Nobody buys books anymore. Wait, scratch that, nobody buys ebooks anymore. One day print’s dead. The next, it’s the great print revival. When it comes to book publishing, the last half-dozen years have brought conflicting (and no doubt exaggerated) reports on the death and life of publishing from both sides of ebook-printed book divide.
But in an age when readers are still going to bookshops for, as Waterstones’ CEO James Daunt says,“proper books with decent paper and decent design,” the art of the book cover is flourishing.
But as Iris Ranzani has written here before, what makes book covers so tricky is that there’s so little space to communicate a big idea. So what makes some books stand out from the crowd?
The Psychopath Test by Ron Jonson; design by Matt Dorfman (Riverhead)
This cover was the end-product of a long and involved development process, according to designer Matt Dorfman in his blog. The images were each given a different textured paper: matte for the black-and-white, gloss for the explosive color. Perhaps it’s the fault of the subject matter, but I couldn’t help wondering if there was also a visual pun here, between the chased animal and the inventor of the eponymous test himself, Robert Hare.
Iris: I love this because it’s so immediate. There’s the classical image beneath and on the top it’s totally modern. It’s a double personality ― even without reading a word you know it’s about psychopathy.
World on a Plate by Mina Holland; design by Nick Misani (Penguin)
This cover is the perfect marriage of font and photography. The big cartoonish pie sits squarely on top of the map.
Iris: With all these elements ― all this text, the map, the photography ― it’s a tricky cover. It would be so easy to do it badly but Misani really pulls it off. The fonts are carefully chosen: the map is vintage, and the rest of the text reminds you of that. And the choice of font sizes helps show the hierarchy of information ― if you always use the same size it will be very confusing.
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer; design by Jon Gray (Penguin)
Emerging from the early Oughts, or what Steven Heller called the anti-digital Decade of Dirty Design, Jon Gray’s hand-lettered cover was at the avant-garde of the pushback against the digital tricks and tools that had become widely used and frequently abused throughout the 1990s.
Francesca: In the book, the character makes an incredible journey into Eastern Europe. And it’s communicated through the typography on the cover. I think I read this somewhere, that the handwritten letters were inspired by the kind of homely signs written by normal people and posted at churches. These stones represent the trip the character makes from one village to another. And having a typography-only cover ― at the time, that was something revolutionary.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin; design by Justine Anweiler (Picador UK)
As designer Justine Anweiler describes it, for this cover she had custom-made labels stitched into a housekeeping uniform and photographed.
Iris: There’s such attention paid to detail. Of course, there’s the label, which is simple, with clean typography. But it’s only in the use of “blank” space all around that you understand the text as clothing label, and understand that it’s part of a uniform. It’s brilliant because so often clients want to fill every centimeter of space with text and image ― but here the centerpiece, the label, is only realized by the space around it. And it tells a story: you’re looking with the eyes of the cleaning woman, reading the label.
Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; unpublished concept design by Eli Perez
A match is the natural visual accompaniment to Ray Bradbury’s novel, but this concept design by Eli Perez takes it one step further: a real match is included and, on the book spine, a striking surface. You could literally burn the book.
Iris: It not only expresses the concept, it goes beyond it ― into the realm of the real. It’s physical, you can interact with the cover. It’s like a call to (terrible) action. Obviously it would cost a lot to make a cover like this, but this is one book I’d buy for the cover alone.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; illustrations by Rockwell Kent (BUR)
There have been infinite re-publications of the Melville’s great American novel, and most covers focus on the great white whale himself. Kent’s art and artistry help his 1934 illustrations rise above cliché.
Milo: To be honest, I’m not much of a reader, but I am an illustrator. Kent’s illustrations for this Moby Dick are incredible. They’re dark. Sinister. The whale plunges to the depths with the boat. In a sense, there’s the story. But there’s also so much left to guess at.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov; design by Jamie Keenan
Working with classic presents both freedoms and constraints. A well known title might free you to play more on the concept itself without having to explain so much. But you equally run the risk of doing only a banal repetition of what’s been done before ― and in the case of Lolita, that’s often meant misguided images of sexy nymphettes, or even full-grown women. This is designer Jamie Keenan’s entry for a cover competition sponsored by architect John Bertram (who referred to his competition as a “corrective” for decades of bad Lolita covers). The entries were published together in Bertram’s book Lolita: Story of a Cover Girl.
Iris: This is so subtly brilliant. It takes you a second to get the visual joke, but when you do, it’s perfect on so many levels. It’s the girl’s room. It’s also a corner ― where you put a child who’s been naughty. And it’s a dead end. And, of course, it’s the girl’s legs and underwear.You’re looking with the obsessional view of a man who sees sex, and sexuality, where it shouldn’t be.
Art book series, unpublished design by Klas Ernflo
Look at any museum bookshop in the world and you’ll realize there’s no greater cliché than wrapping an art book about Van Gogh in a big picture of Starry Night. But these cover designs ― which were rejected by the publisher ― eschew images for text-only covers in big, bold, font.
Iris: These names are so famous they need no introduction. And rather than going for just another art-print cover, the names are rendered in gorgeous, bold type. Exactly what you wouldn’t expect, and so remarkable for it.
The Zoo in Winter, by Polina Barskova, design by Carol Hayes (Melville House)
Here’s another example of how to make typography the star of your book cover design: designer Carol Hayes had the title hand-stamped in the snow.
Iris: I haven’t read the book, but there’s a lovely combination of images. The stamps make it almost suggest animal tracks in the snow, especially the claw shape of W and the N. And the angle that it was shot at makes only the top of the letters super clear, because of the shadow it casts. It’s wonderful how the designer reinterpreted what it means to have typographic cover.
Il Mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice) by William Shakespeare, design by The World of Dot
Sometimes classic is exactly how classic should look, as in this rich, gold-leaf cover of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
Iris: This is one I actually have a copy of: the Piccolo Teatro in Brera, Milan, was giving out copies at a production of this play. The dark green color is lovely, the massive, intricate pattern is beautiful, the typography works perfectly, and the gold work evokes the richness of the classic and the wealth of the protagonist.
L’impronta dell’Editore (the Art of the Publisher), by Roberto Calasso (Adelphi)
While you could select any book from the Piccola Biblioteca imprint from publishing house Adelphi, none could be more fitting than this one ― the Art of the Publisher, in English ― by the man who has led the publishing house for the last four decades, Roberto Calasso.
Francesca: The books in this imprint each have sort of an anti-cover. There’s no image at all, just the Adelphi pictogram. They’re immediately recognizable on the bookshop shelves. You know the publishing house and you trust their reputation for selecting titles in philosophy, essays, classic literature. It gives a sense of continuity. It’s classic without being boring ― and it can be repeated, infinitely. And it’s also interesting that as we browse for books more and more online, what we’re seeing is only a thumbnail image. At that small size, detailed photography is rendered meaningless ― but this basic covers remain instantly identifiable.
So what, in the end, makes a great book cover design? As these book covers have shown, from image to photography to typography to texture to the proper use of negative space there’s no one answer.
But these are just 10 covers of the many that have ― pardon the pun ― left an imprint on these working graphic designers.
What are your favorites? And what makes them so great?
[Featured image by Girolamo Giannatempo]