Danny Mehl is a Graphic Designer and Art Director with over ten years of experience working in graphic design firms, ad agencies and the in-house department of a world-renowned ministry. In addition to his day job he also does freelance projects including book covers. He's won multiple awards and had work featured in major publications including Graphis, Addys, AIGA Design Shows, and LogoLounge.
"I'm a firm believer in working closely with clients to get to the root of the problem they're trying to solve. Defining what we truly need to say and who we need to say it to allows everyone to move forward confidently in seeking and identifying the perfect creative solution"—Danny Mehl
P.S.*If you haven't figured this out already, Danny Mehl is author Nancy Mehl's talented son!
· How did you get started? Were you a talented artist as a child?
I originally started college as a film major. I was really drawn to the medium and thought I’d like to someday direct movies. After having some issues getting the classes I wanted and a payment mishap that caused me to become unenrolled, I decided to move back to my hometown of Wichita, Kansas and enroll in the graphic design program at the college there. I’m so glad that I did as it is the perfect fit for me as a career and I (usually) love what I get to do for a living.
· Where did you go to school?
I spent my first year and a half of college at the University of Kansas as a film major. Then I moved back to my hometown of Wichita, Kansas and enrolled in the Graphic Design program at Wichita State University.
Tell us about some of your first commercial designs.
I began working professionally as an intern at a small, startup ad agency that turned into a full time job after I graduated. There were only two other people who worked there. They were both very nice and I was grateful for the opportunity. However, newspaper ads for mattress stores aren’t exactly chalk full of creative opportunities. So some of my first commercial design work involved figuring out how to fit ten mattresses, with accompanying prices, inside starbursts, into a far too tiny newspaper ad space. There were other types of projects too, but those didn’t get much better. I finally decided to quit that job before I even had another job lined up. Two weeks later I received a call from a local design firm that had seen my work online. I wound up going there and the projects fortunately got better.
· You’ve won awards as well, right? Tell us about those.
One fairly recent award I was very proud of was winning Best of Show at the St. Louis AIGA Design Show. While I’ve won awards in national and international competitions, this one was particularly special to me since I know most of the local firms, agencies and designers that enter their work. We’ve got some great talent in St. Louis and knowing that the best places are entering their best work makes it feel more real than a national/international competition where you may not know who many of the competitors are.
· What advice would you give to young people who are interested in following a career path in design?
First, make sure you’ve got some kind of natural talent and interest in the field. For me, I knew I was artistically inclined from a pretty young age. I didn’t know that I’d be doing graphic design, but wound up choosing it as a path that would allow me to use my artistic talent while also having a hopefully stable career.
If you do think it could be a good fit for you, then enroll in good school with a decent program and see what you think. You can always change your major if you decide it’s not for you. I went to an affordable state school with a good program. I don’t think you have to spend a crazy amount of money to go to an elite art school. If you’re good you’ll catch on and figure out how to learn from books, magazine and online resources even if your education isn’t the best.
Also, when looking at work from other great designers, don’t just glance at it and move on. Study it and ask yourself why it works. I once scanned an image of a poster from a book and then printed it out, section by section, on letter sized sheets of paper. Then I taped the sections together to make one full size poster, hung it up on my wall and then laid on my bed and stared at it for hours. Eventually I discovered an important design principle behind why it worked so well that was much more valuable and useful than if I had merely glanced over it in a magazine and moved on.
Lastly, always aim to do the best work possible. There are plenty of opportunities to do mediocre work in this field, but if you’ll keep progressing, moving forward and aiming to make each project better than the last, you’ll have a reason to get up and go to work every day for more than just a paycheck.
· Which book cover was your first design? Was it a challenge?
My first book cover was for my mom. I’m reluctant to say the name of the book because I wouldn’t want anyone to find that cover and judge my current abilities by it! In fact, I believe I did that one before I had even started college. So it was not my best work, to say the least. I’ve learned a lot since then.
· Do you need to get a feel for the author or the genre or both?
Both are important.
If the author has an established brand or is trying to create one, then that should certainly be taken into consideration. You’ll need to think about how you will visually signal to readers that a book is from a particular author. Some authors may not want to lock themselves into one type of book or genre, so in those cases it may be less important to focus on the author and design the book around the story.
The genre is definitely important. Typically, you want to find a way to signal to readers what genre a book is in while also standing out from other books in that genre. If it looks like every other book in that particular genre, then it will be easy for it to blend in with all the other similar books and be missed. However, if you create something that has no connection whatsoever to a genre, then fans of that genre may skip it because it doesn’t look like what they are looking for. There are plenty of ways to create something very original and stylistically different that still looks like it belongs in a specific genre, but you just have to be aware of how you’re going to signal that to potential readers.
· I have my own thoughts about cozy mystery cover designs. I like the covers to be sunshine and lollipops because horrible things happen every day right under our noses. I like to think that Alfred Hitchcock believed that as well. And the dichotomy of those two things work for me too. Cozies are fun and light but the crimes are real. I know you’ve designed darker covers for cozies. What are your thoughts on that?
When I was a kid remember watching Murder, She Wrote with my mom. So when I was working on my first cozy mystery cover and someone brought up the similarity to that show, I knew exactly what they were talking about.
I agree that the dichotomy of the light, cozy feel and the crimes that take place in them presents some interesting creative opportunities. Figuring out how to mix “sunshine and lollipops” with, perhaps, a murder can yield interesting results if done right and tastefully.
So if I’m designing a cozy mystery cover I try to keep in mind that what the reader really wants is the “cozy.” The tension that drives the story is the evil that threatens the cozy setting or characters. I believe the reader identifies with the cozy setting and characters and specifically with the character that seeks to solve the case and send the criminal away. I try to keep this in mind so that I create a cover that communicates the cozy feeling first and foremost and treats the crime or murder as a secondary element.
I’ve designed some darker covers too, but each project is different and I try to find where the author wants their book to land on the cozy vs dark spectrum. Some authors may be trying to reach an audience that would be turned off by a cover that looks too cozy, nice or happy and so I try to gauge that with any cozy mystery cover design.
· How should suspense covers differ from cozy mysteries?
It’s all about understanding the audience. Someone who’s looking for suspense is probably not as concerned about a cozy setting or characters, but is looking for the tension and intrigue they get from a good suspense novel. So I try to keep this in mind and convey that feeling in the cover design. Suspense can be a little broader category than that of cozy mysteries, so it really does depend a lot on the book and what the author is hoping to convey to their audience.
· What are some rules for cover design?
The fact that many people may be looking at thumbnails on a computer screen when making their book purchases is important to keep in mind. So it’s great if you can have something that works at a smaller size.
A great cover captures the viewer's eye and creates intrigue that causes someone to pick up, or click on, a book to find out more. It gives a sense for what the book is about and the feel/tone of the story, but doesn’t need to tell the whole story or be overly literal.
· How important is a good cover to an author?
Very important. If I see a cover that doesn’t look well designed, I’m likely to think the book is not well written. If an author wants to communicate that they are a quality writer, then they need to have a quality cover.
· Do you have a favorite cover? Do you ever walk through a bookstore and look at a particular one and say WOW!
I’ve definitely spent time browsing the book store looking at covers. I’m always attracted to covers that are very different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Anytime we see something we’ve never seen before it grabs our attention.
A book cover that comes to mind that I thought worked particularly well was A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. I never read the book, but I know the story is about a man who suffers from alcohol and drug abuse. The cover is very simple and bold would work great as a small thumbnail or up close. It certainly stands out on a book shelf. There are so many more expected ways that this cover could have shown “a million little pieces” but the author found a very unique way to illustrate the title. It certainly creates intrigue and you expect a unique and special story.
· I’ve started collecting images of some of my favorite covers Danny. So look out. The next time I hire you for a design I’m going to have even more specific ideas. And that’s a good lead-in. The more books I did in my series the more ideas I had concerning what I wanted. For instance, if I had thought to do this ahead, I would have planned out a fortune cookie message to go along the spines of my series that would spell out only when a reader collected all the books in the series. I think I’d like to do that in the future.
Great idea! Let do it.
· How can listeners find you? AND, are you available for authors who are looking for a good cover designer?
I’m certainly available for authors looking for a designer. Feel free to check out my website at dannymehl.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, inquiries or just to say "hi."
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Linda Kozar, is a successful author of over 16 books, speaker, and radio host of Chat Noir Mystery & Suspense and Network Coordinator for the Along Came A Writer Network on BlogTalk Radio. Founder, former president, and current board member of Writers On The Storm, The Woodlands, Texas Chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers, she was the recipient of ACFW’s Mentor of the Year award 2007. She is currently a PR Director for the Christian Authors Network and is a member of Chi Libris, ACFW, RWA, AWSA, and CAN. Linda and her husband of 28 years, Michael live in The Woodlands, Texas and enjoy spending time with their two grown daughters, wonderful son-in-law and their spunky Jack Russell Terrier, Gypsy.