Call it serendipity: Anna Morrison was studying illustration at Camberwell College of Art in London, but wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do when she graduated. During her senior year, a professor told her that she would “‘suit publishing,’ whatever that meant,” Morrison recalls—and, well, it turns out the professor was brilliantly spot on.
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In the years since, the UK-based Morrison has worked on staff at Random House and HarperCollins, and today manages her solo practice catering to a variety of publishers.
As for that teacher, “I bumped into her several years later and told her how much her suggestion had impacted my life. She couldn’t remember me though. Ha!”
Here, Morrison discusses the books that laid the foundations for her future, finding inspiration offline, working in and out of house, and more.
Have you always had a love of reading?
I think so. My earliest and most cherished memory as a child is my mum reading to me at bedtime. I always looked forward to it, our time together. Having two older sisters and lots of cousins I was lucky to have many books passed down to me, resulting in a large and varied collection. As I got older, reading became an escape—especially during those vulnerable, uncertain teenage years.
What books were you drawn to as a kid?
Not only was I drawn to many books as a child, I also seemed to draw all over my books, too. Harquin by John Burningham was my absolute favorite; I still have my treasured copy of it, complete with my scribbles. His illustrations are works of art, and his writing is just so funny, touching and profound. Author and illustrator David McKee was another favorite. …
The Ladybird books from the 1970/80s evoke intangible feelings in me as an adult. A huge part of my childhood was reading these, mainly in school. I recall seeing the end papers for the Ladybird Book of Bedtime Stories recently (a beautiful illustration by James Hodgson) and it was like seeing an old friend again. Similarly, the work of more traditional Ladybird illustrators like Harry Wingfield, Eric Winter and John Berry create a kind of wistful nostalgia within me—I’m not quite sure what the exact memory is but it’s there, buried deep inside my unconscious.
I want to mention Jill Barklem, who wrote and illustrated the enchanting Brambly Hedge books. I loved this series recounting the seasonal adventures of a community of mice in the tranquil surroundings of the English countryside. Their houses were burrowed in tree trunks with tiny staircases winding out of sight, little corridors leading to endless storerooms, cozy kitchens with blazing fires and dressers covered in mouse-sized china. You could look at them for hours and still find something new.
Lastly is my beloved Dick Bruna. I can remember vividly my Miffy books and taking them everywhere with me. They are so simple and vibrant, with charming little stories. Bruna said of Miffy, “That’s all you have. With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad—and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think, yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.” At art college I discovered that Bruna was also an absurdly talented book cover designer, one of my all-time favorites. He designed thousands of covers, his style being very characteristic, simple and recognizable, just like Miffy.
What were you up to as a kid in terms of creativity? Were there hints at your visual side, and what was to come?
When I wasn’t reading, I was drawing. We lived in the countryside in Northern Ireland and my sisters were a bit older, meaning the weekends and summer holidays could be quite long, lonely and boring. My mum would acquire these huge cardboard boxes from the supermarket for me and I’d flatten them out and spend hours drawing towns, houses (especially inspired by Brambly Hedge), “scenes from history.” I really wish my mum had kept some of them. At school I was always so disorganized. I hated maths and science, was dreadful at most sports but it was the art lessons I loved and looked forward to the most.
You studied illustration at Camberwell College of Art. Did you think you’d wind up as an illustrator full time?
I wasn’t sure that illustration was a viable option for me. During my degree, I certainly hadn’t developed my ideas, sense of self or illustration style by the time I graduated. It was a tricky time for me personally—I’d just moved to London, the illustration degree was a bit all over the shop as it was a new BA course for Camberwell.
What’s the first book cover you designed?
It was the glorious Peter Falk’s (from Columbo) autobiography at Random House called Just One More Thing. What an excellent first job. I remember when it came back from the cover art meeting, approved, I asked if I could change it!
After Random House, you spent time at HarperCollins. Today you’re independent. Do you prefer being out-of-house?
I think there are pros and cons of both. I miss being around some of the lovely and inspiring people I’ve worked with, chatting about nonsense, having a laugh (but not too loudly, publishers are quiet places, I’ve learned) and tea rounds, and I really miss [how] when your computer breaks down, a person magically appears to fix it. However, I hate commuting, cover art meetings and very early starts. And most importantly, I have kids now so freelancing allows me more freedom and flexibility in the hours I work.
Do you feel your work has a defined style?
I don’t think so. I’m aware I’m not a very technical or cool designer, and I work across lots of different genres, so that makes it quite hard to have a defined style in a way. Although my friends always tell me they can spot one of my covers in a bookshop.
What inspires you?
I’m sat in front of my computer for most of the day, so it’s easy to look at visual blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., for easy inspiration, and they are helpful. But for me to be really originally inspired I need to step away from the laptop—running or cycling, traveling, reading and also trying to look at things from a different perspective. A reread of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing often helps that. From time to time I do find inspiration popping up in the strangest of places: weird dreams I’ve had, a drawing my child has done, a bizarre item purchased on eBay, my friends and especially other designers and artists.
In a broad sense, why do you like designing books—or what does the book cover mean to you?
I feel ever so grateful to have found this job. It combines all the things I love. I cannot imagine doing anything else. To be asked to interpret someone’s stories and ideas is a huge privilege, and it carries a huge responsibility to the author.
Favorite book designer(s)?
Oh jeez, how long have you got? Rachel Willey, Helen Yentus, Helen Crawford-White, Paul Rand, Enid Marx, John Gall, Jo Walker, Suzanne Dean, Jonny Pelham, Na Kim, Romek Marber, Jon Gray, Tom Etherington, Hans Tisdell, Dick Bruna (obvs). I could go on and on.
Favorite book cover of all time?
Oh god, I hate this question. I change my mind all the time. If I had to choose one, I always come back to Marber’s cover for Georges Simenon’s Sunday. It’s just sublime.