Nina Tara taps classic graphic design for covers of comics based on Agatha Christie murder mysteries

We came across designer and illustrator Nina Tara through a series of retweeted links to her outstanding covers for a series of graphic novels based on the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie from publisher HarperCollins. Originally created in French by publisher Heupe, HarperCollins had them translated and new artwork created in house, where Nina was working at the time.

Though not the newest of her projects -- see her profile on Behance for her latest work -- these covers are excellent examples of the still-hip trend for tapping into classic graphic design traditions. We sat down with Nina to gain an insight into their creation.

Nina started her career in an ad agency in Oxford creating work for the likes of Jaguar in the pre-digital days of marker pens and typesetting machines. She help set up the studio The Design Syndicate in Oxford before moving to London, since when she's worked as a freelancer, creating covers for books by Diane Wynn Jones (including Howl's Moving Castle) and Lisa Gardner.

DA: How did you come to work on the project? Have you worked for HarperCollins before?

NT: "I had worked at HC when I first came back to London and then returned a few years later.  I was working in-house freelance for the lovely creative AD James Annal in the cover art dept and had been there a few months. The briefs were being handed out and this project just called to me. I really fancied the idea of working on something different -- up until then I had mostly worked on children's fiction -- I am always up for a challenge."

DA: What was the brief?

NT: "The brief was to create a series of what was then just going to be four comic novels.  The only constraints were on the finishes -- we could only go for one finish, so I went with spot. Other than that it was to create a fresh new look that would appeal to adults and children alike; trying to attract new readers as well as creating a collectable series for hardcore fans.

I really love the whole noir genre and I wanted to do something along those lines: keeping it clean, modern and abstract throughout the series.  I started with lino printing and stamped type -- I always try to experiment as much as I am able in the timeframe. On this occasion the lino printing didn't give me the feel I was looking for, so I adapted the look and started to play with shapes and silhouettes. I did a lot of research on anything mentioned in the books.  [For the colour palettes I went for] nice clean strong fresh colours that would also fit the period of the books and echo the titles."

"I used Hitchcock for the typeface -- angling it within the illustration to make it more dramatic. I think this is the first time we hadn't used the Agatha signature on the front of the cover and were able to go with the font I was using for the titles.

"I was really nervous about the covers going into the art meeting, as they were really different to anything that had been done for Agatha at that time. There were positive comments --  someone suggested that we should use this approach for the paperbacks that were going to be reissued –– [but] there were concerns about not showing any of the [comic art] on the cover. In the end it was decided that the format and the likely section of the bookshop where these would be displayed would make it quite obvious what they were. The design was strong enough for the series to become quite collectable."

DA: How did you tie each cover to the plot or icons of each novel while still maintaining a consistent overall look?

NT: "By keeping the texture and typeface consistent it helped to create an overall look -- also keeping the colours simple and primary. I spent a great deal of time googling information about the books, plot overviews, characters, themes and motifs and any symbols.

 "Most of these stories can be quite complicated and full of twists and turns so I tried to narrow it down to an iconic image that would sum the book up. 

"In the case for Ordeal by Innocence and innocent man is jailed for a crime he did not commit and is found dead in his prison cell.  That seemed like the obvious image to me.  But I wanted to also show the whole feeling of being innocent and trapped in a cage, feeling so small. So, I played around with perspectives, and decided the view from above would be the strongest and have the most impact.

"I use a combination of programs when producing my work.  I use Illustrator to work on my type - to get it to the right size, adding more weight to the font and tweaking kerning and getting nice clean edges.  Then most of the cover was worked up in Photoshop, working up my illustration and then distorting the text an adding the texture. The texture in the typeface is a scanned-in image of a black laser printout scrunched up and flattened out then scanned in."

DA: What are you most proud of?

NT: "If we are talking about work -- well then that's tricky.  I guess you get so used to not patting yourself on the back that you feel a bit self indulgent to say 'Oh yes, well I really like….’.  But since you have asked so nicely, I really like the Diana Wynne Jones series of books I worked on with several brilliant illustrators, including David Frankland, Duncan Smith, Rob Ryan and David Wyatt.

Other than that, I am immensely proud of my husband, illustrator Duncan Smith (I know a shameless plug there) [I think you already in the previous sentence, Ed] and my gorgeous daughter who inspires me, keeps me on my toes and has the most infectious laugh."

DA: What are you working on currently?

NT: "I've got a few projects on at the moment for Little Brown, Hodder and Orion, but the one I am really excited about is a Young Adult Fiction series all about ciphers and code breaking.  It's a bit 'Da Vinci Code for kids' but it is based on real mythical legend and history.  So I've spent the last few days googling ciphers and various codes like Pigpen and the Voynich manuscript."

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