Book spines are such an interesting and often-overlooked part of the book experience. They present a unique challenge to the designer, in terms of their long and narrow shape and requirement to include title, author, and usually the publisher’s logo as well. The result tends to be either a space that is forgotten and boring, or ingenious and engaging in its creativity.
In a previous post, I delved into the debate about whether book spines are of particular importance because a spine is all the reader sees on a bookshelf, or of particular unimportance because in today’s digital age of e-readers and online stores, the spine no longer even exists.
Since then, I’ve come across a number of new inspiring spine designs that I wanted to share with you all. Enjoy!
“The House of the Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“This is not the end of the book; Two great men discuss our digital future” by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere
“The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories” by V.S. Pritchett, illustrated by Clifford Harper
“Desktop” magazine spine detail – by garbett
Complete Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice” by Richard Bernstein
B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures comes by its title honestly; the book is one filled with only words, in different fonts and colors and sizes. Funny, creative, and smart, the book, which forces the reader to say a slew of ridiculous words, is guaranteed to get a laugh out of any kid you know
I love so much about this. I love the idea of showing children the power of words, and the sense of exploration in where words can take them. And I love the idea of highlighting that power, and making the words themselves the hero, rather than any accompanying images. It hits home at an early age the power of communication, and that old adage that the pen is more powerful than the sword.
And making the words, as the star of the show, hilarious and delightful and fun and playful and imaginative and silly, just hits home how much fun reading can be—the best lesson there is!
Novak, known for his career as a comedian, started this project because he says he loves reading to children, and getting a laugh out of them. Starting perhaps with the idea that a comedian has to play to his audience, Novak wanted to explore how a children’s book could feel like it was on the child’s side. As he said in an interview with The Atlantic:
“If the adult had to say silly things, I knew the kid would feel very powerful and would feel that books are very powerful. Working backwards, I realized that if there were no pictures, it would be an even more delightful trick: The kid is taking a grown-up style book and using it against the grown-up.”
This idea that books are powerful reminds me of that Carl Sagan quote, which I wrote about before, and love so much:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” —Carl Sagan
Anyone that can teach children that books are works of magic is doing something right in my book!
Little Nemo in Slumberland
The other book I wanted to share with you is an old classic: Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay. Recently some friends purchased the large format (10×13) Vol 1 of the Complete Collection of this classic comic strip originally published from 1905 to 1911. It is, admittedly, a little early for their newborn to enjoy it, but they are eagerly awaiting the age they can crack it open and enjoy these stories with their son.
Winsor McCay’s beautiful dreamscapes appeared in the New York Herald between 1905 and 1911, and the comic strip “Little Nemo” is considered by some to be the best, most brilliant comic strip ever published. Six-year-old Nemo (Latin for no one) falls asleep in his bed and is transported to the fantastical Slumberland—at the request of King Morpheus—where he encounters all kinds of strange creatures. At the end of each trip he wakes up, unsure of what was real and what was a dream. The exquisitely detailed, art-nouveau-style colored panels in this edition are reproduced from rare, vintage file-copy pages. Alongside George Herriman’s bizarre Krazy Kat, McCay’s work helped to create the grammar of comic art. This Little Nemo collection—an entertaining romp into Slumberland—also provides a lovely glimpse into the origins of an art form.
Often listed in the same category as Calvin and Hobbes (my personal all-time-favorite), Little Nemo is no vapid child’s tale with the same old tired stories. The images are fantastic, truly works of art, and the creative plotlines are an almost magical-realism style exploration of the realm of imagination and dreams. Its more mature approach to fantastical stories helps it appeal to both adults and children, and its role in defining and establishing the comic genre gives it a historic and cultural significance.
And it’s kind of just fun to read from a 10×13 book! It’s a good example of the format of the physical object itself giving a playfulness and importance to the content.
Both of these books are superlative examples of what a children’s book can be, and would be a fun addition to any child’s library!
I recently discovered a mini treasure trove of book covers designed by Ben Wiseman (view his portfolio). He seems to be best known for bold, simple graphic illustrations, but I was completely bowled over by his typographic book covers. These covers focus on the creative design of the letterforms, and imbue the titles themselves with subtle significance and a sense of visual delight.
I was impressed with his creativity and the range of styles that he was able to bring to this collection of book covers. From clean, vector san-serifs for The Shallows to rough, textured, hand-painted letterforms for The Melting Season, Wiseman brings rich visual detail and attention-grabbing graphics that are appropriate to each title. I also love his bright color palettes—a skill he no doubt honed as an illustrator, Wiseman’s color combinations bring a fun energy to the typography. These six are some of my favorites:
I came across a fun interview with Ben Wiseman talking about his career and design process. It was interesting to read his thoughts on what makes a good cover, and his favorite examples of this artform:
“A great book jacket is one that makes you pick it up. It can be a great photo or a great illustration or just a great concept. But the best ones are the ones that stop you in the store and make you look. As for favourites, I love Paul Rand’s cover for HL Menken’s Prejudices and Alvin Lustig’s Lorca.”
You can how these two covers, with their hand-drawn type and bold, arresting style, have influenced Wiseman’s work.
Another part of the interview that I enjoyed was about his process. Wiseman is thorough and reads the whole book to brainstorm ideas, but he also places an admirable faith in “happy accidents”to get to his final design:
“I always read the book, and spend the whole time bouncing ideas around in my head. Usually I might have a couple of ideas halfway through the book, and usually those won’t go anywhere. But once I’ve sat with the book for a while, and thought about it for a few days, things usually start coming together. And after I start working, there are hopefully some happy accidents that occur.”
Looking at Wiseman’s book covers I was also interested to note that he submitted a cover for John Bertram’s Recovering Lolita project that I wrote about in a previous post, Lo. Lee. Ta. A Collection of Covers. This cover is a combination of an obsessive, hand-written “Lolita” over and over, censored and hidden by black marks and a clean, white ripped paper with the author’s name. Appropriately intriguing, foreboding and an unsettling combination of innocent and dark that hints at the themes of the book without revealing too much. And, once again, very much type-centric.
While I think Wiseman has made a name for himself mostly through his illustration, I will certainly be keeping my eye out for more of his great typographic covers in the future.
My sincerest apologies in having been so neglectful in writing these last few months. I have been incredibly busy finishing my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in Graphic Design, and sacrificed a lot of my favorite pastimes—including gardening, watching movies, and unfortunately, writing blog posts—in order to do so. But the deed is done, my diploma in hand, and I am back!
One of the final steps in graduating, as a designer, is to put together a portfolio of the work I did over these last four years. While the vast majority of people view design portfolios online, and when I go to interviews all I really ever show is my portfolio website on my iPad, we are still required to also create a beautifully designed portfolio book to showcase our work. And I have to say—despite it being less relevant than it used to be, I’m really glad to have my work collected in such a lovely, bound anthology. There is something about the heft of a book, the texture of a page, and going through all those projects one page after another, that gives a certain feeling of gravitas to my work. For all its versatility and accessibility, the online portfolio just doesn’t quite capture that same feeling.
I had a lot of fun designing my portfolio book. I am interested in digital design and book design, and I love both cutting edge design developments as well as the history and tradition of design going back to the days before set type and the printing press, so I tried to bring that juxtaposition of modern design and design heritage into my portfolio. I chose an old-fashioned blackletter typeface and a modern sans serif, I found layout inspiration in the simplicity of pages from illuminated manuscripts, and tracked the project number in the upper right corner in a visual style that echoes the step by step indicator in software wizards. In general, I tried to exemplify my personal style, with clean and elegant layouts, lots of white space, bright colors and little details that add fun and a bit of interest to the simplicity.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Capable of Working Magic, my portfolio design was inspired in part by a quote from Carl Sagan. In it, he talks about the power of books to communicate and bring together people from different epochs, which to him seems “proof that humans are capable of work magic.” I love that quote for many reasons, and in particular for how it seems to really express delight in design. This idea of delightful design is something I value, and wanted to emphasize throughout my portfolio.
One of the challenges to creating a beautiful, professional book is figuring out how to present the rough stuff—the process, the sketches, the drafts—in a way that doesn’t look jarring next to the polished finished work. One technique I used was to put the wireframes or sketches on a navy background, sometimes with little notes scrawled on the edges to show thought process and development.
Another fun design challenge was designing my portfolio website. For all that I love my portfolio book, at the end of the day my website is more important. The challenge with the website was to create an interactive, responsive, screen-viewing experience that had the same aesthetic as the physical 8×10 printed book that I designed. This meant the same typography styles and color scheme, and a simple, clean layout that referenced the layouts I used in the book, but adapted for the web viewing experience, taking into account things like the ability to scroll and needing to look good on screen sizes changing from a large desktop to a potential employer’s small smartphone.
A great man died today. Gabriel García Márquez gave the world some amazing stories—stories filled with imagination and poignancy, that blurred the line between human reality and the fantastically impossible.
The New York Times shares:
The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez — who died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87 — used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous in his fiction: plagues of insomnia and forgetfulness, a cluster of magical grapes containing the secret of death, an all-night rain of yellow blossoms, a swamp of lilies oozing blood, a Spanish galleon marooned in a Latin American jungle, cattle born bearing the brand of their owner. (read more)
While I can’t call One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera my absolute favorite books, those stories captured my imagination and stuck with me far longer than most, and they left their mark on our culture.
In honor of his work and his life, I’m taking a quick break from my thesis to share a collection of covers for his books:
I’m in the process of putting together my final portfolio for my MFA and looking around for ways to communicate my design beliefs, so I’ve been reading a lot more quotes than usual. There are two that have really stuck with me, one that speaks to the sheer delight and amazing capabilities of books and another that speaks to the purposeful nature of design, and I like them so much I thought I’d share.
The first is from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author. He clearly had a great passion and respect for the capabilities of science and technology, a deep-seated wonder at our world and the way it works, and an appreciation for books. Those qualities are shown in the following quote, where he describes the incredible power of books:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”—Carl Sagan
That quote just gets me. It really captures how truly incredible books are. I remember thinking a very similar thing (albeit not quite so eloquently) in high school when I was reading Plato’s Apology. Our class was carefully analyzing the subtle points of Plato’s logic, and I remember sitting back for a second and thinking, This guy has been dead for 2,300+ years, more time than I can really grasp, and yet his thoughts are here, today, in this book in front of me. So many people have thought about and debated his ideas for literally millenia, ever since he originally wrote them down. How crazy is that!
And the designer in me today loves Sagan’s description of writing—”lots of funny dark squiggles.” So often people overlook the importance of typography because they take it completely for granted that these black shapes on a page, or on a screen in our case, have a meaning that is decipherable to people. How did a circle become the letter “o”, that can be used next to two perpendicular lines (“t”) to create a word “to” that has so many meanings and helps hold sentences together? It’s amazing, when you sit down and really think about it.
But one thing to remember is that quote by Sagan was from his 1980 tv show and book, Cosmos, when there was no such thing as a Kindle, an iPad, or an ebook. The first personal computer was released by Apple in 1984, and the great wave of technology that has completely changed the shape of reading has all come since Sagan originally described the magic of books.
So I hope he’ll forgive us if we take the liberty of expanding the meaning of his quote to refer to the many different ways that thoughts are expressed by their authors and conveyed out to the greater world. Today, that amazing ability is accomplished not just by “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts” but also by screens of all shapes that support ebooks, and really the very many different reading and publishing platforms available, including this post published on the internet via WordPress.
We could argue about whether platforms like Twitter, which allow people to author only very concise “books,” should be included, but if you are willing to admit Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) counts, then I think Twitter must also be included.
You could argue that really what captured Sagan’s imagination and appreciation is the longevity of the thoughts in the form of a book, and how they can connect people from distant epochs, and therefore today’s technology doesn’t count as it will probably not be accessible 2,000 years from now. In fact, its a pretty safe bet that even 20 years from now technology will have so thoroughly changed that many things will no longer be accessible (floppy disk, anyone?). But not all writing has lasted that long, and many authors works have been lost over the centuries. It’s always been a process of saving and passing along only the best works of literature, and that is the same challenge we face today, just with a much larger magnitude of written work.
So I, for one, would like to extend Sagan’s wonder at books and the power of written communication to include the many different innovative forms of ebooks and digital communication popular today.
The second quote by Paola Antonelli is related, but talks about design as a whole, and how design is fundamentally about caring how something works, not just what it looks like.
“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”—Paola Antonelli
In relationship to books, this mean that it’s all well and good if the cover looks great, but fundamentally what’s important about the design of a book is how the format of the book accomplishes its goal, namely, getting someone to pick it up and be able to read and understand it. To enable what Sagan loves: “across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”It means, for ebooks, that all the flashy interactivity in the world is useless, and in fact detrimental, if it doesn’t somehow serve to improve the reading experience.
And this to me is the amazing challenge of design. How do you design something that makes people’s lives better? How do you use the tools of aesthetics, of typography, of color theory, of all sorts of “cognitive science” and “beauty” that Antonelli talks about, and perhaps more than ever today, use the tools of technology to design something that “the world didn’t know it was missing?”
What a lofty, and yet worthwhile challenge! Could a designer ever hope to accomplish anything better than to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing?
Obviously, a book cover needs to provide structure and protection for the book. But what is the purpose of the design, and what does the design have to say about the story within it? The artwork on the cover could be anything, really.
The cover could have people on it, such as the protagonist, or an abstract figure, or crowd of people who belong in the world of the story. It could have an object that relates to the title or the storyline. It could convey a sense of the story through typography only, choosing a typeface and way of setting the type that conveys the time period or mood of the story. It could depict an environment or building from the story. Or it could have an abstract image or pattern that conveys the mood and general atmosphere of the book, or the cultural setting and traditions.
The protagonist of the story
A more generic image of person that could be in the story
A key object that references the storyline
A single, stark object
Typography sets a mood and time period
Typography from the era of the story
Distinctive typography is used in abstract pattern and for the title and author
Depicting the environment of the story.
A much more abstract and layered image, but still focusing on the barn setting
An abstract pattern that somehow evokes a scene and mood
A culturally significant pattern that relates to the book’s theme
With so many possibilities out there, the question that we sometimes forget to ask is not what can a book cover be, but what should it be?