Beautiful Books: Arctic Smoke

October 16, 2019

When we learned that Michel Vrana's design process for the cover of Randy Nikkel Schroeder's Arctic Smoke (NeWest Press) involved disposable biodegradable ice packs, we wanted to know more. Below Michel chats with us about capturing the personality of this psychedelic, cyberpunk novel, outtakes from the process, and why there’s nothing more he'd rather do for a living than design book covers.


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All Lit Up: You’ve got a stunning portfolio of book covers. How do you approach a new cover design? Where do you start?

Michel Vrana: Thank you! I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with trusting clients who value diversity of subject matter and visual creativity. That goes a long way to creating good work!

My rough process is to read the design brief and look at any provided images right away. If the book is fiction, then I do a quick read of the manuscript, to get a feel for the tone of the story. Then I can be thinking of a cover design early, even while I may be working on other projects. I’ll jot down ideas in a notes app that syncs to my phone and laptop—I find that I often have inspiration while out at the gym. I may also do a few very rough thumbnail sketches that would be meaningless to anyone but myself!


ALU: What inspired your design choices for Arctic Smoke, a novel described as “coked-up magic realism with wound-up cyberpunk style”? Can you walk us through your process?

MV: Matt Bowes and Claire Kelly at NeWest Press usually have a kick-off phone chat in addition to the written design brief. Two things came up in that chat that really stuck: magpies, and Michael Turner’s Hard Core Logo. My last name is Czech for "crow," and I’d be lying if I haven’t tried to get a crow, blackbird, magpie or raven on a cover somehow just out of personal interest (it hasn’t happened yet)! On the other side, I love the "ransom note" style lettering from Hard Core Logo (inspired, no doubt by the Sex Pistols).

With the magpies, I tried to imagine something that a silk screened concert poster would look like. Graphic, colourful, with a mix of punk and contemporary typefaces.

From the beginning I had the idea of some kind of punk element buried in the snow or ice. I’ve seen some designers do amazing covers using colour printouts of cover artwork, and freezing them under some ice. But I wanted whatever it was to be only partially under the ice, either mid-freeze or mid-thaw. I had been subscribing to one of the popular recipe box services, and the ingredients for those come to your home in a box along with disposable biodegradable ice packs. I’d opened and disposed of a bunch of these ice packs, and when thawed, the material inside it looks and acts an awful lot like wet snow. Perfect for an icy cover!

For that idea, I completed one version of the cover layout with the requisite punk lettering, careful to mix and match a few different ransom note fonts so as to not have any repeated characters for this more low-fi approach to a gig poster... the kind of thing that’s printed on 8 ½ x 11 paper and stapled to a telephone pole. The blue as a second colour, and map of the Arctic both underscore the icy setting.




This was printed on a home ink jet, placed under plastic, and covered in slushy ice pack material and photographed with my iPhone. Once presented to NeWest, it seemed like an easy choice for them: the icy version was the clear winner.

For the final version, once I had laid out the entire cover, spine and back, I repeated the "ice pack" process with a professionally printed proof and photographed the result with a digital camera. One advantage of the ice pack is that the material is fairly inert, so if there had been any request for less ice here, or more ice there, I could easily have made modifications. No worries about melting!


ALU: Were there any outtakes from Arctic Smoke you can share? Any design ideas that got cut?

MV: I focused primarily on the magpies and the punk lettering, but one concept was an amp with a knob that had the four cardinal directions instead of volume markers, and the author’s name in dymo style lettering. While I liked that idea, I’m glad the other concept was chosen in the end.


arctic smoke covers


Arctic Smoke Full Cover

Final cover!


ALU: On your website you say there’s nothing more you love than designing book covers for a living. What makes it so satisfying? What do you love most about it?

MV: For me, book covers are the perfect "bite-sized" bit of design and creativity. There’s never any time to get bored, and there’s always something new coming. Working with a mix of small literary presses and university presses, my imagination is always engaged with the sheer variety of titles I am lucky to be assigned.


ALU: Are there any designers or artists you’re loving at the moment?

MV: Instagram (and social media) are a great way to discover other designers, and right now I’m loving the work of Na Kim (@na_son), Nicole Caputo (@nlcaputo), and Amanda Weiss (@avweiss) My friends and fellow Canadian book designers Ingrid Paulson (@ingridpaulson) and David Gee also continue to impress!





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Thanks so much to Michel Vrana for the scoop behind his process, inspirations, and earlier drafts of the cover for Arctic Smoke, available now on All Lit Up. For more Beautiful Books, click here.







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