What Should a Book Cover Be?

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.

Book Cover Template

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.

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?

Continue reading What Should a Book Cover Be?

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The Covers of Petra Börner

When I first saw these four book covers by Swedish graphic designer Petra Börner, I was completely blown away. They are visually arresting, almost mesmerizing even, in the way they grab and hold my attention. Her bright, bold, vivid style is in someways reminiscent of the youthful design in Paul Rand’s children’s books that I recently wrote about. But there is also an unmistakably mature aesthetic sense to them, and they feel like they could do quite nicely framed and hung up as art in a chic city apartment.

I keep telling myself that it is absolutely ridiculous to buy books in a language I don’t even speak, but they are so gorgeous that I’m genuinely tempted!

The Serious Game
Cover for Hjlmar Söderberg’s “The Serious Game”
Emma
Cover for Jane Austen’s “Emma”
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Cover for John Fowle’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
The Lover
Cover for Marguerite Duras’ “The Lover”

The publisher, Bonnier Pocket, wrote in a release that “We believe that graphics and design have become an even more important way to get consumers to choose our paperbacks.” I couldn’t agree more, and as I have mentioned before, I think this is the result of a shift in the public perception of physical books as objets d’art. I predict we’ll see more and more gorgeous designs being released as consumers look to physical books to be delightful experiences.

After finding these covers I looked online to see if I could find more of Petra’s work. I found some illustrations she made for Wrap Magazine, and a short interview they did with her which is charming, but my favorite part of the article was seeing her pictures from her illustration process:

Continue reading The Covers of Petra Börner

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:

Image

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.

Chic-Type-3

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.

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, http://www.payvand.com/news/09/apr/1266.html, 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”

Temptation Strikes, Again (Thank You Chip Kidd)

Yep, I’m doing it again. Buying a book (or possibly three) based on its cover. But the covers are so cool!!! Check them out (click on them to see a bigger version):

Blood on the Moon     Because the Night     Suicide Hill

They were designed by Chip Kidd, book cover designer extraordinaire. Were I to achieve half of the ability and fame of Chip Kidd, I’d be pleased. I’m doing a project about him for my type class, so I bought myself the book Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006, which in addition to having a veritable plethora, a smorgasbord if you will, of awesome designs by him, it also has a fair bit of his delightfully tongue-in-cheek commentary that is actually very informative about his design process and experiences. I’ve just skimmed through it so far, gorging my eyes on the delightful, ridiculous, and (almost always) amazing images, but I looking forward to take the time to go through and carefully read what he has to say about everything. Can’t wait!

Oh, and I’m sure the books will be fun to read too. Detective stories are always good for a read, and I have a plane flight to Tennessee coming up in a couple weeks.