Illustrating Playing with Fire: A Q&A with Jo Walker

Maria Yudina was no ordinary musician. An incredibly popular pianist, she lived on the fringes of Soviet society and had close friendships with such towering figures as Boris Pasternak, Pavel Florensky, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Legend has it that she was Stalin’s favourite pianist. In the satirical black comedy The Life of Stalin, he is portrayed listening to Maria Yudina playing the piano over the radio and then ordering a recording of the concert. Playing with Fire by Elizabeth Wilson is the first full biography of the fearless and brilliant Maria Yudina, the incandescent pianist who was central to Russian intellectual life.

Book designer Jo Walker created a powerful and evocative cover for Maria Yudina’s biography, bringing together flames and music. We asked Jo to walk us through her influences, her creative process, and what is her advice for new book designers.


1. We love your bold design for Playing With Fire. How much research did you do on Maria Yudina’s life in order to create this striking cover?

I hadn’t heard of Maria Yudina before working on this project so I was very keen to find out as much as I could about her. Whenever I start a project, I begin by looking up as much as I can about the subject – learning about their lives and collating as much visual information as possible about the world and time that they lived in.

2. What are your considerations when you are working up a design for non-fiction versus fiction books? Do you treat them differently?

Unless a brief asks for a specific photo, I don’t treat them differently. I tend to come at the design from the same angle which is to try and represent the subject matter in a way that suits the style of the book. Obviously the design has to sit in the non-fiction market so I’m aware of that and often with non-fiction, you have the advantage that there will be information out there you can use to inspire you.

Draft covers for Playing with Fire
Draft covers by Jo Walker for Playing with Fire

3. What influences your design work?

I’m influenced by all kinds of things. I cycle and walk a lot so like to get out in nature which helps – I have a lot of twigs full of lichen, leaves and bits and bobs I find outside dotted around my studio. I also have a pin board full of odds and ends – I’m quite a tidy person but my pin board is a mess! I tend to buy books and prints that inspire me and the obvious places like Pinterest are a haven. I recently bought Leanne Shapton’s book The Native Trees of Canada and it’s a thing of beauty. I find these sorts of books incredibly inspiring and my studio is a bit too full of them!

4. What methods or techniques do you use to create your designs? Do you work primarily digitally or do you incorporate analogue tools as well?

For the majority of the time, I use the computer or my iPad but I also have a ton of pens, pencils, paints and random bits like photosensitized paper that I get out. I try to work away from the screen as much as I can, even if it’s to noodle about in the evening. I find if you spend too much time at the computer you can get a bit stuck. My 4 year old daughter is very into craft and I’ve found myself getting lost in gluing random bits of paper on a page long after she’s lost interest.

5. Do you have any advice for budding book designers?

I was absolutely determined to get into book cover design – I started at a tiny publisher which went under shortly after I joined so it was a bit of a false start. I went off and did design work that I didn’t think was relevant and then got a marketing design job at Bloomsbury based on my experience. It wasn’t the job I wanted to be in but it was a foot in the publishing door. From there I made my way across into book cover design and that was that. My main advice is to be persistent and even if you’re not in the perfect job in the beginning, it’s still valuable experience and if you make any contacts, keep in touch with them as publishing is a small industry.


Playing with Fire cover

Jo Walker is a book jacket designer with 20 years of experience working for various publishing houses including Bloomsbury, Penguin Random House, Granta, and Harper Collins. She is currently Art Director of Pushkin Press.

Find Jo online…

Website: https://www.jowalker.com/
Instagram: @jowalkerbookdesign
Twitter: @jowalkertweets

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