Thursday, 13 October 2016

She's got it covered - Cathy Helms on designing 1066 Turned Upside Down

Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to all the authors who have written the stories in 1066 Turned Upside Down. Now, on the eve of the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings itself, I need to talk to the person responsible for the public 'face' of the book - designer Cathy Helms:~

Why 'Avalon' Graphics? I have loved the tales of King Arthur and his Knights since I was a girl, so when it came time to choose a name for my design company, I knew that I had to draw on something from those legends. Using the word ‘Avalon’ meant that my company’s name would come near the top of any list sorted alphabetically too – and of course I think of Avalon as a place of peace and beauty which in turn I hope is a good parallel or representation of my creative body of work overall. I’ve always been fascinated by Arthur in particular – who he might have really been historically (if he ever even existed), but I will always devour any books about Camelot and the fairytale legends. Great escapism!

Can you tell us a little about your working process? What do you need from the author in order to design their cover? When initiating any new design project I always request a summary of the novel/story, any general ideas the author might have for their cover and make certain that I understand the genre and target market for the book (and a few technical details too).
My process involves a fair amount of research as well; seeking out other covers of similar subject matter/genre/plotlines for inspiration, and then I spend a good amount of time searching through potential stock image sites for suitable images to work with. 
I work on a desktop computer with a 27” monitor (eyes are not what they used to be, ha!) in a comfortable office at the front of our home – my walls are painted in my favorite color – purple!

And I have a lovely view of our front yard with roses and Hydrangea planted right in front of my office windows. I often listen to music while working as the sounds help my creative process, and I always make the time to simply play with Photoshop and attempt to learn new design tricks as often as possible.

Once upon a time, book covers were designed using drawings or paintings. Nowadays there are a lot of computer-generated images. Do you have a preference, or do you like to blend the two? Is book cover design a completely different art form nowadays? I am one hundred percent a digital artist; meaning that I work with photography, digital line art and digital brushes in order to create my designs. I started drawing with colored pencils as a young girl and still enjoy doodling from time to time (mostly with colored pens), but my open freestyle of drawing is too unrefined for graphic design (in my own opinion at any rate). I predominantly design using the vast available tools within Adobe Photoshop – to the point of being able to give the viewer the impression that the design was hand painted at times.
The program truly is outstanding and limitless. Book cover design evolved from hand lettering (typography) and hand illustration and I am actually relieved that I came along after the digital revolution! As part of my formal education, I was taught the very meticulous and labor intensive way to hand letter designs for marketing purposes, as it was done many decades before. I found the process interesting, but nothing that I would consider taking the time to do in any project today – not when I can achieve the same effect within minutes using Photoshop verses days hand lettering just a book title alone!

Do you have a favourite among all the covers you've designed? If so, why? This is always the toughest question to answer! Sentimentally, I often go with ‘Sea Witch’ by Helen Hollick because it was my first published cover design and I utilized my dear and patient husband as a model. The cover is in bold blue hues, contains a pirate ship and a pirate – and I worked my magic with grunge textures to accomplish the old world feel that the book deserved. While I cannot truly choose a single cover design as a favorite, any time that I can design a cover with a castle, knights or Ancient Rome, I am at my happiest in the creative process. I love working in the historical and fantasy realm above all other genres.

And finally, I have to ask about the 1066 Turned Upside Down cover. I love it (well, I would, wouldn't I?) It shows the concept of the book so clearly. Did you play around with other ways of showing the 'upside down' theme before you settled on this one? Presumably, like us authors, you go through several 'drafts' before settling on the final design? Believe it or not, this was one of those cover designs that simply came together right from the start without numerous design ideas. I had solid up front input regarding the design from Helen Hollick and Joanna Courtney – their initial idea was to include either a helmet or a shield wall reflected upside down. So I found a handful of potential photos to work with and then set about making the top part of the cover reflect in ripples of ‘time’ on the bottom half of the cover. Often the biggest challenge in designing for historical fiction is the ‘historical’ part – finding accurate depictions for the time of the novel. But in the case of ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’, I was able to take a bit of liberty with the elements since the novel is a time slip or alternate history collection.

So I was able to use the photo of a helmet that may have been a few decades off from the year 1066. It was a stunning stock photo, so it worked perfectly for an eye-catching cover. Having said all of that, typically I go through numerous concepts before a final cover design is chosen by the author. I begin with three to four distinct designs, then I work with the concepts until the author/client is content with a final. And I am thrilled that you love the cover design! All nine authors involved have been kind and generous with their feedback for the cover. I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to design for such an illustrious group of writers, many of whom are friends and clients already.

Annie, thank you so much for the chance to speak with you in regards to book cover design and my involvement with the ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ project!

Thank you, Cathy, for explaining the process to us, talking about your work, AND for our beautiful cover!
Find Cathy:
YouTube Book Trailers
Official Blog


  1. Great post, and interesting to find out more about Cathy (who has created some wonderful designs for me and for some of my clients too).

    1. Thanks Anita - the cover she did for us was amazing and so integral to the whole project.

    2. Thank you, Anita! It is always a joy collaborating with you on your marketing materials! And thank you so very much, Annie, for inviting me as a guest! The 1066 Turned Upside Down project has been an amazing experience for me@

    3. Thank you, Cathy - your cover is stunning, as many people have made a special point of saying to me :)

  2. I can, hand on heart say I don't know how I'd manage any of my book covers or marketing images without Cathy, who is an absolute genius with graphics!

    1. And I would not be in the book cover business had it not been for you, my dear friend ♥♥

  3. Fascinating insight. Cathy you are a genius!

    1. Thank you for stopping by and for the lovely compliment!