This month’s Windows Into World’s Spotlight is with none other than the indie community’s beloved design and typography guru, Shawn T. King! His contemporary and striking flair and type treatment (I’m insanely jealous and want to be Shawn when I grow up) has landed his name on countless covers and interiors of books in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. Chances are you’re already well-acquainted with his work from the books he’s contributed to currently gracing your shelves – I know I have plenty of those!
Incredible artist, awesome guy – a huge thank you to Shawn for stopping by to have a chat.
I’m just a small town boy, living in a lonely world. I took the midnight train, going aaaannnyyyyywww… Huh? Oh, sorry, got distracted.
I am actually a small town boy though, and am a major recluse who tries his best to remain in the confines of my home office or living room.
I’m a graphic designer who specializes in book design (covers and interiors). I’m currently the designer for Mechanical Muse (aetaltis.com), specialty press Vault Books, and have worked with numerous authors/publishers including: Anthony Ryan, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Brian McClellan, Skyhorse Publishing (Night Shade, Talos Press), Grim Oak Press, and PS Publishing.
Most of my time is spent in the indie publishing world though, and I love every minute of it.
Welcome to Whispers & Wonder, Shawn! Care to tell us who you are in 10 words or less?
Umm. Ten words huh… Let’s see. Well, I guess I’d say…
Why do you do what you do?
I love art, design, books, and all things fantastical. Tell me I can get paid to play with all those things and yep, I’m all over it haha.
Did I mention I love it?
But also I love helping authors get the best cover for their work. They put so much time, love, and effort into their story and their cover should reflect that.
Plus I just freakin’ love it.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Yes. My mom may remember something further back than I do, but as far as I remember my answer was always “artist” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I was always interested in art, from the awesome cartoons on Saturday mornings, the life-size Ninja Turtles my mom painted on my bedroom walls (talk about RAD), to the comic books I’d steal from my brother’s closet. I’d later develop a love for comics, but I only ever read one, Spawn, as I was mostly interested in the art, of which I’d stay up under lamplight to copy into sketchbooks.
I ended being that kid in school people looked at when an art-related assignment was given haha.
What kind of work do you enjoy doing the most and why?
I think I’m best known for cover design and typography, so I’d have to say that, not to be confused with cover art (that’s a common misconception that bothers me sometimes: even though “cover design” is the term most often thrown around, cover design and cover art are two tooootally different things).
I love seeing what style of lettering works best with a cover and then tweaking and customizing it to fit.
I love getting the chance to meet and collaborate with amazing artists, working together to create something special for each client.
I do enjoy making full covers as well, but I find it way more stressful than when working with a professional illustrator that has the means of bringing to life an author’s vision better than I do (not to belittle myself hah).
Have you had any interesting jobs other than being an artist?
Being a Cat Daddy to my awesome son, Enzo.
But seriously though, uhh, well, I’ve only had two jobs outside of art/design…and I’m still at the second one (*sigh).
My first job was retail and stock, so I wouldn’t call that interesting.
My second, and current, job is at a newspaper. It was interesting when I started, a whole new world of words, paper, ink, chemicals and aromas…those last two have probably been slowly destroying something inside me over the years… One of my tasks used to be developing film for the press, and then developing film plates when technology progressed (film was much more forgiving if you made a mistake).
I also got to design ads for the paper, but that goes against the original question.
Umm…not much more I can say, there’s some interesting things I’ve done at the paper but nothing that I really carry with me.
Where or from whom do you pull inspiration from?
From the shapes the fallen litter makes when my son flings himself from his poop-box.
And, well, everywhere. Music, art, a random thought, the way a wall or a crumpled piece of paper looks — everything in some way has an inspiring element to it, if it chooses to reveal itself to you.
And looking at art and design from all over helps. I’m constantly adding cool covers and posters and other art/design related pieces to a board I have in Google Keep that I look at from time to time to help inspire and get the creative juices flowing if I find myself stuck on an idea. You can never have enough sources of inspiration.
What made you dive into the world of book cover art and design?
Bad covers…bad covers everywhere.
When I realized I had a knack for design is when I decided I wanted to work in the book industry. Initially I was enamored with the thought of working for a big publisher, and would even joke about how I didn’t care if I had to work my way up from the basement.
Luckily I didn’t have to though, because me and Joe Martin found each other. Joe was the head guy at Ragnarok Publications, a small press (or indie press), and my style just fit perfectly for them. It was there I learned how kickass the indie publishing world can be. Ragnarok is no longer around, but I will always hold its memory close — Ragnarok and Joe Martin had a huge impact on my career as a designer in the book industry.
After Ragnarok I started understanding just how large the world of indie publishing was, and all the possibilities it held.
There was, and still is to a degree, a stigma around the indie scene of being less than, and I wanted to help turn that around however I could. I admit I was one of those who looked down on the indies (before my career started), due completely to bad covers — I definitely judge books by their covers heh — but once I started researching I learned indies were badass…and often led to more creatively fun and open projects.
Walk us through your process – How does your consultation process go? Do you generally read the book prior to beginning the art? Do you prefer to initially sketch/brainstorm on paper or screen? Any fun quirks?
I have a fairly easy process I’d say. Upon agreement on rates and all that good stuff I’ll usually request any ideas and/or inspiration/reference the author/publisher may have in mind. Knowing what direction the client wants to go in is a must, but once I know that I may know of ideas that will work out better, or elements of their ideas that could be more effective if done a little bit differently, and will voice that and go back and forth until something clicks between both parties. It’s important to find that happy place before starting so I know which direction I’m heading and am not just wandering around hoping to land on the right path.
That goes for pretty much any project, whether it’s art or design, though with just graphic design work I tend to just go off on my own until something falls into place.
As far as reading books before working on them, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I’ve been offered, but my already slow reading pace coupled with my dual-job schedule just doesn’t make it feasible to do so. I do make it a fact to read the books later on though so I can support the author with sales, reviews, and social media shares.So instead, I generally just get a description or passage of text to work from and then that branches off into the discussion period mentioned above.
I occasionally sketch ideas out very roughly, but most the time I just jot down keywords or something as an idea hits me.When I start working something on-screen it’s generally a mess — it usually all comes together but I wouldn’t want anyone seeing the beginning stages haha.
Fun quirks? Hmm, I often times stare at my screen in a zombie-like trance and question what the hell I’m doing. Does that count?
Do you get to read much? If so, do you have any favorite authors?
I try to. I’m generally a slow reader though, so when I’m dealing with a busy schedule (which is often) and don’t get a lot of reading time in it could take me upwards of a month to finish a single novel.
Favorite authors? R.A. Salvatore will always hold a special place in my nerdy heart. His Drizzt books were what fascinated me with fantasy fiction, and reading in general. I haven’t read anything new from him in many years though, but I’d like to think those Drizzt books would hold up (hopefully one day I’ll have time for a re-read and revisit those precious memories).
My favorite authors from recent years are Rob J. Hayes, Andrew Rowe, Sean Grigsby, and Ben Galley.
What’s the biggest challenge you face professionally?
Fear of the unknown. It’s a problem I’ve been dealing with for a while, and pertains mostly to me staying at my day job. Several friends give me pep-talks from time to time, trying to convince me to leave and go freelance full-time, but the fear of not being able to pay off my debt is ever-looming. I know I’ll get there one day though.
And stress. Lots of stress…which will probably go away when the day-job does hah.
What’s the one thing you’d be lost without?
Technology. Like, seriously, if we ever fall victim to an EMP attack or some other disaster that lands us in a post-apocalyptic scenario I’m done. I mean, I guess if I’m lucky enough to land in a non-cannibal area I could get work by drawing…but I feel that’d only get me so far, and if the time came to get rid of someone everyone would start eying the artist who wasn’t out fighting for food and supplies…I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?
I know we’re never supposed to ask a parent to choose their favorite child, but do you have a piece you’re particularly proud of?
Hahaha I hold the “I am my own worst critic” phrase close to heart, but there are a few pieces that still make me proud when I see them.
I think my favorite so far is my latest work, the full cover I did for Richard Nell’s The God King’s Legacy. It had been two years since I made a character cover and my stress level was maxed out the entire duration of that project. But I really like how it came together, and I think it was well-received.
I’m also pretty proud of the covers I’m doing for AC Cobble’s The Cartographer series. That’s been a fun series to work on, from initial concept discussions to completion.
And I still like the cover I did for Rob J. Hayes’ City of Kings. I went back and forth and sideways on concepts so many times on that one, but in the end everything just fell into place…weird how it tends to do that after I’ve stressed myself out to no end.
Oh, and while not a cover, I’m really proud of the logo I recently finished for Luke Chmilenko’s Ascend Online series (great books if you’re into the GameLit / LitRPG genre).
Thank you again for taking the time to have a chat with me, Shawn! You have anything going on right now you want the world to know about?
I’ve always got something going on haha. Let’s see, I think the most noteworthy thing going on right now though is I will soon be in the process of designing my first-ever tabletop RPG book. It’s for a company I work with, Mechanical Muse. The setting is the World of Aetaltis, and for people interested you can find some ready-to-play material at aetaltis.com, as well as an anthology of short stories set in the world to give readers a taste of what’s in store.
And I’d like to mention an author I’m working with, Kirk Dougal, on a new series called ‘A Tale of Blood and Steel’. I’ve worked on and off with Kirk for several years and always enjoy it, and enjoy his writing as well. This new series has been a blast to work on so far — I’m doing it all on this one: cover art, design, and interior layout. It’s planned as a pretty long series, like epic WoT length maybe, so I’m hoping everyone will consider checking it out when it’s available to help make it a huge success so Kirk can continue writing it!If you’re new to Kirk’s writing, please visit his website to see what all he has to offer at kirkdougal.com.
I have a list of personal projects I want to work on, but commissions and the day-job have all my time booked up for the moment haha.
Be sure to check out Shawn’s website to peruse his absolutely INCREDIBLE portfolio.