The Ignored Art of Spines

So much attention is paid to the front of books that it’s easy to forget that the front cover is only a part, and perhaps not even the most important part, of a book cover. The back cover, the spine, and even the front and back cover flaps are important parts of the book cover experience.

Anything But Typical
“Anything but Typical” by Nora Raleigh Baskin, designed by James Gulliver Hancock

I think there is a strong argument to be made that, at least historically, the spine is at least as important as the front cover. After all, books are kept on shelves, and spines are pretty much all you see when a book is sitting next to its fellow books on the shelf. When perusing books in the library or on your own bookshelf, the spine is all the book has to attract your attention and make you pull it out and look at its front cover.

It’s an interesting challenge to design for the spine. It’s often quite a small area and it has to have a lot of information on it, which is usually awkwardly read sideways. And unlike a front cover that is seen while held in your hands, a spine is often viewed from further away, perhaps even across the room, so it should be eye-catching. Yet so often spines are boring, plain, and uninspired. They look like afterthoughts, which I would guess they very often are.

So here is a collection of books with fun spines—specifically, where the cover art has been designed to wrap around from the front. I like this technique because it gives the viewer just a tantalizing peak of a larger piece of artwork, encouraging the reader to pick up the book and satisfy their curiosity about the rest of the design.

Grace Williams Says It Loud
“Grace Williams Says It Loud” by Emma Henderson
Maggie’s Harvest
“Maggie’s Harvest” by Maggie Beer, designed by Daniel New
To Kill a Mockingbird
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, drawings by Aafke Brouwer
“House of Leaves”
“House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski
“Del senso delle cose e della magia”
“Del senso delle cose e della magia” by Tommaso Campanella, designed by Marco Campedelli

However, I have to admit that there are a couple of reasonable counter-arguments to this suggestion that the spine is most important. For example, you could argue that plenty of books are displayed in stacks in a bookstore, so it is the front cover that first attracts your notice when considering what to buy. And plenty of books these days are bought from online retailers like Amazon, where a picture of the front cover is really all the customer sees before they purchase the book.

Perhaps the most interesting counter-argument is the case of ebooks. In most ebook apps, such as the Kindle or iBooks, your library is displayed in some sort of grid and only the front covers can be seen. For those ebooks, the spine and back cover don’t exist anymore. And perhaps, like music, the book industry will continue to evolve in that direction, so that all you see are small thumbnails of cover art on a screen somewhere. I kind of hope not.

The Books of Chic Type

The phenomenal blog Chic Type provides a visual smorgasbord for type nerds, and if you haven’t yet stumbled across it I highly recommend checking it out. Blogger and designer Svetlana Bilenkina shares an amazing assortment of interesting, beautiful and usually custom-made typography, with examples ranging from posters to packaging, including a few awesome book covers.

I recently read her delightful post The Comfort of Thingy-ness Vol II featuring a collection of 20 book covers, and just had to share them. Here are a few of my favorites from that group:


You might recognize the cover for The Manual of Detection from my previous post, Judging By the Cover—I still think it’s absolutely gorgeous. I also really love the ornate, swashy blackletter type on the cover of Shadow and Bone, and I was unsurprised to learn that the artist was Jen Wang whose beautiful work can also be found on the cover of Into the Woods (which I featured in another one of my posts, On My Wall). If you like the Shadow and Bone cover I recommend reading this great interview with art director Rich Deas which includes some really interesting images from the design development process.


These two covers also really stuck out for me in the collection of 20. I am a little surprised at how much the typography on Love Slave appeals to me, since it has an almost 70s feel to it that I usually don’t go for. But I like the two shades of green and the graceful swashes combined with the stencil-like lines of the title—it hits a nice balance between cliche-ly romantic and a slightly edgier aesthetic. I also think that the title is well incorporated with the image, in terms of both composition and color. Perhaps the one thing I would change is the treatment of the author’s name, which currently seems to be crowding the title and fighting with it for prominence.

The other cover, The Kingdom of Ohio, isn’t really doing anything particularly original or innovative, it’s just pretty and fun to look at. Nothing wrong with that! And I’m super curious what the book is about—I might have to pick that one up at my local bookstore.

One thing I found interesting in the Chic Design post was the author’s comment about the joys of physical books, as opposed to just ogling the covers online. A bit ironic perhaps for a design blogger to be saying, but I know exactly what she means when she says:

“There is something inherently different between seeing the covers online, and touching them and feeling all the intricacies that went into their design and production.”

It’s good to remind myself that while it can be so easy to browse book designs online, there really is no replacement for the experience of browsing in an actual bookstore. All the little details about paper choice, the smell of a book and it’s weight in your hand, and the really quality details like embossing or foil stamping, are completely lost in the online experience, but they are something worth hanging on to.

For the Love of Books

I recently came across a new book series with beautifully illustrated covers. Covers that, going back to my old post “On My Wall?”, I would happily frame and put up in my apartment any day. I immediately set out to learn more about them.

This series of old classics is being produced by a new independent publisher—White’s Books. Consisting of only two people, one of which is book designer David Pearson, White’s Books is republishing old classics with a close attention to detail and quality, commissioning beautiful, original, pattern-based illustrations to grace the covers.


In a wonderful interview with Peter Terzian for Print Magazine (I highly recommend you read the full article), Pearson explains that their decision to start a new publishing house—despite the current challenging environment—was to give the form of the book the love it deserves:

Due to the arrival of eBooks, many prophesied the death of the printed word, but we see it as an opportunity to turn the spotlight back on the traditional methods of book production and to luxuriate in the craft and tactility of the physical book and the printed page. It’s lovely to be designing with longevity in mind as we aim to create objects that will be retained and cherished by their readers.

This trend towards beautiful books in response to the ebook seems to me to be a growing phenomenon (I’ve previously discussed it in my post on Coralie Bickford-Smith). With ebooks taking over more and more of the convenient-and-cheap market, that leaves traditional publishers to glory in the book as beautiful object. People buy physical books these days because they enjoy the experience of flipping pages, the new book smell, the unadulterated enjoyment in the form of the book, and this is precisely the space that White’s Books is jumping into.

Pearson explains that they have purposefully limited their scope at White’s Books, in part to keep costs low so that they could ensure that each book would be well-designed and well-made:

We can focus on the detailing of our books and make sure the small number of titles we produce are created to the highest possible standards. The finishes applied to our covers are very traditional and lend themselves to a certain kind of mark making, so where possible, we urge our illustrators to adopt similarly traditional methods to generate their artwork. For example, Petra Börner produced a paper cut illustration for us, Joe McLaren worked in scraper board, and Stanley Donwood worked in lino—all mediums that correlate with the very defined marks of foil blocking. … We give our illustrators approximately a month to create final artwork. We then wrap it around a cloth-bound case, printing with a combination of PMS colors and foil blocking. Internally, illustrative endpapers and a decorative title page are joined by a rather unusual text setting method rarely seen in the last hundred years. Each right-hand page sports what is known as a catchword: a hanging word that provides the opening of the following page. We believe that this aids the flow of reading, especially when using a larger, heavy page with a slow turning rate.”

Just reading his description of their process, not even seeing the covers, makes me want to go out and buy them all! But if you must check out the covers before you are convinced, or if you just want to spend a moment to enjoy them, here are the covers for Sherlock Holmes and Emma, and included above is the cover for Treasure Island.



My Typographic Murmuration

Do you know what a murmuration is? The first definition is what it sounds like, the act of murmuring. Its second definition, however, is a group of starlings. Groups of different animals have different names, from a herd to a flock to a swarm to a school. Some animals have very specific names, including a gaggle of geese and a murmuration of starlings, or on the more sinister side, a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens.

(You really have to see the birds in motion to understand how amazing they are.)

I’ve only ever seen a murmuration once, when I was studying abroad in Florence in the fall of 2008. According to this great Quick Guide on murmurations, this was the exactly the right place to be in order to experience it: “[this] mesmerizing act is typically seen at dusk throughout Europe, between November and February. Each evening, shortly before sunset, starlings can be seen performing breathtaking aerial manoeuvres, before choosing a place to roost for the night. These range in number from a few hundred to tens of thousands of birds.”

It is such a beautiful phenomenon, and such an awesome word; I’ve always loved sharing it with people. So when I needed to chose a visual theme for a book I was assigned on typography this semester, I decided to go with starling murmurations. The idea was to use it as a inspiration for the abstract illustrations and a visual metaphor for explaining the rules and concepts of typography.

I ended up having so much fun with my designing murmurations. I used the two photographs below (found on the blog Chasing Light) as a basis for some of my spreads, but everything else was based on typographic forms and abstract arrangements of curves.

Murmuration #9, Rome, Italy, 2009

Murmuration #5, Rome, Italy, 2009

I also used Processing, a programming language built for visual design, and found a program that simulated flocking situations. With the help of a computer-programming friend, I edited the program to use letterforms instead of the original triangle shapes as the flocking objects, and took screenshots of the resulting program. I combined those with abstract line arrangements and patterns of large black letterforms. Every illustration I tried to make evoke movement, wind, groups, a flock of birds, and the graceful lines formed by a murmuration of starlings.


Table of Contents Letterforms Digital Type Type Categories Punctuation Leading Set Type

Lo. Lee. Ta. A Collection of Covers.

The other day I was looking through my collection of book cover designs and realized that one book was cropping up way more than any others: Vladimir Nabokov’s disturbing and classic Lolita, narrated by the protagonist Humbert Humbert, perhaps the most famous pedophile in modern literature. The enigmatic characters and plot of Lolita have drawn designers to it over and over. How to best capture the horrifying sexualization of a 12 year old girl? How to design an image for the story of a monster, but somehow convey that monster’s point of view?

However, as I was gathering the covers together I realized that there may be another reason, beyond the draw of its literary merits, that there are so many designs out there. Apparently three years ago the architect and blogger John Bertram put on a Lolita cover competition due to a personal belief that most previous designs had misrepresented the nuances of the novel and that designers could do better. His issue, described in an Imprint article on this competition, was that “she’s chronically miscast as a teenage sexpot—just witness the dozens of soft-core covers over the years. [but] ‘We are talking about a novel which has child rape at its core.'” The results of this contest are apparently being gathered together into a book, Lolita: Story of a Cover Girl, due out August 2013.

If you have a second I would definitely recommend reading through that Imprint interview with him that I linked to above. Bertram has some interesting stuff to say on the role of the designer, the difficulties of such a nuanced and sensitive subject, and the responsibility of a designer to do justice to such a literary work of art and not short change it. Perhaps, even add to it:

I was interested to see what well-known designers might come up with when freed from editors, publishers and art directors and the constraints implicit in the marketing and selling of books. The result, I think, is a sort of meditation on what it means to create a cover for a complicated book, but it’s also about how a cover can add to or change the book’s meaning. In other words, there is a sense in which it’s a two-way street, which gives the designer tremendous power but also demands responsibility.

So, here is my collection of covers, some of which I found were part of Bertram’s contest, and some of which weren’t. Enjoy, and let me know which is you think best represents the enigmatic Lolita.

1970 Italian cover for Lolita.
Cover design for Bertram’s contest by Jamie Keenan, depicting “a claustrophobic room that morphs into a girl in her underwear”

Cover design for Bertram’s contest by Jessica Hische, with “the lace lettering used to represent something that can be construed as both hyper-sexual or innocent and virginal depending on the context.” While I think the lettering is beautiful and I get her reasoning, I’m not sure how much of the double-implication is apparent at a casual glance
I featured this image in my “A Bit of Pretty” post last year, but I think its one of the best. Originally from a submission for the Polish Book Cover Contest at
Cover design for Bertram’s contest by Rachel Berger

Daily Drop Cap Meets Penguin Classics

The internet is abuzz with the recently released preview of a new series of books Penguin is publishing in time for the Christmas season. The Penguin Drop Cap series will be a series of classic books with covers featuring letters designed by the wonderful Jessica Hische. The letters will be new designs, appropriate for each book’s content, that she prepares for this series and not simply caps taken from her previous Daily Drop Cap project. The series uses bold, bright colors and relatively simple elegant layout around the Drop Cap. I have to admit, I think the spines are just as nice as the covers (while you might not think a spine is as important as a beautiful front cover, the spine is all you usually see when a book is on your bookshelf!).

You can read the Imprint article, displaying all six of the released previews (A is for Jane Austen, B is for Charlotte Bronte, C is for Willa Cather, D is for Charles Dickens, E is for George Eliot, and F is for Gustave Flaubert). Below are my favorite two; although Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorites I prefer the Willa Cather and Charles Dickens covers. However, Middlemarch is the only one I haven’t read yet, so its probably top of my list for purchasing. What do you think? Will they be on your Christmas wishlist?

Penguin Drop Cap Series—C is for Willa Cather’s My Antonia
Penguin Drop Cap Series—D is for Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations

The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

My all time favorite book, my first choice in all situations when people ask for book recommendations (except perhaps for eight-year-olds), and yet a book that most people have never heard of, is The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin.

As an author, Ursula K LeGuin is one of the few authors who I think best captures humanity and the reality of what it means to be human. Other authors do more beautiful prose, more enthralling plot lines, or transport the reader to more exotic, enchanting settings than LeGuin. Faulkner with his stream of consciousness and variety of approaches, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his magical realism do more interesting, unusual, unexpected things with literature than LeGuin does. But in my opinion LeGuin and Tolstoy are the two authors who have managed to best capture what it really means to be human. They capture the sublime beauty, the simple pleasure, the deep, throbbing tragedy and grief, and the daily hum drum of existence that seems to pass for life in my experience. And to be fair, I don’t find all of LeGuin’s books this spectacular, although I have liked all the ones I’ve read so far (the short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas is my other favorite of hers). But The Telling has enthralled me since I first read it, and I will keep re-reading and recommending it for a long time to come.

I have mixed thoughts about the cover. I would never nominate it for any design competitions, but I do find the illustration appealing and enjoy looking at it. However, it has almost nothing to do with the story! The woman pictured could, I suppose, be the protagonist in terms of skin and hair coloring (the protagonist Sutty is ethnically Indian) but I couldn’t picture her ever frolicking in a field of flowers and butterflies like that; she’s a bit too down to earth for that. And the fancy looking airplane or spaceship up in the right hand corner does hint at the fact that this sci-fi book deals with space travel, but spaceships and air travel are hardly a main focus of the book… again I’m pretty sure that nothing about this scene actually took place during the book.

Continue reading The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

A Cover Collection

Here are some of my current favorite book covers from my Pinterest board for cover designs. Let me know what you think, or if you have any other suggestions for favorites!

“To Kill A Mocking Bird” cover designed by Aafke Brouw.

Lovely, simple, arresting design, and a new take on a classic book (original pin link leads here).

“Jane Eyre” cover designed by Megan Wilson.

Simplistic yet arresting design; fresh take for a classic book. The simple triangle graphic addition add just the right amount of detail. Original pin link goes to The Book Cover Archive.

If you haven’t heard of The Book Cover Archive yet, it’s an awesome resource. I have yet to explore it thoroughly, but every time I stumble into it, I stumble out happy. I recommend losing some time there when you can.

Continue reading A Cover Collection

The Conundrum of Coralie Bickford-Smith

I started looking into the work of Coralie Bickford-Smith because of her Clothbound Series Collections 1 – 4, which can be found pretty much anywhere. I found books from these series in boutique clothing stores, in gift stores, in large chain clothing stores, and of course bookstores up and down the street. The clothbound hardcover books feature simple, repetitive patterns featuring an interesting object that in some way evokes the plot or mood of each novel. For example, flamingos grace the cover of Alice and Wonderland, parrots in palm trees cover Treasure Island, and sewing scissors on Little Women. The simple, old fashioned design, limited to two colors, seems to be appealing to retailers and one must assume customers as well.

This popularity seems to me evidence of an underlying sea change in the role of books in our society. As ereaders like the kindle, nook and iPad become widespread and ebooks keep increasing their share of book sales, the role that physical books play in our society is shifting. While I don’t think physical books will ever disappear, I think more of the market will move towards books as beautiful artifacts, such as these old-fashioned, well designed hardcovers, and away from cheap, mass-market paperbacks.

These book designs also feed into the current vintage trend that is embracing a more well-crafted aesthetic; Coralie describes these book covers as “all about evoking a pre-computer era of craftsmanship and fine binding.” (Read the full interview with her here.)

So I’m not really surprised that this kind of book is popping up everywhere. What I am surprised about is that retailers are choosing these particular books. Sure, they’re perfectly nice, and elegant in their simplicity. But they aren’t the only series capitalizing on this hardcover, old-fashioned, objet d’arte trend in book design. There are so many other beautiful series in this same vein right now, and at the end of the day I just don’t find those particular books very inspiring. I prefer, for example, Jessica Hische’s series for Barnes and Nobles Classics:

Barnes and Noble Classics Book Covers designed by Jessica Hische

Or even some of Coralie Bickford-Smith’s other series, which are seemingly much less popular (based on what I’ve seen at stores I’ve shopped at). Her designs for F. Scott Fitzgerald or the three-book Arabian Nights set are simply gorgeous. She has so much good work, it is very strange to me that what is everywhere is what seems (in my opinion) to be the least interesting.

F Scott Fitzgerald books designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith
Arabian Nights books designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith

If you’re interested in seeing more of Coralie’s book designs (there are a ton, and most of them are awesome), I recommend checking out her full portfolio.

Inspiration and Fraud in Persian Poetry

The other day I was thinking about buying a book on Sufi poetry. It’s something that I’ve run across in small bits and pieces in my dealings with poetry, and always enjoyed. With my limited exposure to it, I found I enjoyed it’s blend of religiousness, nature, romance, sensuality, and wisdom. So when I was trying to brainstorm books to read for my trip to India, this series of books, including A Year with Hafiz and Love Poems from God, came to my attention. I was looking for something to read that would give me a better sense of the cultural background of India; of course Persia and India are very different cultures, but there was enough Persian influence in the Mughal courts that once ruled most of Northern India and built the Taj Mahal (among other stunning monuments), that it seemed relevant.

I looked at those two books specifically because I remembered seeing them in my book of Penguin cover design (Penguin 75). These covers are definitely eye-catching: graceful, elegant, simple, vibrant, just the right touch with the inspiration from Persian carpet design, without being too much. Designed by Ingsu Liu, wife of Penguin art director Paul Buckley, she describes her process:

what stood out to me the most was the bold, lush colors, as well as the ornate patterns from the region’s typography and fabrics. … And not being Middle Eastern myself, I figured it would be smart to keep things simple, not to mention the first of the series was a book of haiku, so that pretty much set the look for the series—spare and elegant.

I came really close to purchasing the books. Poems like the one below struck a cord in me that I felt I could relate to, while still being spare, lyrical, and elegant.

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth
“You owe me”
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky

But I didn’t buy the books.

Why? I came across this article,, reproduced below, that discusses that poem in particular. I’ll leave you to read it in a second, but I have to admit, I’m still teetering about what I think of the books, months later. I haven’t decided if their actual origin taints the poetry for me, or if I can still appreciate the poems for themselves. Leave a comment and let me know what you think about it.


Numerous people have tried to find the original Persian verse, but they’ve failed. Many went through their Hafiz books a thousand times, but nothing was found. This verse has appeared all over the place, from wall murals in the United States to greeting cards on the Internet. Afschineh Latifi even used it to title her famed memoir “Even After All this Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran”. Last week, Hojat Golpayegani, writing for Shahrvand, talked about how he has been searching extensively “But without any success”.

Well, I am going to end the agony. It does not exist.

Those who have gone and searched their Farsi books of Hafiz shouldn’t have done so. That’s just not the proper way. They should have been looking for the English version of the poem to see who has translated it and what the sources are. This is especially necessary for Hafiz, since historically it has been shown that translating his work to English is a complex process for which no definitive, accepted version stands out.

The poem that Mr. McGuinty recited comes from a book called “The Gift: Poems by Hafez the Great Sufi Master” by Daniel Ladinsky, American Sufi poet. It was published in 1999 by Penguin Books and was commercially successful. However, this book has nothing to do with Hafiz. Ladinsky, a Sufi who has spent years with Mehrbaba in India, doesn’t even know how to read or write in Farsi. In fact, he claims that he has heard the poems from Hafiz himself in a dream. “I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason” he says in the book’s introduction. “It is really an attempt to do the impossible, to translate light into words… About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz as a never-ending, boundless sun (God), who sang hundreds of verses of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give his message to ‘my fellow artists and art seekers’ “.

This has been rebuked by a lot of critics who accuse Ladinsky of out-right fraud and deception. Murat Nemet-Nejat, a modern Turkish essayist and poet, asserts “Ladinsky’s book is an original poem masquerading as a translation… As God talked to Moses in Hebrew, to Mohammad in Arabic, Hafiz spoke to Daniel Ladinsky in English. Mr. Ladinsky is translating a dream, not a 14th century Persian text”. He continues “As such, the book is worse than a failure; it is a deception, a marketing rip-off of his name”