Will Staehle on Designing Warren the 13th
Photo Credit: Brandon Hill
Hey everyone! Will Staehle here, the creator and illustrator of Quirk’s Warren the 13th series. When I’m not busy working on Warren, I run a design studio, Unusual Co., out of Seattle. I’ve designed all sorts of fun things over the years, but the majority of my work continues to be in the world of book cover design. I’ve been really fortunate to have designed covers for some amazing authors, like Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, V. E. Schwab, Ernest Cline, Andy Weir, Warren Ellis, Christopher Buckley, and so many more. I’ve never kept count, but I’d estimate that I’ve designed over a thousand covers so far in my career.
So you might assume that when it came time to design my very own book cover for Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, it would be my absolute dream project, and you would be 100 percent . . .
It was an absolute nightmare.
Let me try to explain. But first, a little background on Warren the 13th.
Imagine a world where cargo pants ruled, flannel covered the landscape, and goatees clung to nearly every face . . . Welcome to art college in the American Midwest circa 1999! Around this time, I created the original Warren the 13th mini-comic for one of my school’s comics illustration classes. (It’s also how I met Warren series author Tania del Rio, who was also a student there!)
Even though this comic was done many years ago, you’ll see that a few of the original elements survived in the final book. From the odd-looking design of the hardworking bellhop and hero, Warren the 13th, to the pudgy appearance of his less than amazing Uncle Rupert, many of the original pieces were carried over into the book series.
After graduating from art school, I moved to New York City and began working as a cover designer at HarperCollins Publishers. I was busy with my new job, but I still wanted to keep the idea of Warren the 13th alive, so I dabbled with some poster designs of Warren and his universe in my spare time, trying to inch the concept closer to reality. Here you’ll see some foreshadowing of events in book two, and even an early version of Warren’s pal Sketchy!
Fast forward a whole bunch of years, and Warren the 13th was going to be made into a book series with Quirk Books’ support! Tania and I were so excited. I was asked to start working on the cover design for some early promotion, and I thought to myself, “This should be easy!”
NOTE: The following covers are rough, unfinished designs.
THE MANY COVERS OF WARREN THE 13TH
IN WHICH WILL HAS A NUMBER OF PANIC ATTACKS
IN WHICH MY CONFIDENCE IS NOT YET SHATTERED
My initial cover concept for Warren was a slight variation on the original poster that I had designed in New York.
While this was visually interesting, there were concerns that the design would be overly complicated when viewed as a small thumbnail. Another large concern that the book was now going to be laid out in a square format to allow for an interesting double-column design of the story’s text.
IN WHICH I SIMPLY SIMPLIFY
So I modified the format and tried to simplify the cover elements. It was okay, but I wasn’t in love with it. It felt a bit plain. I decided to go back to the drawing board . . .
IN WHICH THE DANGER IS INTENSIFIED
We decided to push the excitement and attempt to get a few more characters onto the cover. So I crafted this moody image of Warren rushing out of the hotel with crows circling and some nefarious characters lurking about.
Quirk liked parts of this, but there was a consensus that it was too dark, so I flipped the background color to a brighter tone.
While we decided to use this cover for the advance reader’s edition of the book, we thought the cover could still be improved. One idea was that perhaps the type could be larger, bolder, and more impactful. So, again, back to the drawing board I went.
IN WHICH A BELLHOP GROWS BOLDER
I attempted bigger and bolder, creating a very structured masthead that could be used for multiple books in a series. Once again, it was fine but not as amazing as I had hoped for.
IN WHICH PANIC TRULY SETS IN
A bit lost at this point, I actually reached out to a designer friend of mine to ask for some suggestions on the cover approach. (This is something I’d never done before—I was desperate!) Here we used an interior image of Warren lighting a match with a creepy beast sneaking up behind him to set an ominous mood.
The general consensus was that this cover was solid but too dark, so I tried again with a brighter background color.
Despite the color tweak, we agreed that this cover was a bit underwhelming and that it wasn’t exactly hitting the mark.
IN WHICH, WHEN NOTHING IS WORKING, I PRAY THAT SPECIAL EFFECTS SAVE THE DAY
I felt like I was running up against a wall, so I tried to think outside the box. I began to wonder if maybe I could embrace some sort of special effects. The idea of doing a die-cut cover—where the jacket would be sliced in half, revealing a printed case with various clues from the book—was interesting to me.
This concept was far less interesting to the production department at Quirk. They were justifiably concerned that the delicate jacket might get torn easily at bookstores. Quirk suggested that we might have room in the budget to do something with gold foil instead. This was a very Victorian solution, as so many of the old bound books from that period used gold foils to decorate their own hardcovers. I was excited . . .
IN WHICH I PUT KING MIDAS TO SHAME
With the new direction of gold foil in mind, I started anew. I may have gone a bit overboard channeling the ornate covers of yesteryear. But I thought it had a certain charm. I sent the design off to Quirk Books . . .
They responded that I had used far too much gold foil and that the cover would be too expensive to produce! I couldn’t win! So I went back to the drawing board yet again . . .
IN WHICH I CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE MIGHTILY
I was once again feeling lost on this cover. What else could I try? I opted for a more graphic approach in this round, putting Warren’s profile front and center. I was feeling pretty good about it, but Quirk made a fantastic point. They wondered what we’d put on the covers of future books and were concerned that I might be boxing myself into a corner a bit by using the singular profile of Warren on this cover.
IN WHICH IT IS DECIDED IT IS NOW OR NEVER
After a bit of discussion, Quirk and I settled on the idea that we needed a few things to happen on the cover. We wanted a sense of action, an image of the hotel, and some secondary characters present so that it wasn’t just 100 percent Warren. I regrouped, refocused, and tried a new sketch, this time with Warren running while his uncle and aunt look on. I took a deep breath and sent the image to Quirk.
Quirk came back and everyone actually seemed to like it. Heck, even I liked it!
I finessed the cover (and its colors) a bit more, eventually landing on this version.
The final version. Praise the cover gods . . . it was approved!
I was happy. Quirk was happy. I celebrated by sleeping for three days straight.
And what did I learn from all of this? That having a little distance from the subject matter is a really important aspect for me. I was too close to the material, feeling too precious with it, and in many ways too nervous about it. I realized that designing a book for someone else is far easier than designing one for yourself. As a designer, you need perspective on a project and some distance from it to be able to view it objectively.
All in all, I designed twenty-six different covers for the first Warren book. But not all of them were wasted: the rejected design from Round VIII (the profile of Warren’s face) ended up being used as the cover for the original musical score for the book (which is available on iTunes, Spotify, and a handful of other music-streaming platforms!).
I hope you enjoy the Warren series a little bit more now, knowing the painful tale behind what looks to be a simple cover. Just remember that while every book contains a story, that book’s cover may have a pretty interesting story, too.
Will Staehle is the creator of Warren the 13th, and is an award-winning designer and illustrator. He grew up reading comics and working summers at his parent's design firm in Wisconsin. He now spends his days designing book covers, posters, and mini-comics, to ensure that he gets as little sleep as possible. He lives in Seattle.