Under the cover: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

April 25, 2014, Article by Tom in Books

With THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE out now in paperback, we thought it was well worth revisiting (or stealing, depending on your point of view) this awesome piece from the Headline blog. Here, creative director Patrick Insole reflects on designing the cover for Neil Gaiman’s latest masterpiece. Over to Patrick…

It’s never easy designing covers for a writer whose work defies categorization in the way that Neil Gaiman does. There are none of those subtle (and often not-so-subtle) but reassuring genre conventions to confine oneself to…

The brief is as open as can be, the canvas well and truly blank. All the designer has by way of guidance and inspiration is the manuscript itself. Not easy at all, though, conversely, these are often the most enjoyable and satisfying projects to work on, particularly when the raw material is as rich and rewarding as The Ocean At The End of The Lane.

As with many of Neil’s books, this novel is firmly rooted in a sort of humdrum reality that we can all identify with, yet magic permeates through the story, things leaking through from other, less banal places. I knew I wanted to make a cover that somehow combined this sense of the strange with the everyday, the difficulty being how to portray these contradictory qualities without giving too much away, or being too descriptive.

Water felt like an obvious theme to explore, and I tried a number of different ideas using images of water to distort or transform a more everyday scene, all of which just felt too complicated or forced. In the end, I found that I kept being drawn back to a particular scene in the manuscript, and, despite originally not wanting to put a narrative scene on the cover, it was this that I decided I wanted to illustrate, albeit in a slightly abstract way. I was lucky enough to stumble across the most stunning image of a diving boy taken by the very talented photographer Hengki Koentjoro, which matched perfectly the moment as I saw it – dark and mysterious, there’s also the suggestion of travelling from one world to some other, very different one.

The image was strong enough that I felt it didn’t need very much else – a little texture to give the whole thing more depth, and one or two other visual flourishes suggested by the text – it was important to me that the cover be as simple as possible.

Typographically, too, I felt it needed a very light touch – the title is so engaging that the style of the lettering shouldn’t get in the way of that. I chose a font called Integrity, by Jack Yan, designed in the mid 1990s, which I’ve always liked for its understated quirkiness – at first glance it looks like a classic condensed serif, but on closer inspection it has an almost calligraphic, hand-tooled feel.

The overall effect I hope is the right one, and captures the tone of the book. You might recognize the particular moment in the text when you get to it, or you might not. It doesn’t really matter – what does matter is that it conveys a sense of mystery and magic and strangeness, and I hope, in that at least, I’ve succeeded.