover illustration for The Pharmaceutical Journal, 2017 End of Year Review 

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MH: What’s best to keep in mind when dealing with a publisher?

CW: "I like to do lots of initial sketches and then select a maximum of three ideas to sketch for the client, sometimes less. It’s important not to present any ideas you think are weak as you might end up having to create them."

Image: Initial sketches for The Pharmaceutical Journal, 2017 End of Year Review 


MH: How do you keep collaboration between you and the publisher easy flowing?

CW: "I like to share WIPs along the way – from initial sketches, to tighter sketches, to vector lifework, to colour art, although sometimes with very complex pieces it can make the clients nervous to see a half-completed piece that doesn’t make sense.

"The great thing about working with the publishing or editorial sector is that the art directors are often shit-hot and are much better at seeing where your sketches are going. With bigger budget projects – advertising, branding, for example – one has to be much more explicit about the direction at the sketch stage."

Image: Cover illustration for Sierra Magazine


MH: How tight are the deadlines?

CW: "Anything from a few weeks to a couple of days. It's good to be able to work fast – sketching and digitally."

Image: Initial sketches for Sierra Magazine cover illustration

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MH: What are some common restrictions put on your artistic ideas to be aware of?

CW: "Some publications will have strong ideas about colour - that is the main restriction. That could relate to branding, the rest of the issue or previous covers, for example."

Image: Initial sketches for National Geographic's The Psychobiotic Revolution publication


MH: How often will your initial idea be very different to the final, approved cover?

CW: "Very rarely. There are inevitable evolutions along the way, at every stage of the design, but the finished art should be close to the signed-off sketch as possible. Deadlines are usually tight so the creative process has to be pretty streamlined, but there are instances where a last minute idea will become apparent."

Image: Final illustration for National Geographic's The Psychobiotic Revolution publication


MH: What advice would you have for an artist who may be designing their first book cover.

CW: "Think about the audience you are communicating to.

"Pay close attention to your art director’s advice and brief - they will be good at their job.

"Even if you are given a specific brief, with a concept that’s not your own, suggest to the client that you would like to put forward your own ideas. That way you can build a portfolio of covers that are recognisably yours."  

Image: Final cover illustration for National Geographic's The Psychobiotic Revolution publication

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