“It was not a pretty sight,” Anne Twomey, Creative Director of Celadon Books, says of downtown Manhattan and the “crumbling-walled, walk-up tenement” she moved into after college in 1979. “It was dangerous. I lived two blocks from CBGB but never went because I thought it was too scary. And it was too scary!”
But for the Long Island native and SUNY New Paltz graduate, there was no other choice. “I always loved the city lights,” Twomey remembers. “And I wanted to pursue an artistic career—I was very clear about that. Pre-internet, you really had to be in New York City to be a designer. You had to meet the people [in the industry].”
Twomey studied art history, printmaking, sculpture, and photography in college, but earned a BFA in painting because it was the most challenging major that taught her the largest skill set. In New York City, she passed the union exams to become a set designer, but she still needed to complete a required course in lighting design—that wouldn’t be offered for a year—before applying to union jobs. So, she took classes in typography and paste-ups and mechanicals at the School for the Visual Arts, which led to jobs with a type designer and in a design studio.
At the design studio, she worked on catalogs, ads, and the occasional book cover for the firm’s publishing clients. “I liked the immediacy of graphic design at that time,” Twomey recalls. “And the autonomy. You could design it. You could be the auteur.”
She enjoyed designing the covers more than anything else, and soon parlayed her talent and experience into a position at Simon & Schuster’s paperback imprint, Pocket Books. It was a noteworthy turn of events for someone who realized later in life that she’s dyslexic.
“I invert things all the time,” says Twomey, “which is normal for people who are visual thinkers. I read someplace that dyslexics often read with more inference, which makes total sense, because that’s what I do. When I design a book cover I have to listen to a lot of people—marketing, agents—but the first voice I listen to is the author’s voice. And if the author is a particularly gifted writer, there’s so many covers there because there’s a lot of visual metaphors that I can riff on. With some writers—they’ve spelled it all out for you.”
After designing for Pocket Books and Washington Square Press, Twomey moved to Warner Books, St. Martin’s Press, and then to Grand Central Publishing as Vice President and Creative Director where she oversaw multiple imprints publishing hundreds of books per year.
“It was a fabulous gig,” Twomey says of her time at Grand Central, “but I wanted to scale back. I always managed to design, even in my managerial position, but it was becoming more challenging because of the volume and approval process.” She eventually left Grand Central to join Celadon. “I’d worked with Jamie [Raab] and Deb [Futter] before, and it just became obvious that we would work together again.”
With Celadon’s first titles hitting bookstores now, Twomey is starting to see the results of the work. “I’m really excited,” she enthuses. “It was clearly the right decision. I feel like I’ve recaptured my career—the soul of what brought me to this in the first place. I feel like I’m in my twenties again!”
At Celadon, Twomey’s typical day begins with “coffee and a to-do list.” After that, it can be anything from administrative work to reading to seeking inspiration from design books and websites to hiring freelance designers, illustrators, and photographers.
When she designs a new cover, Twomey always begins by reading the manuscript. From there, she’ll doodle, jot down ideas, and search for images. Sometimes, there’s an “aha moment” when she knows she’s found exactly the right design, but often a cover will go through dozens, if not hundreds, of iterations before all the various stakeholders—author, agent, sales, marketing, publicity—get on board. “That’s why I like to say design is a verb,” says Twomey.
As co-founder with Nicole Caputo of She Designs Books, Twomey is helping the next generation of female designers to promote their work and navigate the scrutiny that comes with having so many people involved in the creative process. The organization, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, has 5,000 Instagram followers, and attracts more than 100 women to each of its gatherings. Going forward, there are also plans for workshops and seminars.
To anyone, male or female, seeking to break into book design, Twomey has straightforward advice: basic art classes that include drawing and painting, which teaches the eye to see, and a knowledge of typography, the secret ingredient behind all graphic design. And these days, proficiency in Adobe software is a must.
“But remember,” says Twomey, “Adobe does not make a designer any more than Microsoft Word makes one a writer. One of the biggest misconceptions about book designers is that we simply push a button. All the designers I know are trained and experienced professionals with a lot of skill sets. They’re former painters or illustrators who’ve been very artistic from childhood. They often make it look simple, but in fact, simplicity is the goal.”