Delightfully Material

Ebooks are always made of pixels. Variety is provided by their ability to be interactive, to move and change and react. But there isn’t much variety in the actual material of ebooks. Physical books, on the other hand, have the freedom to experiment a little bit more. And as more focus turns to the physical book as an objet d’art, designers are having more fun with their materials.

Here’s some  fun, inspiring examples of book designers thinking outside the box:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451, Matchstick

Designed by Elizabeth Perez (see her portfolio), who describes her simple design: “The book’s spine is screen-printed with a matchbook striking paper surface, so the book itself can be burned.” I especially like this because it almost challenges the reader to burn the book, which is a disturbing idea, and in doing so really uses material to make the book’s ideas come to life.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea, 3D

On Such a Full Sea, 3D

Designed by Helen Yentus and MakerBot. Award-winning author Chang-rae Lee’s new novel “On Such a Full Sea”  debuts with a striking, 3D-printed slipcase. Only 200 of these custom 3D slipcases will be sold, with the signed limited edition hardcover books.

The author Chang-rae Lee commented on the covers: “Content is what’s most important, but this [3D edition] is a book with a physical presence, too. Of course I hope what’s inside is kinetic, but the physical thing isn’t normally meant to be. This edition feels as if it’s kinetic, that it has some real movement to it. It’s quite elegant as well.” Lee noted, “It’s all about changing the familiar. That’s ultimately what all art is about. That’s what we all do as writers.”

Good Ideas Glow in the Dark

Good Ideas Glow in the Dark 1

Good Ideas Glow in the Dark 2

Good Ideas Glow in the Dark 3

Report designed by Bruketa & Zinic for Adris Group. Like the Fahrenheit 451 matchstick design, the materials of this book cover are a direct embodiment of what it’s trying to say. And I’m sure this unusual design choice helps the book stand out on the shelf!

Shopping in Marrakech by Susan Simon

Shopping in Marrakech embroidery

Designed by Jessica Hische (one of my favorite designers, see her portfolio). Says Hische: This fun guidebook was especially fun to design. I developed the lettering first in illustrator and spent three days embroidering the cover for this book (the original now hangs on my wall). The interior is also decorated with bead and embroidery ornamentation where possible to make for a very rich design reflective of the wares you might purchase in Marrakech.”

I’ve also seen the delightful tactility of embroidery used in the Penguin Threads series I wrote about in Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design 2.

“Analogue/Digital” artwork by Evelin Kasikov

Analogue/Digital embroidery

Print embroidery book

Embroidery artist Evelin Kasakov (see her portfolio) describes her work: “A tactile interpretation of different modes of representation. Four paper objects mix print and screen formats. Pixels and dots, single elements of digital and printed image, become physical using hand embroidery. The project visualizes analogue versus digital theme, an on-going obsession in the creative industry today.”

Traveling Clock Book

Traveling book clock

This last example comes from when books were so expensive to make that they really were objets d’art, although this one is particularly unusual.. This traveling clock in the form of a book was made in Europe, ca. 1576.

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 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.

Fun with Letters – Daily Drop Caps

For those who are not yet familiar with the website,, a website by designer and illustrator Jessica Hische, is quite fun to explore. The project is simple enough. Starting in September of 2009, Jessica designed a new drop cap every day, creating a total of twelve alphabets, as well as an extra by guest designers. The results are delightful. Nothing matches or creates a set, but the variety is part of the charm. It’s also a great place to browse to get ideas for different type styles, and you can tell as time went on that she was forced to get more and more creative for her different letters—they start off looking like more traditional, ornate, scripty drop caps, and slowly get more and more creative, branching out to more illustrative and unusual concepts.

Some of her style tags include: Badass, Botanical, Circus, Contained, Dimensional, Girly, Graphic, Guest Alphabet, Highly Illustrative, Holiday, Monoline, Retro, Script, Seasonal, Silly, Swashy, Tattoo, Uncategorized, Victorian, Wood Type-esque. Have fun exploring! And enjoy another great aspect of her project: all of these drop caps have been created so that the public can use them for free on their own (non-commercial) websites. Pretty awesome.Full Alphabet 1
Jessica Hische has been coming to my attention more and more lately. I’ve been checking in semi-regularly to her new site,, where she keeps a calendar of typography events in San Francisco (she recently moved from Brooklyn to the beautiful Bay Area—I’m going to be keeping my eye out for her at design events!). She also is the creator of the fantastic and informative poster “Should I Work For Free?”. The original online version (“Since I am a crazy person and we are all nerds, this chart is entirely css and html”) can be found here, or you can order a beautiful letterpress version from her website. I’ve enjoyed exploring her regular website (as well as, and just seeing what sort of projects she’s worked on. Seeing what other designers are doing in our field is always inspiring.