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Journey to the Perfect Cover

Art studio student Ivy Nguyen designs cover for First-Year Reading Experience book

Every year, as third-year graphic design and illustration students approach the deadline to submit proposed covers for the First-Year Reading Experience book, they feverishly brainstorm concepts, create mood boards, cycle through drafts and pin their work to the board for critiques from their instructors and classmates. For Ivy Nguyen, an art studio major, the process seemed much longer.

Nguyen is the most recent winner in a line of students to gain professional publishing experience and design experience. For nearly 30 years, students in the design course have competed to create book posters for the year’s FYRE pick, and more recently, the winner of the poster contest has been rewarded with publishing experience: their design printed on the thousands of FYRE books distributed to USC freshmen to discuss with U101 classmates as their first assignment upon entering the university. The satisfaction of being chosen for this honor is a well-deserved reward for the hard work that goes into creating the winning cover.

“There’s so many different ways you can create a book cover, I don’t know what it should be,” Nguyen says, reflecting on her initial reaction to being assigned a design project on Michael Schur’s How to be Perfect.  “I get frustrated when something’s not working. I always think, this should be the resolution already because I just want to be done.”

“Just being done” was not coming naturally to Nguyen. As she read How to be Perfect, she knew she wanted to capture the essence of Schur’s humor while also beginning to tackle some of the philosophical concepts he addresses, but coming up with the final design was a challenge.

Nguyen zeroed in on see-saws early on, which she saw as an ideal visual representation of Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. How could she incorporate the humor element? She wasn’t sure. After four different versions of her cover, featuring a range of approaches from digital illustration to three-dimensional photographs of physical objects, Nguyen settled on the winning design: a bold green spread with an illustration of a person launching their see-saw partner into the air.

“It wasn’t until Ivy brought in the final version and held it up and turned it around to show the class, that it made me literally laugh out loud,” says Marius Valdes, who taught Nguyen’s design course. “Humor is a powerful tool in design. That’s something that really set her apart from the other designs, and I applauded her effort to stick with her idea and keep working on it until she got to the final design.”

Final cover featuring person being launched from seesaw
Nguyen designed the winning cover for the 2023 First-Year Reading Experience book.

For Nguyen, reworking her design was a critical learning experience, teaching her the importance of pushing out of her comfort zone and rethinking her initial product to lean into learning from the process. The payoff of permitting herself to reimagine her cover was greater than she expected. “Everyone’s [cover] was so great, and it was so surreal to me when they announced to us that mine was chosen,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

It’s exactly the type of experience that design professors at the School of Visual Art and Design hope to provide. “For our students, it’s their first time working with real clients on a real thing that’s actually going to get used and printed,” says Valdes. “It’s a real-world experiential learning event for them.”

The book cover project is modeled on the assignments given to designers in the workforce, with a relatively tight deadline, presentations to the FYRE committee on their cover concept and requirements about working with the material provided — in this case, How to be Perfect.

For Nguyen, like many of her peers, the course was her first experience with designing book covers. Her interest lies in the realm of package design and print design, and with experience primarily in typography and image making, the opportunity to put those elements together to create a cover was new. Yet year after year, exceptional instructors and talented, dedicated students collaborate on this project, and nobody has been disappointed yet.

“We’re really proud of the students,” says Valdes. “It’s a really great opportunity, and they deliver every time.”

Not only do students like Nguyen deliver on their cover designs, but they skillfully navigate the specifics of interactions with publishers and printers. Soon after being declared winner of the competition, Nguyen found herself discussing the details of the cover with Simon & Schuster, taking the real-world element of the cover project to the next level and offering her an unparalleled opportunity to gain professional experience. Nguyen was relieved to find that the process was not nearly as nerve-wracking as she’d anticipated.

As a freshman, Nguyen faced the path ahead of her feeling disoriented and unsure of her future. Now, she heads into her final year at the University of South Carolina prepared to graduate with an art studio degree, the satisfaction of professional publishing experience, and confidence in the direction of her future career.

“It solidified that this for sure is a field I want to grow in and something I want to keep doing,” Nguyen says. “First coming into school, I wasn’t sure, but now I know that’s something I want to definitely improve on and keep creating.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.