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Exercise 2.1: Writing a brief

In order to better understand what goes into making a good brief, this exercise required me to write one for a finished image by another artist, rather than responding to one as an illustrator myself.

I decided to look at the work of Illustrator and concept artist Ian McQue, who recently created a series of new covers for the Mortal Engines Series of books written by Philip Reeve. I’ve loved this fictional universe since I was a teenager but I was unaware of McQue’s work until he became involved with the series through this recent project.

Illustrations by Ian Mcque for the "Mortal Engines" books by Philip Reeve. Published by Scholastic in 2018

Along with these re-releases, a new collection of short stories set in the same universe called Night Flights has also been published. I picked Night Flights as the book I wanted to specifically focus on so I printed copies of the cover and full concept art to annotate in my sketchbook, making notes about as many areas and aspects of the design that I could think of.

There were also additional themes, target audiences and wider contexts for me to keep in mind, such as the timing of the release so close to a large scale film adaptation by Christian rivers and Peter Jackson due to release in the same year.

As I explored the ideas that could have contributed to the image, I found that writing only about the Night flights cover as an isolated design wouldn’t feel right as it was clearly made to fit in with the rest of the series of new covers that all share some specific similarities in composition and theming. This is an informed decision on the part of the designer and illustrator, so as a brief I needed to make sure I covered the reasons why the book covers should all look this way. To do this, I split the brief into to bullet point sections to explain not just what is needed for the Night flights cover specifically, but also what was required for the full set of books as a whole.


Night Flights / Mortal Engines Cover Design Brief

Design a cover sleeve for the forthcoming book Night Flights by Philip Reeve. The book will be a collection of short adventures set within the Mortal Engines series of books by the same author.

Night Flights will be released alongside new covers for the main series in July 2018 and as such should share the same visual language that keeps in uniform with the other books in the series.

These books, as well a separate visual companion called The Illustrated World Of Mortal Engines, will all be released ahead of the premier of a film adaption in December 2018 of the first book in the series. Although the book covers will have a tagline referring to the film’s release, these covers should stand alone as a visual interpretation of the novels instead of recreating the visual style seen within the film. The intention is to attract new readers to the book series as it gains interest through other media.

Each cover will contain the following key features:

  • The image will be printed on a single cover sleeve that will wrap around the book. Keep this in mind as the right hand side of the image will serve as the front cover, with sparser the left forming the image for the back of the book and not requiring as much detail.

  • The book's title and credits to the author and illustrator will all be centred on the cover. The series title and the tagline “Soon to be a motion picture” will be placed at the base of the cover.

  • In the foreground, the main character of the book should appear facing away from the viewer in the lower third of the cover as they look towards a tall, multi-tiered, industrious and mobile city that looms over the barren landscape in front of them.

  • In the background, the featured city should stretch across the remaining upper two thirds of the image to represent its colossal size by offering a stark contrast to the scale of the figure in the foreground.

  • The themes within the scene should convey a blend of adventure with a serious tone that is commonly found in young adult fantasy fiction and dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories by presenting a moment of pause before a tense threat. The Mortal Engines series was written for a young adults but touches on some themes that will appeal to an older audience.

  • Any preferred medium may be used to create the image, as long as it can be used to effectively reflect the loose, dilapidated and often muddy textures of a post-apocalyptic world.

Requirements Specific to Night Flights:

  • The featured character should represent Anna Fang, the focal character whose adventures are explored in the short stories of Night Flights. She is most recognisable by her deep red trench coat with other visual influences inspired by eastern Asian cultures. The left of the image may suggest a call to action as Anna Fang’s personal ship waits for her off to the side.

  • The featured city should be a fictional version of London that is most recognisable by the dome of St Paul's cathedral being clearly visible at its top. The city mirrors a similar structure to a seven tiered wedding cake, with the width decreasing as you move up each of its sections. Lights and visiting airships across the city indicate that it is still a living metropolis within the world.

  • As the title suggests, the scene should be set at night, with the soft glow of a full moon illuminating an arctic, mountainous landscape.

  • Cool blues should dominate the colour palette, with the exception being the shadowy red of the main characters attire.


This might seem densely worded in places, but I’ve tried to tread the line between providing as much specific context as possible for someone who might not be familiar with the source material, while also leaving other areas open to creative interpretation such as a free choice of materials and by using generic terms for some of the visuals.

I managed to steer clear of directly quoting descriptions of objects and characters from the book as I feel that a strong brief should explore more context than just the literal interpretation of an extract of text. I made sure to explain the reasons why the books were getting new covers as well, highlighting the importance of the timing of the release and the need for uniform covers.

I’m pleased with how it reads but I had some concerns in case I had got lost in my own familiarity of the book series. However after giving the brief to others to read I’ve had enough positive responses back that I’m hoping that I’ve created something that would provide a good starting structure for a potential illustrator to create an informed design around.



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