Mar 20, 2017

How the beauty of decay inspired Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Designer David Eldridge takes us through the process of designing Arundhati Roy's long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and how the beauty of decay inspired its cover

How did you come to design the cover for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?

I designed The God of Small Things, Arundhati’s first book, back in 1998. The creative process for that first one was very collaborative; we worked together closely in producing the final design. So for the new book, I was asked to work up some cover designs – and I was so pleased to be asked!

How was Arundhati involved in the design process this time?

Arundhati was pivotal in helping to find the right tone for the cover. We worked iteratively: I would send designs and then she would feed back overnight.

It’s wonderful to have a truly open-minded author. Arundhati really allowed me follow my own direction, to explore and experiment, whilst also being so constructive and engaged, adding in key ideas that eventually made the design lock together as a whole.

What inspired the design?

The initial idea came out of some gorgeous, rich images that Arundhati sent me: they were simply photographs of beautiful old gravestones.

One of the novel’s core settings is a graveyard – it becomes very important in the story and it speaks to many of its themes and ideas – so it felt right to reference that setting on the jacket.

I spent some time examining the gravestone photos Arundhati sent. One in particular sang out at me, and that became the starting point for constructing the front cover panel.

Gravestone photo by Mayank Austen Soofi

How did you create the image?

I started from my favourite gravestone photograph, and added in details from some of the other gravestones too, building a composite image from many parts. I wanted to give the cover real depth, so my next step was to convert the gravestone design into a digital 3D model. I combined this model with the Photoshop composite image, which allowed me to add in effects: conveying light, eroding and distressing parts of the stone to create the sense of age and decay.
mouh tombstone 3d 

The digital 3D model of the gravestone

Overlaid on the gravestone, I added the core motifs. Each of these details was created as a standalone element, because I knew that foreign publishers would need to be able to move them around. For example, the rose slightly overlaps the title text, and the length and position of that text will change on foreign language editions – so it has to be able to move, to be adaptable for every edition of the book across the world.
rough idea 

Combining visuals for the cover

Where did the all the individual details come from?

It was Arundhati’s idea to have some details ‘falling off' the cover; the flower on the spine, the seal on the front flap. I love how this makes the design flow onto all the parts of the cover. The seal especially is a useful device, as it links the full-colour part of the cover into the bespoke patterned ‘endpapers’  at the front and back of the book, as well as appearing in foil on the case. Hopefully it will be used as a chapter dingbat – one of those ornamental motifs that break up the text – within the book, too.

The seal began as an old clipping I found on a collectors’ website, I remembered one particularly evocative piece of writing in the book that describes a crow suspended in the air. I wanted to use that as a kind of icon, so Arundhati sent me a picture of the crow that was her inspiration. I drew the seal’s central image from her picture, filling the rest of the space with other animals from the book. And you can see how the seal’s unusual border shape echoes the gravestone panel on the front cover.
 seal took shape

What is the most important element of this cover for you?

I like the fact that, on closer inspection, the objects of beauty are in fact in the process of decay. Also, there’s a tiny fly caught in time on the front of the book – I like him very much.

moup packshot

The finished cover


(Except for the headline, this story, originally published by has not been edited by SLM staff)