Meet BenBella: Art Director Sarah Dombrowsky

In a new online series called “Meet BenBella,” you’ll get to know members of the BenBella team better through a series of questions about publishing and beyond. Next up, Art Director Sarah Dombrowsky. 

What are some of your duties as Art Director?

In short, I handle BenBella’s cover art. We publish such a wide range of books — memoir to humor to science to cookbooks — and it is my job to make sure the cover designs are each attractive (the fun part), competitive in their individual categories (the strategic part), and work for the book’s content, author, publisher, distributor, and major bookstore buyers (the mediation part). I am a designer myself, but a huge part of my work is partnering with freelance designers that bring unique strengths and fresh perspectives to our covers. I also finish out all of our full cover packaging (designing everything but the front panel, including plates for specialty printing treatments) and advise on custom interior and cover photography as needed.
 

How did you get started with graphic design?

One of the beautiful things about Graphic Design is that being self-taught is ok. I grew up with a love for oil painting, writing, and reading. Once I hit college and had to make a “decision” about my future, I figured writing was the way to go and I threw myself into that (while painting on the side). Post graduation, my marketing internship at BenBella made it clear that (1) I did not enjoy writing as work but (2) the publishing industry still felt very right. There was some panic at that point. And then it just clicked — a need for in-house design was voiced in a very normal staff meeting, and I just knew that if I could learn the programs, I could do that. So I threw myself into design, growing into what BenBella (and what I) needed, and I never looked back.

What does your design process look like?

Starting with a book proposal, the cover text and specs, and Amazon books (literally my homepage), I do as much research as I can to wrap my brain around what a cover needs to convey and the competition the book will face. I’ll usually sketch out any concepts that come to me immediately and then let all the research incubate for a bit. The next day I’ll get comfy with my coffee and music, and set in for a 2-3 hour design stretch starting with a blank InDesign document and finishing with 3-5 concepts — good or bad — to get feedback on from the BenBella team and/or my fiancé (different kind of designer). Once I’m happy with the results, we share with the publisher, then the author, and then the distributor and book buyers with revisions along the way. It is a long honing process but I’d say 95% of the time I’m pleased with the transformation in the end.

Where are some places you turn to for design inspiration?

Amazon books, co-op tables at Barnes & Noble, magazines, product packaging, cover and design blogs, the general arts scene in DFW, commercials, even birthday cards (my mom is great at finding beautiful foils). It is impossible to avoid design in Dallas and, whether it is beautiful and effective or sloppy and crass, things are constantly crossing my path and bleeding into my work.
 

Most unforgettable cover designing experience so far?

There have been a lot of ups and downs, but the one experience that stands out as impactful was meeting Tonya Craft. We did an impromptu shoot of her in the office for her memoir, Accused, and I sat in asking her questions about her story to help make her more comfortable in front of the camera. Her answers were heartbreakingly honest; her love for her children and pain from losing them, even temporarily, because of scandalous false accusations — all of which I was prepared to hear — hit me like a ton of bricks in person and made me so proud to help share this story with the public. We did end up with other photography for the cover, but I’ll never forget that shoot or that cover.

Has designing book covers changed the way you experience covers out in the world?

I like to say that I walk through Barnes & Noble like a blind person. It’s a little insensitive, true, but I never had such an appreciation for the final product of a book until I worked on covers. The weight, scale, texture, sheen of the physical book — it is the magic beyond the actual design work on a computer. (Long live the printed book!)

Is there anything about your job that might surprise people?

Maybe the amount of juggling would come as a surprise. I love to be challenged, and that need is 100% met with cover art. We are in a constant cycle of new covers (20-25 in a season) all developing simultaneously as well as full covers being prepped for printing based on rolling publication dates. I’d say there are consistently 20-30 ongoing projects on my plate each week.

What are you currently reading?

The Mists of Avalon (a little King Arthur escape).

Non-book-related hobby?

Cooking (first family Thanksgiving at my house this year — to brine or not to brine?!).

Most unique thing on your desk or in your office?

The original copies of The Chronicles of Narnia series that my mom taught me how to read with — just finished re-reading them all a few months ago.

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