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Keeping a Cover Under Wraps: Questions for Lost Symbol Designer Michael J. Windsor

If you think Peter Mendelsund went through a lot to get to the final version of the cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just imagine what Michael J. Windsor's work life was like past year. Windsor was the designer of one of the most iconic and ubiquitous book covers of the decade, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which not only seemed to be held in front of the face of every third person on my bus in the mid-'00s, but which set off a small industry of speculation with its clues about the subject of Brown's next book. So when that book, The Lost Symbol, arrived this year, Windsor was tapped again to translate Brown's symbological vision onto glossy paper (and, not trivially, to create a cover enticing enough to protect Doubleday's multimillion-dollar investment in their most popular author). Do you think a few people had opinions about how that cover should look?

Windsor took a more traditional path to book designing than Mendelsund: he studied graphic design in art school, and then worked at Simon & Schuster before joining Doubleday around a decade ago. Aside from being Brown's regular cover designer, he mentions a few other favorites from his work, some of which we've highlighted here and some below. (You can read more about him, and see examples of his book and non-book work, on his own site.) We asked him a few questions about the experience (the first time, I believe, that he's discussed working on the cover) and being the Mary GrandPré to Dan Brown's J.K. Rowling:

Were you one of the first people to read the manuscript of The Lost Symbol?

Windsor: Yes, I was one of the few who got to read it early ... locked in my office under the watchful eye of armed security! There were secret knocks and handshakes that I had to be presented with before I could let anyone into my workspace while I had the manuscript. It was all very cloak-and-dagger of course. What about the story did you want to get across in the cover? Was there anything about the story that you didn't want to reveal in the cover?

Windsor: Well, it had to say “thriller,” but more importantly it had to say “Dan Brown.” So that was really the jumping off point. The jacket also had to be very accessible and at the same time have something hidden, a secret or two. I think that was almost expected after The Da Vinci Code. What I tried to do was tie together the old and the new, much like the Noetic Science that is described in the book. I tried to keep the references a little vague; for instance, instead of using the tried-and-true caliper and ruler symbol that most would associate with the Masons, I used a slightly less known symbol, the double-headed phoenix, and the fact that it is a wax stamp on old paper plays into the story. The Capitol dome is also not your typical postcard image that you would usually find. This one evokes a sinister mood.

As far as not revealing anything, that’s tough. You never want to give too much away... I always like people to take a second look at the cover after finishing the book and then realize where a certain element came from that might not have made sense when you first look at it. But I think mostly, I wanted to stay away from cliché when it came to the core elements of the book. Meanwhile, I'm sure this was just a simple assignment that you dashed off in a quiet afternoon in your office and sent off to the printers, right? How long was the design process? What level of secrecy did you have to work under?

Windsor: Yeah, sure ... I had the whole thing wrapped up in about two hours! But seriously, the process from the first discussions with the editor, Jason Kaufman, and Dan to the finished product going to the printer was almost a year. We kept everything very low-key and didn’t let a lot of people in on what we were doing until we started nearing the end and the decision process began.

As far as “working under secrecy,” I signed an NDA agreement, kept my door ajar when I was working and everything locked up when I left for the day. I remember racing to the printer to try and get there before the prints came out so I could grab them up without anyone seeing them! How many cover designs were considered along the way? Can you reveal any of the rejects, or any of the directions you decided not to pursue?

Windsor: I counted up all the different directions and tweaks a while ago. There were something like 97 in total. That’s got to be some kind of record! I was trying for an even 100 but didn’t make it.

Unfortunately, all the outtakes have been confiscated and locked in Ft. Knox.
What role did Dan Brown play in the process? The cover, of course, is filled with codes: did they all come from him? Do they all pertain to The Lost Symbol, or do any of them, like the ones on the cover of The Da Vinci Code, which you also designed, point toward his next book?

Windsor: Dan is an idea man. I don’t think his brain ever shuts off! I would get a flurry of ideas from him week to week and whittle them down to something that could be used as a jacket, pepper it with my own take on things, and go from there. It was a very give-and-take process. It was nice because I usually don’t get the chance to work so closely with the author on most of the books I design. The codes all came from Dan, I just hid them. As far as their meaning ... only DB knows. The books of Dr. Katherine Solomon, the noetic scientist who joins Robert Langdon on his adventure this time, play a large role in the story. What cover would you design, say, for her book Noetic Science: Modern Gateway to Ancient Wisdom?

Windsor: Hmmm... Maybe a more scientific-looking Snow Crash. The old ancient gate with the weird futuristic city beyond it seems to hit the right note with me. Stepping through the past to understand the future. Yeah, that works. How did you come to book designing? Obviously, not every cover project is like this one. How do you approach a book that doesn't carry the weight of expectation and anticipation this one did? Do you have any favorite covers of your own you could share with us?

Windsor: I knew I wanted to work with book jackets in my junior year in art school. I was hired out of college to Simon and Schuster as a designer about 10 years ago, working on the back and flaps of dust jackets. Then moved to Doubleday working on all the advertising and promotion materials, as well as some book jackets, then was promoted to Art Director concentrating on jacket design about 5 or 6 years ago.

I approach all the jackets I design the same way as far as what I want to achieve with them. I try to come up with something that has visual impact, glean what I can from the manuscript, and turn it into something that is beautiful and interesting without being unoriginal or using clichés. Obviously, you can push some books a lot further than you can others, you have to be conscious of tone and energy and display that on the front of the book ... but the basic goal is the same.

Some of my favorites that I have done are:

The End as I Know It (hardcover) by Kevin Shay
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (hardcover) by Jonathan L. Howard
Where the Money Went (hardcover) by Kevin Canty
April in Paris (hardcover) by Michael Wallner
The Fabric of Night (hardcover) by Christoph Peters
Jennifer Government (hardcover) by Max Barry
A Slight Trick of the Mind (hardcover) by Mitch Cullen

Your name, "Michael J. Windsor," is, as anyone can easily see, an anagram for "Clown Miser Jihad." What should we make of that? Does it provide a key to Robert Langdon's next adventure?

That’s too funny... That’s how I’m going to start crediting myself: Jacket design by Clown Miser Jihad!!!

That makes me sound like a fanatical burka-wearing circus performer. Bozo the Terrorist, and his exploding clown car...

Now if Dan’s next book has anything to do with that ... I can’t wait to read it!


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Greetings, is this your sole domain or you personally own some others?

Dan Brown was indeed a huge sensation when Da Vinci Code became a top selling novel. I could already imagine the pressure on Michael.

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