Do you judge a book by its cover? Gigi Little doesn’t. But as a highly regarded Portland book cover designer, she has a great appreciation for them. “The cover will catch my eye and I will want to read a book for its cover at times.” she says. “I could buy a book just for its cover.”
Coming from a background in the circus, Little now lives her dream life, a life built around books. She never set out for a life in the circus. She married into it. During her time as a circus performer (as a clown and magician’s assistant, amongst other roles) she worked for various shows, including “the big three-ring tent show the Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. Circus, a small one-ring tent show called Allen Bros., and a show that went to Japan called The Dream Clown.” She even worked for five years as the lighting designer for a show called the Hamid Circus.
After 15 years of circus work, Little divorced and left the nomadic-entertainer life behind her, settling down in Portland. Occasionally in her new life she draws from the circus for inspiration, using some of the skills she cultivated over the years. Along the line she learned to use Photoshop, a skill came in handy when she moved to Portland, joined a writer’s group, met local writers, and was asked to create a cover for the Portland publishing house Forest Avenue Press. She continued creating covers for Forest Avenue Press, where she is now the staff designer. She also started working at Powell’s City of Books, and over time became known in the writing community, garnering more and more requests for her designs.
Without formal training in graphic design, Little calls on her DIY determination. “Everything I do basically is me trying to figure out how to do something,” she says. “Every time I get a new job to do a book cover there is something where I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to do that’, and I have to try to figure it out.” Her experiences at Powell’s have greatly abetted her experiences as a designer. Her current position in marketing allows her to see what works and what doesn’t when trying to sell books. Working at Powell’s in different capacities has given her insight into “what’s popular, what’s important, what people like, what gets buried.”
Little receives varying amounts of information about the book before designing the cover. At times she only has access to a description and synopsis of the book. Sometimes the author and/or publisher approaches her with ideas. For example, when designing the cover for Ari Honarver’s novel A Girl Called Rumi the publisher gave her two calligrams that the author had drawn to use in the design. Only occasionally is she able to read the book itself. In most cases, she does not have time to read the entire book but is able to search through the manuscript for ideas, sometimes finding details to include in the cover. This technique is used in Little’s design for the cover of Sara Lippman’s short-story collection Doll Palace, in which she places motifs from the stories on the cover.
How long does it take to design a book cover? For Little, it could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. At times she presents the author and/or publisher with a single design. At times she presents them with various concepts to test the waters. From there, sometimes the cover comes together quickly. Other times, lots of tweaking and back-and-forth is needed as Little finds the cover in the process of creating.
Little explains her goals when collaborating with authors and publishers: “Number one: it has to sell the book best. Number two: I want all the people involved to be happy with it.” Sometimes the publisher acts as the middleman, communicating needs between Little and the author. Other times, the author approaches Little directly and presents an idea. In all instances, there is a push and pull and changes and compromises are made, resulting in a product everyone is happy with. Little has collaborated on a book project with her husband, the Portland painter Stephen O’Donnell, and describes the experience as “sacred.”
As a highly involved creative Portlander, Little keeps herself busy. In addition to designing book covers and working at Powell’s she’s also a writer, participating in many local writer’s groups as well as running her own blog, ut omnia bene …, wherein she often details her design process. (In a recent entry she walked her readers through her process in designing the cover for Sara Lippmann’s collection of stories Doll Palace.) In 2016 she edited City of Weird, “an anthology of stories about monsters, ghosts, robots, blood drinkers, man-eating octopuses, evil books, ravening slime molds from outer space, vodianoi and more, all centered around Portland, Oregon.” Her short stories and personal essays can be found in many anthologies and literary publications. She and her husband even volunteer as supernumeraries for Portland Opera. Her past roles include a priestess being burned on a pyre in Norma and a stage combatant in Carmen, staged to make her exit by being dragged away kicking and screaming.
The most recent Forest Avenue Press book with a cover designed by Little, Beth Kephart’s memoir-essays Wife | Daughter | Self , will be released on Tuesday, March 2, with an online launch event at 7:30 p.m. March 3. The cover is based on a drawing by Kephart’s husband, William Sulit, allowing Little to collaborate not only with a publisher and an author but also with an additional artist involved with the book. After many renditions (as seen below) the result is a beautiful cover, honoring all involved with the project.