Guest Post: Cathy Helms, Graphic Designer

Greetings readers! I am Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics writing to you from rural North Carolina, USA. First of all I want to thank John Baird for inviting me write for the New Writers blog! It is great to be here and to be introduced to all of the readers. I am an Associate Member of the NWUK group and have had the pleasure to design for several of their talented writers.
The story of how I came to New Writers UK is actually quite unique. I primarily read historical fiction myself, always on the lookout for anything 'Arthurian', and while perusing the fiction section at my local bookstore I spotted 'The Kingmaking' by Helen Hollick. I wrote to her with a letter of praise for her Pendragon's Banner Trilogy (which is still one of my favorite Arthur-centric novels of all time),  and that initial contact led to her hiring me to re-design the cover for her pirate novel 'Sea Witch'....and I've been working with Helen ever since! She's introduced me to a whole bunch of great folks in the industry, so I owe a great deal of my recent successes to her! Fate surely smiled upon me the day that I wrote that initial email!
Sea Witch by Helen Hollick
My husband and I reside in Maiden, North Carolina after relocating over a decade ago from Florida (USA), where we both grew up. After years of working in billing and customer service, I finally had had enough of crunching numbers and creating invoices. So I applied and was accepted into my local community college where I earned a degree in Advertising and Graphic Design in 2008. I call the college experience my own version of a 'mid life crisis' since I waited until I turned forty to further my education. After graduating, I established Avalon Graphics and have been working out of our home growing my design business steadily since 2009.
I am also a passionate digital photographer and often use my own photography in my design creations. I grew up with dreams of becoming a filmmaker, or a singer, or an artist, and so I've always considered myself a creative soul. As a teenager, I sang in my school's choir, played the trumpet, and was student director of many school stage productions. I graduated with the distinction of being named Drama Student of the Year in 1985. But it wasn't until much later in my life that I returned to my creative roots. Fresh out of high school, I failed to follow those creative dreams. Instead, I followed the job market earning a steady income for the first twenty two years of my professional life working in dreary cubicles crunching numbers and answering phones.
Besides all things 'Arthurian', I also fell in love with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels while still working in the drab office environment. And when Peter Jackson produced the stunning films back in 2001, I found my muse again for imaginative pursuits. I began writing poetry and dabbling in fan fiction writing. And I wanted to create my own computer desktop wallpapers based on the Lord of the Rings and other fandoms.
After some research into how these digital desktop wallpapers were created I discovered a computer software program called Adobe Photoshop! Years before I went to college to gain a formal education in the medium I taught myself how to create graphics for the web and print media with Photoshop. What my formal education gave me was the technical skills that I would need in order to apply my creative skills in the field of Advertising and Graphic Design. Most importantly, I learned how to prepare digital designs for print and quickly discovered a particular love for book cover design.
I grew up with a healthy interest in anything related to the Arthurian legends - thus the inspiration for naming my design business Avalon Graphics. I have always been fascinated with British history; in particular the Dark Ages. One day I will walk along Hadrian's Wall! I regularly attend local Renaissance Festivals here in North Carolina, and plan to travel to the UK for the first time in 2012 to visit all of the historical places that I've always read about. I hope to attend the 2012 New Writers UK Book Festival in Nottingham as well.
Years before I attended college and gained a formal education in the medium, I taught myself how to create graphics for the web and print media with Photoshop. What my formal education gave me was the technical skills that I would need in order to apply my creative skills in the field of Advertising and Graphic Design. Most importantly, I learned how to prepare digital designs for print and quickly discovered a particular love for book cover design.
The Amber Treasure by Richard Denning
Yomping Outside by David Zelder
I am often asked about my process in designing book jackets and my initial response goes something like this: each project is unique and it 'depends....'  A vague answer, I'm afraid. *laughs* I first ask the client about their manuscript, then make inquiries about favorite colors, other book covers that they favor and if they have any specific elements they'd like to see on the cover. Then I begin my concepts (in Photoshop, not by hand which usually surprises folks) based on the client's input and largely on my own gut instinct after interacting with the client. I like to work directly with the client in developing a cover design that truly speaks to them and represents the story that they are telling within the pages of their book. While my education taught me the 'rules' of formal graphic design, I often step outside that box and go for something more unique. Not all publishing houses allow free styling in book cover design, but I certainly push that envelope!
The Bitti Chai by Jane Gray
Chasing Shadows by John Baird
I offer a wide array of design services and have geared Avalon Graphics to suit the self-published and small businesses in the market in need of quality design while on a tight budget. I provide full book jacket layouts, marketing materials such as flyers, post cards, bookmarks, web graphics, book trailers for YouTube and even portfolio websites for my clients. I also continue to work with many individual authors directly including members Richard Denning, John Baird, David Zelder, Jane Gray and Helen Hollick. Perhaps the most profound connection that I have made is with Helen Hollick. We struck up a quick and easy friendship which led to me re-designing nearly all of her book jackets to date along with many other promotional projects for all of her endeavors. And the rest simply fell into place from there on the strength of that bond as Helen introduced me to many of the New Writers UK members and associates.
It was a pleasure to drop in on the New Writers Blog! And I look forward to meeting all of you!
Cathy Helms
Avalon Graphics
1. What is your background? How did you choose to come into this field, and what has made you stay? Why this form of creative expression?
My background is actually in retail, billing and customer service. Yet I've always been drawn to creative things including photography, writing, film, music and gardening. It took me a couple of decades, but I have finally chosen Graphic Design as my profession because it has always called to me. I finally chose to listen! I was utterly bored and unchallenged working in customer service, so when I had an opportunity to 'start over' career wise, I took it. I stay because at its core, I love creating in this medium. I love bringing to life visually what an author creates with the written word. I am a visual person, so graphic design comes much more naturally to me than anything else. When I read a synopsis, I typically visualize immediately how I'd like to see the story promoted (book jacket, trailer, poster, etc.). So what better way to do it than design the book jackets myself!

2. What sort of ground rules do you expect from a client? How do you communicate? What kind of follow through do you like?
There always should be some framework or formal ground rules in any working relationship to protect both parties. So I do insist in signing written contracts with my clients before I begin any creative work. The contract ensures that I will deliver what I promise to do for the client and at the same time guarantees that I earn a living as well. I primarily communicate via emails since the majority of my clients reside overseas. I believe myself to possess strong communicative skills, thus emails have been effective in running a business in the design field. I consider constructive feedback the best follow through that any client can give me. That and good communication between myself and the client. And since word of mouth is the most valuable asset in any marketing campaign, referrals from clients are the best follow through that I could ask for.

3. What is your sign?
I was born under the sign of Libra. The scales. And I am true to the sign. I am constantly seeking balance. And perhaps that also lends itself well to a career in graphic design since visual balance is a huge part of any well designed product. A lot of creative types are born under the Libran sign as well. I also have a very analytical mind and things must 'make sense' for me to stand by them or believe in them.

4. How do you stay on track with such a hectic schedule, and what motivates you?
A hectic schedule is tough for me to maintain as it does tend to wreak havoc with my need for balance and calmness. However, long years in the fast paced world of retail and customer service allowed me to gain the skills, particularly patience with others, to successfully manage a busy work schedule. I keep a weekly schedule, day by day, of tasks to be completed. I also have a monthly production schedule so that I can properly schedule all ongoing projects and meet deadlines. I'm motivated to keep a solid production schedule to save my own sanity. *laughs* It helps me to have a solid schedule at all times and to feel as if I'm organized and on top of my workload. Emergencies will always arise, but I am better prepared for such situations due to my strong work ethics and organizational skills. I schedule blocks of time for each project and for the pursuit of self promotion. Toughest challenge is ignoring personal interests on social networks!

5. What is your ultimate goal, and how can you help me get the word out about my book?
My ultimate goal is to create something that pleases my client, accurately represents their book/product, is mechanically sound for press, and draws the attention of the potential buyer. Graphic design exists to promote a service or product - to make the consumer 'aware' of a particular product (or book). So it is always my goal to design an attractive cover jacket and related marketing materials to sell my client's novel. I always support my client's marketing efforts with postings and mentions on my social network accounts, and by including the work on my own website for further mutually beneficial exposure. I offer suggestions to targeted promotional outlets and recommend various ways to get the word out about a client's book. I believe strongly in networking with fellow designers, authors and groups, such as New Writers, in gaining awareness of new books in publication. Blog tours and guest write ups are another great way to gain exposure to new potential readers and fans.
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