Getting to Know Keely O'Shannessy

This week we’re judging books by their covers with the wonderfully talented, multi PANZ Book Design Award winning and recently turned Wellingtonian Keely O'Shannessy. 

Keely has one of the most impressive portfolios in the business and is responsible for some of the most eye catching covers in New Zealand book publishing - you'll definitely know her work! 

We chatted to Keely about the design process, the connection between the contents of a book and its cover, and what she loves best about the capital city.

What is your day job?

I am a graphic designer specialising in book cover design.

What is your connection to Vic Books?

I have worked on many of the books that are on the shelves at Vic Books.

You are newly settled in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, what are your favourite things about the capital?

There are lots of things I really love about Wellington. Even though it is a relatively small city, it feels really alive and vibrant. I love that there are so many galleries, book shops and museums and that it is so easy to walk between them. I also love that there is so much street art and how the city is positioned in relation to the ocean.

I love the colour of the sea in Oriental Bay and the changing light and the views across it from so many different vantage points around it.


How did you come to be a designer of book covers?

I studied fine arts in Auckland after I finished high school, then moved to Melbourne where I studied multimedia design. After working in Melbourne for a few years as a video, interactive and web designer, I moved back to Auckland where a friend who was working at Penguin at the time asked me if I would be interested in designing some books and book covers. This medium really appealed to me because I found it to be so varied, creative, conceptual and challenging. It is tricky to capture the essence of a whole book in a single image and it requires thought and experimentation.


Looking at the various covers you have designed it is striking how different they are. Sometimes it feels like designers have a look that they apply across their work. How do you ensure that each cover is unique?

Every book is different so I try to give each one a unique and thoughtful treatment. There are lots of things to consider: What is the book really about, what is its essence? What is its tone - is it playful, light-hearted, sad, angry, fast-paced? These considerations will inform the outcome. For example, the colour – perhaps cool colours if it’s subdued, or darker, warm colours if it’s violent or disturbing. Other more commercial aspects also need to be considered like where the book sits in the market and what it is similar to. Readers will be subconsciously drawn to a book if it has a similar look to another book that they have loved. People do judge books by their covers so I try to give them covers that accurately reflect their contents.


If you could describe your design style in three words what would that be?

Varied. Thoughtful. Creative.


Do you read the books before you start designing?

I don’t always read the whole book though I do wish I had time to. I always read at least some of it. I think this is really important to get a sense of tone as well as content.

Is there a cover you are most proud of?

I feel proud of a cover when it feels exactly right for the book. Especially if it feels like I have managed to successfully capture a whole lot of different, subtle elements. For example Hamish Clayton’s novel The Pale North. I really loved this book. It is so beautifully written, so poetic and so melancholy. He describes each scene so perfectly that I felt like I could 'see' the places he described.

The cover refers to one particular ‘image’ in the book - an exhibition where many snapshots are pinned to the gallery wall like butterflies. But it also portrays many other scenes in the book - the landscape, the angel, the church. The earthquake that the book opens with is conveyed through the cracked wall behind the photographs and the mood of the book in general via that soft, faded blue. Further, the images/photographs that he describes in the book sounded to me a bit like the work of Laurence Aberhart and I hope that this reference also comes across in the cover.

Here are some of the other covers I’ve designed over the years that I feel proud of for similar reasons:

Keely O'Shannessy has designed a wide range of fabulous book covers

Are you working on anything in particular at the moment?

I am working on a bunch of things. Most of them are too early in the process to talk about. But one that I will mention is a brilliant book that is being published by BWB in November this year called Shifting Grounds which goes to print this week. The book is written by Lucy Mackintosh, the history curator at Auckland Museum. It is based on her PhD thesis. Lucy is an old friend of mine so this was a particularly lovely, albeit slightly daunting, assignment.

Lucy and I had a long chat about her book, what it was about and her thoughts for the cover. Even though it is essentially an illustrated history, I gathered that Lucy didn’t have an existing image in mind for it. It seemed to me that it should convey an idea of flux and the way the landscape has shifted over time rather than a single, solid image of a place at a particular moment. Lucy also said that she wanted to convey the concept of viewing the city from vantage points within it rather than looking at it from a distant birds-eye view.

The book focusses on three places in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland - Pukekawa Auckland Domain, Maungakiekie One Tree Hill, and the Ōtuataua Stonefields at Ihumātao - so I thought it would be good if the cover could somehow reference all of these. The final front cover depicts Maungakiekie shown at different times before the obelisk was built on it, viewed from both the north and south and then the view north from there out over Pukekawa towards Waitematā harbour with North Head and Rangitoto in the distance. The white line at the bottom between the subtitle and Lucy’s name shows a view of the maunga at Ihumātao before they were quarried. The back cover depicts Maungakiekie with the obelisk and the view from there south towards Ihumātao and Manukau harbour.

Who would you like to collaborate with?

I am always really excited to collaborate with any author or publisher on a well written book.


Some quick fire book recommendations please! 

I would recommend all of the books I’ve mentioned here. In addition, I recently designed another book that is co-edited by Alison Wong and Paula Morris, A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand and I would highly recommend that – it is an important book full of inspiring poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction by emerging writers.


What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading Bug Week by Airini Beautrais. It is brilliant – so beautifully written and evocative. I also have The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw and Klara and the Sun on my bedside table and I am hoping to get to those soon.


Hardback or paperback?

It depends on what kind of book it is!


Favourite coffee?

Strong almond milk flat white from Milk Crate on Ghuznee Street.