Alex Merto on his less is more approach to book cover design

New York-based designer Alex Merto says he got into graphic design by accident. Deeming himself a failed student in high school without a “clear path to anywhere”, he spent a lot of time making music in various bands and designing album art along the way. He eventually moved from California to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. 

“I think the first piece of graphic design that I really noticed and impacted me was a book designed by Peter Buchanan-Smith for the band Wilco,” Merto tells CR. “It was the first time I noticed that a book could really be art. I was lucky enough to end up studying with Peter while I was in school, as well as Paul Sahre who has also always been a huge inspiration to me.” 

Top: The Tale of Shikanoko Series by Lian Hearn. Above: Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas by Jamaica Kincaid. All images: Alex Merto
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Merto specialises in book cover and editorial design and he moved into the area partly due to his love of books. “As a book cover designer, I am exposed to so many interesting topics that I wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise,” he says.

“You’re endlessly learning something new for each title you take on. I’ve now been designing covers for about ten years and still really enjoy it.” From big name authors to first time writers, Merto treats each project with an open mind.

The Organs of Sense: A Novel by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama

The designer doesn’t feel his work has a distinct style, but this is a good thing when it comes to book cover design as Merto believes it can be limiting to have a strong visual style and be unable to adapt to what the book needs.

“I try to match my style as a reaction to what I’m reading,” says Merto. “I think that’s what really allows me to do something different each time. I would say the style is inspired by the reading.” 

Overall though, Merto’s work is crisp, considered and flits between using illustration, found imagery and photography, creating a broad but refined portfolio of work. His creative process tends to shift project to project, with Merto opting for a more organic approach. 

“Usually it means reading the book first, taking notes of notes and then doing loose sketches,” he says. “I’m often digging back into the text after that process is over. There are also times when a manuscript is unavailable and you have to work with very little information, which can be freeing for the design process.” 

Instructions for a Funeral: Stories by David Means
The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa

Though this can feel liberating, the flipside is sometimes Merto feels as though it can be hard to know when to stop if the possibilities are endless.

“There is also the fear that you are not doing the book justice until you’ve explored all possible solutions,” he says of the challenges. “But when it comes to presenting the book, I find it’s better to just show less. There’s nothing worse than a design that ends up being chosen that you are not happy with.”  

Merto says his end goal is simple: to make someone want to pick up the work he’s created. “If it’s a book cover I want it to be the first thing people see when they walk into a store,” he says. “It needs to be eye-catching and memorable.”