On Book Covers

To me, nothing seems like it would be cooler than being a book cover designer. Think about it. Not only would I be required to read new books for work, but then I’d get to spend my time being creative, and try come up with a cover that would both reflect that book and help be successful by getting as many people as possible to pick it up off the shelf. Well, at least if you’re me, that’s pretty much perfection in a nutshell.

And towards that end, I’ve been reading about book design wherever I can. I follow amazing blogs like faceoutbooks.com, where they get book cover designers to talk about their design process and what their goal was and what they struggled with. I follow publishers on twitter and read articles about the future of the book industry (if you ask me, a book will always need a cover), typography on kindles, try to find jobs at publishing companies, and buy books on book design. Today I managed to combine two of those by reading Penguin 75: Designers Authors Commentary (the good, the bad . . . ) while commuting to my first day of work at a small publishing company.

penguin 75
Penguin 75

The book itself is an interesting, at times funny read, as each page brings a new book, and each designer or author brings a new voice to the discussion. While not quite as in depth about the design process as faceoutbooks.com, the variety of covers, and the feedback from the author and sometimes the art director on how everyone agreed on a cover (or didn’t really agree) is interesting. Today, on my commute, I got as far as page 50, which was talking about the paperback cover designed by Tal Goretsky for The China Lover (written by Ian Buruma). The author opened his commentary with the declaration that

A good cover is not an illustration. It conveys the atmosphere, the smell, the color, the feeling of the story inside.

I thought this was a fantastic way of describing it. This last semester in type class, as we designed novel covers and coffee table book covers, our teacher tried to get us to think outside the box, think of perhaps the opposite of what the cover suggested, think of a design that was anything but what the reader would be expecting. And I think that thats an interesting exercise, but I’m not sure it necessarily results in the most appropriate covers. Buruma’s description above, of avoiding a direct image-based representation, but instead trying to hint at the subject, and create a mood or a subtle feeling about the book without telling the reader about everything that will happen in the plot, seems to be closer. In essence, be creative, but be subtle! Be intriguing. Be unexpected, but be exactly right for the book. Be that, and you are perfect. . . . I’m not setting easy goals for myself, but that is what I am for!

I was also amused to then read the designer’s comments. Tal Goretsky had come up with a gorgeous illustration that and picked a typography that felt vintage and time-appropriate for the 1930’s, but his favorite design was rejected, and instead the final design was one where the cover imagery from the hard back edition, designed by Gabriele Wilson, was used but with Goretsky’s type. Goretsky goes on to mention that “turns out Gabriele’s art was a photo she took of a poster hanging in her landlady’s frame shop, next door to her office.” Which is rather ironic, given how much love and labor Goretsky put into his own illustration, but it is a great reminder that a good artist steals. Not plagiarizes, but takes art and beauty and design from the world all around them, and incorporates it where it will be just the perfect touch. The image is a beautiful, perhaps slightly cliche’ Chinese young woman, on an old advertisement, which has been emphasized by photoshopping creases into the image and an oriental border that looks aged. That old illustration, taken from a frame shop, along with Goretsky’s vintage type, creates exactly the atmosphere for the book that Buruma describes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the book tomorrow, and seeing what insights the designers or authors have. Hopefully someday I’ll be the creator of covers for famous books and make my way into books for famous covers . . . until then I’ll keep on reading! And designing, and reading, and designing.


2 thoughts on “On Book Covers”

  1. Unless you work at TII. Who, by the way, allowed me to “design” one. Look out for it in bookstores in the Fall…

    In other news, hi!

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