Sometimes, a cover starts with a sketch. (The word sketch is probably being overly generous, given that my drawing skills leave a lot to be desired.) This was the case with Operation Unthinkable. I started by sketching out the cover on a small scrap of paper.
A quick sketch, of course, and an imprecise one: the box proportions are roughly there, but are a little too long, and thus a bad approximation of the actual canvas. The text is in my trademark illegible scrawl, and thus it's very irregular and lacks any sense of proportion. Once I select a typeface - and I was already leaning toward a very messy, typewriter-y font, in this case Radio Newsman - it's not going to match anything like the proportions I had sketched out. It never does.
The fellow in the lower right corner, of course, is supposed to be Winston Churchill. While my sketch doesn't give any hint of my intention, I wanted to work from a photograph of Churchill and turn it into something slightly messy, to match the messy font I had in mind. At the same time, I wanted it to really "pop". When I did the sketch, I seemed to recall a photo where he was wearing a hat, and where his eyes had a weary, haunted look. Here's the one:
In playing with the photo, I ended up eliding the hat altogether, as it looked sort of silly on the finished product.
Of course once I started working on the cover itself, as predicted the title didn't take up quite as much space as I wanted it too, which left some space on the upper left. I decided to put Stalin there. The result is the first cover I sent to designer Ty Bomba.
Ty liked it fine, but requested that we add an atomic explosion/mushroom cloud. So, I did that, while trying to keep the effect consistent with the other visual elements.
This added a vital splash of color that really brought the whole thing together. At this point, Mary stepped in, and suggested I get rid of the left side (our right) of Stalin's face. This subtly but immeasurably improved the final cover.
When Lou Coatney, who designed Teutons! for us, saw the cover on Facebook, he suggested that Churchill should be on the upper left and Stalin in the lower right, to better reflect Churchill's status as the aggressor. And in a way, he's right. In Western design, it's typical to see movement from left-to-right as forward/aggressive movement, and the movement from the upper-left to the lower-right tends to emphasize the weakness of the latter, while the former comes across as looming, threatening, and foreboding. That, however, emphasized precisely what I wanted it to - while Churchill's proposed campaign would put the Allies on the offensive, the battle plan itself was drawn up out of Churchill's deep-seated distrust of Stalin. So it made sense to me to put my apprehensive Churchill in the "defensive" corner, and to put a rather calm if sickly looking Stalin in the "threatening" corner.