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.

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”

Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design 2

Between my love affair with books and my life of design, I am always keeping an eye open for cool book covers. Here’s another selection of interesting children’s book covers, this time focusing on the use of unusual materials with the six Penguin Threads covers and the Hitchhiker’s Guide DIY Sticker Covers. Enjoy!

Penguin Threads:

Penguin Threads: Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden

Penguin Threads is a beautiful series of books where the cover art was created through embroidery. The first three books—Emma, Black Beauty, and The Secret Garden—were commissioned from Jillian Tamaki (read her blogpost on this project). They detail is absolutely beautiful, and I feel like sitting there and just staring at these covers for a half hour, absorbing every little thing. It’s almost a little bit overwhelming! And while I love the color palette and design, I must admit the Emma cover reminded me a little bit of Milton Glaser’s famous poster of Bob Dylan, which is an amusingly strange connection to make.

Jillian Tamaki embroidering

Penguin made an effort to make the covers as enjoyably realistic as possible by both embossing the thread design, and on the inside of the covers showing the back of the embroidery:

The Secret Garden: Interior cover with the back of the embroidery

The Penguin Threads series is described on their website: “Commissioned by award-winning Penguin art director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Threads series debuts with cover art by Jillian Tamaki for three gift-worthy Penguin Classics. Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design that will appeal to the Etsy(tm)-loving world of handmade crafts.”

And for those who have already seen and loved these first three, there’s good news. Penguin has continued the series with three new titles—The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, and The Wind in the Willows—this time with embroidery illustrations by Rachell Sumpter. If anything, these compositions are even more crazily detailed; I’m still trying to decide if I think the chaos in the Little Women cover, inspired by embroidery samplers, is fantastic or too much. Despite the chaos, they are definitely still gorgeous book covers. Tempted to get the whole series!

Penguin Threads 2: The Wizard of Oz
Penguin Threads 2: Little Women
Penguin Threads 2: The Wind in the Willows

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy DIY Sticker Covers:

I first stumbled across these on Faceout Books’ great blog on the process of book design (read their post on Hitchhikers). These Hitchhiker’s covers, designed for the books’ 30th anniversary, have a simple concept: the title and author are printed at the bottom of an empty image of the universe. Inside the cover are a sheet of awesome/ridiculous stickers that relate to the book’s plots in various ways, and readers are encouraged to make a “DIY” cover by creating their own layout and design. Totally awesome. What a great way to get people, especially kids, to get excited about reading (and hopefully get hooked on a great series of books!).

As if it was needed, these DIY covers come with an added bonus. They have been incorporated into the ebook iPhone app, so for those of you into reading your books digitally, you can still have fun playing around with these awesome interactive covers. Unfortunately these seem to only be available the UK, as far as I can tell. Hopefully it will be available for American audiences soon!

Hitchhiker's iPhone app with DIY cover

Awesome Children’s Book Cover Design

First off, check out these awesome redesigns of the Harry Potter series! M. S. Corley designed these inspired by both Moss and Spacesick, and retro Penguin covers in general. All the covers make sense with their plots, and yet feel so retro; I did a double take at first—”Harry Potter’s not that old, is it?”.

Harry Potter retro covers


Next up, I’m super bummed I only found out about these a year and a half after they were released. Puffin Classics (the Penguin children’s division) had six famous architects including Frank Gehry design children’s book covers to celebrate their 70th anniversary. The titles include James and the Giant Peach, Little Women, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days and The Secret Garden. Check out the website for more details (UPDATE: the Puffin Classics link no longer works, but you can find more details in this article from Vogue).

Judging By the Cover

Yep, I’m doing it. After going through the entire Penguin 75 book, I’ve been seduced by The Manual of Detection, and yes, I’m buying the book based on its cover. But its such a delightful cover! If I called it obtaining design samples for later inspiration, would it be more acceptable?

The Manual of Detection
Beautiful! Love the typography, love the images, the atmosphere, love it!

Other books I may get in the next month or so:

Zadie Smith On Beauty
Zadie Smith on Beauty
The Shadow of the Wind
The Shadow of the Wind
The China Lover
The China Lover

On My Wall?

On my morning commutes I’ve been continuing to work my way through the Penguin 75 book that I wrote about in my last blog post, and enjoying the creativity and beauty that I’ve come across. In the WoodsI’ve been surprised with how often I’ve been completely surprised with what they’ve done, perhaps especially with their Graphic Classics Series where they created comic book covers for classic literature. But there were two covers in a row that made me pause and think. The first was In the Woods by Tana French, designed by Jen Wang on page 140, followed by The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor and designed by Matthew Taylor. They are two very different covers, one a black and white sketch of letterforms turning into branches, and the other a medley of ravens, tigers and butterfly erupting from an anime-looking pair of pants and unlaced sneakers. However I was struck by how similar the two author’s comments on their covers were.

Tana French, who is Irish, said

Covers on the European side of the Atlantic are so different from American ones that, to me, this looked nothing like a book cover. It was a truly beautiful thing. I could have looked at it for hours, and I’d have loved to have it in any one of a dozen forms—as an art print, a wall poster, a T-shirt—but if I’d seen it in isolation, I’d never have guessed what it was. I think I still see it that way: First as a thing I love looking at, and only second as the cover of the book.

I The Island at the End of the Worldcould appreciate that the cover was a little unusual, although I’m curious about how European covers are different. I’ll have to look into that. Turning the page to The Island at the End of the World, I read about how this cover was the result of a design contest. The author Sam Taylor’s comment on the design for his book was

I must admit my first reaction on seeing the winning cover was: WTF? It was gorgeous and striking, but not at all what I expected.

Both authors were struck by the fact that their covers were gorgeous, but not at all what they were expecting. The unexpected aspect was probably chosen deliberately by the art directors, but the gorgeous part, the artistic part, that is what helps makes these book covers some of the best in Penguin’s repertoire.

As I read these responses I was reminded of a moment during the second week of my design class last semester, when we were getting feedback on our first assignment of the class. It was essentially a warm up exercise for the semester; we were supposed to take a poster by a famous designer that we were assigned (in my case Jan Tschichold) and redesign it in various ways using only the compositional elements that were in the original design. We brought in our new posters for feedback, and at one point, after pretty thoroughly criticizing everyone’s designs, our teacher asked me “So, Rebecca, which one would you put up on your wall?”

I was surprised by this question, as we were designing announcements for events and new movies and I was envisioning them on the street or posted on the wall of a movie theater, but definitely not hanging, framed, on my living room wall. It was an interesting, and I quickly realized, a good question. Because frankly, I wouldn’t have put a single one of my own designs up on my wall—they were ugly! And attractiveness isn’t a criteria I’d really been taking into account, but it made me think of the famous Fillmore concert posters that I’ve seen on teenagers’ bedroom walls across the country. Or of the beautiful posters by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Or the simple yet elegant advertisements for railways and state parks by Michael Schwab. And I’ve liked them because no matter what their original purpose was, they are interesting, intriguing, pretty, elegant, well designed, and in some way or another gorgeous.

So with this question in my mind, I went back to the drawing board. I kept in mind some of the design feedback I’d been given, and what other students had done that I thought had worked well. And I tried to envision them on my wall; I tried to make them artistic and interesting. In the end, I’m still not sure if I’d put them up on my own wall or not (they don’t really match the mood of my room), but I think my second round of designs was much more successful than those original submissions. And a couple of people I showed them to seemed to seriously consider taking me up on my offer to give the posters to them to hang in their apartments, which to me means success.

It’s fascinating to learn how to design, coming from where I do. Its unusual for me to be studying something that I have absolutely no formal academic experience in, to be stumbling across new and interesting ways of thinking about my discipline all the time. It’s absolutely fresh, not something I’ve been told about and taught for the last twenty years, and I’m really enjoying it. And I’m finding some amazing things to put up on my wall.

(by the way, for a very interesting insight into the process and design for the cover of In the Woods, go to the Faceoutbooks.com blog entry)

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.