A cover design is an unparalleled choice in the book industry. We will definitely have a look at the cover, at least twice, before making an investment on the book. When Sisira Wijethunga entered this career path, the cover design industry was also nothing but a toddler in Sri Lanka.
Computer was unheard back then. Everything counted on manual skills, especially the drawing capability. Wijethunga has been in the industry since early 1980s and his capacity still makes him prosper even though the number of graphic designers has multiplied now.
But there was a time, Wijethunga muses, when less was more. Graphic designers were less and the workload was more. Wijethunga could not even sleep properly. The workload was that much. "And now things have changed. People have a good choice to make among designers. We do not get the quantity we used to get."
However, Wijethunga's expensive rates are still in existence. That is what make you survive in the industry, he believes.
"I have never approached a client for work. They come to me. I never advertise. But still I get work. I don't know what future holds for me. But that is how things are, and I believe that is because I maintain a brand quality."
This brand name is a hard-earned one, Wijethunga explains: "We learnt this art with great difficulty. And that means we have a lot to offer. There is a difference between something we do and others do."
With such a brand consciousness, Wijethunga does not hesitate to call himself a commercial artist. The very word 'commercial' would drive us away as it sounds junkie. Most of us believe 'commercial' does not go along with the 'sacredness' of art. On the contrary, however, Wijethunga has much faith on commercial art.
Commercial art is the way to perfectionism. Most classical works are not technically neat. They have quite a lot of loopholes. In commercial arts, you can hardly afford such loopholes, as your business is to satisfy your customer. You engage in classical works mostly to please yourself, so technical and other setbacks are highly probable.
"Commercialization does not distort the art. In fact, it makes the artwork better. You are supposed to be extra careful."
Any kind of design enthralled Wijethunga during the days of his upbringing. He would stare into a poster for hours. Those posters with movie stars were mesmerizing: not the stars, but the poster design.
That influenced him to design on his own. He designed letters. His adroit skills made him the most sought after graphic artiste at school. Following his A-Ls, Sisira left his hometown, Akuressa. In Colombo, he joined a commercial art firm and worked with veteran art director D G Somapala.
"That was a good exposure. I realized I was groping in the dark, when I started working on commercial arts. It is totally a different kind of experience. I had exposure to printing press as well."
Everything was done manually. No computers. And hardly any machine was involved. Even the later introduction of computers was confined to typesetting. The letters had to be manually composited, and fixed to the template before printing. Even a small artwork, Wijethunga now recalls, would take unimaginably long to reach completion. Wijethunga and co had to work day in day out, as artwork jobs flooded in incessantly.
Wijethunga was offered many job opportunities. He joined one international company as a graphic artist. But his workload influx was still incessant. He had a heavy package to attend to following duty hours. The company too understood his situation, and settled to offer him resignation and continue with him on freelance basis.
"Because of this work, I got the opportunity to know a lot of artistes. Sunil Edirisinghe was such an acquaintance. He wanted me to do a cover for a cassette."
That was Wijethunga's first cover. The first cover that made waves in the cover design industry. Wijethunga captured the singer on his own camera, and gave prominence to the photograph on cover. He made use of colours of the artiste's dress to background as well as lettering. The lettering was done manually.
"People buy a cassette or a CD mainly because they love the singer. That is why I wanted to make the singer's picture bigger. Everybody started liking it. It became a trend."
Many leading singers then wanted Wijethunga to design covers for their cassettes and CDs. All this meant extra cash for him too. He utilized those monies to purchase whatever little digital equipment available back then. Digital equipment was mostly cameras, back then. Wijethunga's initial book covers have been designed for Karunasena Jayalath, a famous Sinhalese young adult novelist.
"Then the trend was to make use of artworks. But Jayalath wanted a photograph. A photograph of a girl."
Wijethunga gradually established himself as a cover designer with Wijesuriya Grantha Kendraya publishers.
"It is an interesting story how I became a regular cover designer for them," Wijethunga recalls.
The book was almost finished, though its author, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, was not happy with the cover. The cover was brought to Wijethunga for a rework. He changed the cover completely to meet Amarakeerthi's requirements. Author as well as the publisher were quite happy with the cover. It reached ultimatum when the cover was nominated for the State Literary Award. The cover was chosen to be awarded the Best Cover Design.
But the credit was attributed to the original designer. The name could not be changed as the typesetting and proofreading were already over. The publisher and the author, along with Wijethunga, forwarded a letter to explain the situation and to certify that the design belongs to Wijethunga. Original designer, however, did not corroborate their account. Finally the award was not given.
A cover designer or any graphic designer would get paid a handsome amount in the global scene. But that is not so in this part of the world. In mid 1990s, Sisira bought an Apple computer to make graphic design more advanced. Computers used for graphic purpose was a strange case then. He had no idea how to use a computer - not even the basics.
"It was totally a new experience. We bought the computer. That computer had a CD ROM too. That was a great thing back then. The Hard Disk itself was only 500 MB. It was a great amount then. Because all the typesetting was done on a floppy disk, which was about 1.44 mb."
The computer was a fancy item. Crowds thronged to see the computer itself. Wijethunga was gradually learning the basics of photoshop and how to handle a CD.
With Sarath Wijesuriya Grantha Kendraya, he tried to introduce a fresh trend to the book cover industry.
"People are fond of good covers. They like to keep on looking at some covers. That is why we introduced matt lamination to book covers. It gave a good finish to books."
Book covers vary. Pretty damsels have been trending on book covers. Some covers have classical backgrounds.
"I do every kind of cover, but with the same rates. I do them according to my standards. I have done CD cover designs for Amaradeva, Nanda Malini as well as Sunflowers and Sunil Perera."
A cover design is teamwork in most countries. They spend quite a lot on one cover. A cover comes out as teamwork. This is possible because books are printed in millions of copies. On the contrary Sri Lankan publishers cannot print such an amount of copies. It is mostly confined to 1000 or a little more.
"In such a situation, it is understandable that you cannot pay a fat amount to a designer." But there are other things in the industry, which, Wijethunga thinks, should be rectified. Most authors need their books published in rush.
"An author will come to me on Friday and ask for a cover on Monday. He would only give me a brief idea. We also like to experiment. We also like to research on this subject, but with the limited time frame that is far from possibility. Publishers and authors shall not rush in this industry."