Sketches & ideas
My basic idea for the cover design was to do something in combination with the logo and use the shape of the letter 'S' as my starting point. I thought I try out some kind of a geometrical pattern overlaying the logo. When I described this basic concept to the client, I already received a positive reaction. They were really intrigued by the idea and couldn't wait to see what I would came up with. Another idea I had in mind was an "Escher-like" surrealistic 3D effect. Once I sketched both ideas, I was less convinced of this 3D idea as the 'S' would be too obvious, while the initial concept was to hide the 'S'. What I wanted to achieve was some kind of a blend between some sort of pattern and the logo, making the logo a bit less obvious but still there at the same time.
At first I tried to stick to only very minimal shapes like circles and straight lines etc. Keeping it all strictly geometrical, but the problem was that the 'S' shape of the logo did not allow me to do this. As soon as I tried to overlay this on top of the logo, things got messy, because the 'S' doesn't follow the straight lines and perfect circles… I was afraid this would be the case, but I thought I just have to try anyway to see if it could work. Sometimes the clear vision I have in my mind is wrong and I only know for sure if I do a quick test. So I decided to start from the 'S' shape instead and go from there, which resulted in a more organic form, but still rather minimal.
The 1st design proposal
While covering the entire 'S' with the pattern, I realized I was facing a problem: where do I put the title? So then the idea came to mind of using the wavy line (which crosses the 'S') that is part of the logo, and trying to create some white space in the lower part. I also removed a bit of the pattern outside the 'S' shape to avoid busyness, and create a bit of rest. In a way I was thinking of creating some sort of transition between the logo and a new design. Some sort of blend, or mix if you like, between the 2 if you know what I mean. As an extra touch, I decided to add these white dashed lines. I thought it gave the design this extra detail. Though, later on I changed my mind, which isn't uncommon. My client wasn't much fond of it either, so we decided to leave them out.
Choosing & applying the colors
As for colors I decided to keep the palette "warm", making the link again with the logo. I was mostly inspired by this particular image from my Inspiration Stream. I find it really hard to explain in a practical way on how I apply colors. To me it has a lot to do with intuition; a feeling that certain colors go well together and others don't. It's a very subjective matter, and who am I to say that for example a certain type of soft brown in combo with a flashy red doesn't work well.
When I applied the colors to this design, I kept in mind that the segments would contrast well with each other. So I tried to apply them in a way that next to a dark brown segment, there would be a lighter segment, like yellow or orange. I also tried to make sure to apply the same color again with a bit of space in beween. Especially the darker and lighter ones, as they stand out the most. Same for the blue version, since the blue contrasts a lot with the warm colors, I made sure the blue was applied on separate locations, and also in proportion. To see if the colors are well applied —in this case with enough contrast— I usually do the test by looking at it from a distance. I enlarge the design, making it as big as possible on my screen, and I step away to look at it from a 3 meters distance. After this test I decided to adjust the segment at the top that uses a gradient of yellow and pink, as to me this one felt out of place. I felt that pink didn't really fit in the color palette. I changed that segment into a yellow gradient which is in harmony with the rest. In my first experiments I had some magenta and pink into the mix, and this was a "leftover". It was only after this test that I felt I needed to change it. It would have made sense to keep it if there would still be magenta and other segments of pink in the design, but since this was the only segment it felt out of place.
Adjusting the design
The client really liked what I was proposing, especially the geometrical forms, and so it seems I was on the right track. One of the remarks was that the design might become a bit too complex at some point. There was also the suggestion to add more bright colors such as blue to match the new Smashing branding. Plus, there was the concern whether the large white area at the bottom didn't distract too much, making it a bit difficult to recognize the 'S' logo icon.
Keeping this feedback in mind, I tried to find a balance between the original design, and a light weight version in terms of complexity, while also trying to find the balance between recognizing the 'S' and maintaining the original design. I decided to reduce the segments, and going from 4 divisions to 3 instead. In this phase of the design I also received an empty Illustrator template for me to start to compose the entire cover, including the back and spine.
Change of plans
Right before I finished and showed my client the 2 designs shown here above, Smashing Magazine published the article to announce the preorder of the book. They were showing the initial cover design, eager to get the buzz starting for the new edition of the book. They also made the decision (that I wasn't aware of) to publish a 2nd, smaller book. To announce this book called "Smashing Book #3⅓ — The Extension", they decided to create a blue version (themselves) based on my initial design. In a way I found this good news, because apart from changing a few small details, I really liked my initial version. So I thought it might have a chance after all :)
Dealing with client feedback
In my humble opinion, I believe you make a great designer if you always try to find the middle ground in what the client likes and what you like. After all, you design for the client, not for yourself. The client has to be 100% satisfied. But don't get me wrong here, it's not a one-way communication where the designer blindly follows what the client dictates you to do. Sometimes the client's feedback doesn't have any valuable points. Then it's up to you to explain to the client why you think his or her direction is a bad idea. Though, if it's a matter of suggestion to try things out, or personal preference, like in this situation, than it's up to you to make sure the design gets better. So the "middle ground" I just referred to doesn't mean you end up with a lesser design. It's our job to always try to top our initial design. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes the client will also agree with you. Usually that happens to be the case for me, especially with clients who actually choose "you" because they like "your design style". What I try to say is, you just have to try to push yourself to the limit to be as creative as possible to make it better, taking the feedback into account. In a lot of cases you'll succeed and it's always very fulfilling when that actually happens.
I had much hesitation when I started working on the previous designs. Based on the feedback, I was almost 100% convinced that it wouldn't improved the design. I was afraid if I reduce the amount of divisions it wouldn't be that strong anymore, that the effect would be lost, but I believe I was wrong. Even though I still liked the initial design a lot, I had a hard time choosing which design I really preferred most. The new ones seem strong too, especially with the blue added to the mix. The client had the same feeling.
Since there would be 2 books now instead of 1, the client decided to go for one of the new designs for the 2nd book, and keep the initial design for the original #3 edition.
These designs are 99% final as the spine will most likely change (at least if we stick to our initial plan). There is some idea for the spine that still has to be worked out here, and so this part could just be temporary. A final item needs to be delivered to me first to create what we have in mind. It all sounds rather abstract I know, but I thought I show you the cover in its entirety so you get a better idea of how things will look.