Design Review

Ever wonder what goes into creating the perfect book cover? The following is a guest post by graphic designer Eric Stich, the creative genius behind Underlife's cover art.



Do I really understand the title? I must truly understand the reason for the title. But what if others don’t understand the title? Yes, that’s why we need a sweet cover for the PoetMom. I should talk to Jan to find out what it means to her…

Ah, I get it. It’s the stuff in our lives that remains hidden most of the time. The honesty. The secrets. The history. The saucy desires and quiet thoughts. Got it.

Excerpt from the Design Kickoff Meeting

Eric: Jan, do you mind if the cover is a little risqué or sexy, like your poem “What Mommy Wants”
Jan: Nope.
Eric: You know what I have been thinking about?
Jan: What?
Eric: I’ve got a pair of legs.
Jan: [Nervous, excited, weirded-out look]
Eric: I think my legs might be great for your cover. What do you think?
Jan: Ummmm … I don’t know, try it.
Eric: Oh, by the way Jan, they are white legs, but I could make them black if you wanted.
Jan: We’ll see.

Saturday afternoon in my apartment (Me, my legs, and my camera)

What should I do with these legs? They are sexy, slender and did I mention white? Oh and they don’t stand on their own. This seemingly annoying and frustrating feature is what led me to incorporating the legs into elements of “the home.”

A-ha #1! The home is perfect for Underlife. (See “Nothing Fancy,” “Afro Puffs,” “Lighting Bugs”). Since the legs cannot stand on their own, I turned them upside down. Standing in the kitchen with legs upside down, I looked around and noticed the sink. Legs upside down in sink, behind a classic (fabricated) kitchen scene.

A-ha #2! The sink is perfect (See “How to Make a Crab Cake,” “In Praise of Okra”). The process of this shot stirred the creative juices. I had found a link between the legs and Underlife. I was having fun. My wife had to leave the house. The whole scene appeared a bit strange.

After the sink, I was fired up. And realized an even better metaphor for Underlife: the dark, dirty, raw world that sits below one’s home. The basement. Mine could not have been more stereotypically disgusting. The legs and I engaged with the washer, then the dryer. It seemed a bit too twisted. Undergarments draped over her toes and the violent references of ones upper body in a dryer or washer seemed a bit off base. However, its often best for a client to receive concepts that push the bar. Super safe, super risky and then somewhere in the middle. It frames the possibilities and helps them to figure out where they belong on that scale.

After having a lot of fun with the sink and the basement, I found myself really being able to hone in on the message of Underlife, the metaphor of the basement and how the legs could play a part. For Jan to write some of her poems she needed to walk down into the sometimes dark, unspoken territory of her life.

A-ha #3! Legs walking into the basement. I opened the basement door to the outside, to discover that the sun was beating down on the snow covered yard. It was BRIGHT outside, glaringly bright, from the suns reflection off the snow. And it was dark, hauntingly dark, in my clammy basement.

A-ha #4! Light to dark, White to Black. The racial challenge of the “white legs vs black culture that is waved into Jan’s poems” was beginning to resolve itself. They always say, natural light is the best light. As I shot my subject in many positions, playing with the light, the orientation of the legs and the door, I could feel that I had found that middle option on the concept scale.

Dark to light = dramatic.

Stepping down into the dark=daringly going to the unknown or the unspoken.

The natural position of the legs= a quiet sophistication (that I was not able to capture with the sink or washing machine).

The mannequin legs = a twinge of shock value and fun that we were aspiring for.

These four elements, drama, daringly speaking the unspoken, quiet sophistication and shocking fun are all reflected throughout Jan’s poems (I had read the manuscript before starting this process).

And ta-da, Jan had found herself a cover that accomplished what she was looking for. A thought-provoking, meaningful and eye catching cover (that hopefully will sell!). Exactly what our country’s future Poet Laureate deserves.

Because of Jan’s open-minded nature and willingness to fully explore the cover process (just as she had done with her poems) we were able to truly explore the creative possibilities. Without that (and without the legs I inherited from my Aunt Bernice) we would not have reached her goal. A great client like Jan often leads to a successful process that in turn produces an impactful outcome. Thanks Jan, and good luck!


Eric and I worked together at Babson College. I have always been in awe of his talent and ability to explore, connect, and make things happen. He's simply brilliant.

You can see the nearly 20 covers Eric created in this post.


Eric Stich is co-founder and creative director of Setter Advertising, a leading design and strategy firm in Waltham, Massachusetts. Contact Eric at


Interesting! Thanks for sharing this process.
Kay Cooke said…
I loved hearing about the process Janz. Fascinating. (Good luck with the book ... it deserves to win!)
carolee said…
it's funny -- i remember looking at the covers that you had to choose from and thinking what a difficult decision it must have been. i liked so many of them. now, i can't picture your book with any of them except the one you chose!

it's gorgeous, and i loved hearing about the process.
January said…
I know! I had a different cover in mind, Carolee. But the one that was picked seems just right. Can't imagine it any other way.
January said…
Thanks Kay, Kristin!
Jessie Carty said…
i'm pretty much agreeing with what everyone else said. you really do have the perfect cover. Although the breastclose shot is pretty awesome too :)

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