It used to be enough for a book to idly stand out in a bookstore. Nowadays, however, new books must jostle for attention with everything. Thousands of distractions are just a click away. Is it any wonder that book-cover design is more important than ever?
Good-looking books aren’t new, of course. Booksellers have long understood the need for shelf appeal. Penguin has been producing handsome, thoroughly English-looking books for more than 75-years – thanks in no small part to the design fundamentals of a pair of German émigrés, Jan Tschichold and Hans Schmoller. More recently, contemporary designers such as Jim Stoddart, Coralie Bickford-Smith and David Pearson have designed covers that have both worked within Penguin’s tradition and expanded it in new directions. Penguin remains one of the few publishers with a recognizable design identity. Since the early 1990s, however, it is Alfred A. Knopf – under the discerning eye of art director Carol Devine Carson – that has set the standard for innovative book-cover design. The New York imprint has fostered the talents of many designers, including Barbara deWilde, John Gall, Peter Mendelsund, Gabriele Wilson, and perhaps the most famous contemporary book-cover designer of all, Chip Kidd. Idiosyncratic and irreverent, some of their most brilliant designs have belonged to bestsellers. Other publishers have taken note.
In Canada, the 2014 Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design (announced in April) were dominated by Andrew Steeves and independent publisher Gaspereau Press. Over the years, however, Canadian publishers, such as Anansi, Douglas & McIntyre, and McClelland & Stewart, have all produced their share of notable covers. Canadian designers, such as Peter Cocking, Bill Douglas, Kelly Hill, Naomi MacDougall, Brian Morgan, Terri Nimmo, Natalie Olsen, Scott Richardson, Ingrid Paulson, Jessica Sullivan and Michel Vrana (to name but a few), continue to create eye-catching work for publishers both at home and, in some cases, abroad.
This year, the big trend in book-cover design continues to be hand-drawn lettering and illustration, especially for literary fiction – something that can probably be traced back to British designer Jon Gray (a.k.a. Gray318), whose wonderful covers for Jonathan Safran Foer quite possibly started the whole thing. Typographic covers also remain popular. Interestingly though, younger designers are embracing the kind of bold, curvy typefaces and ornamentation that haven’t been in vogue since the 1970s. Acetate jackets, metallic foil, die-cuts and other fancy production techniques are also becoming more widespread. Even so, minimal, pared-down designs with strong visual ideas still have a place. Book covers that are instantly recognizable at small sizes have become all too important in the age of the thumbnail image. If we can’t remember the title, we might at least remember that the cover was blue.
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu – design by Isabel Urbina Pena (Bond Street Books / March 4, 2014)
This stylish jacket by Venezuelan designer Isabel Urbina Pena harks back to the handwritten book covers of the American designer Paul Rand in the 1950s. It’s simple and effective. Not only is it highly legible, it looks wonderful on the bookshelf.
The Book of Heaven by Patricia Storace – design by Linda Huang (Pantheon / Feb. 18, 2014)
The design for The Book of Heaven is angular, awkward and looks like nothing else on the shelf. It’s confrontational and provocative, but it’s fascinating too. I’m interested to see more from designer Linda Huang.
Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath – design by David Gee (HarperCollins Canada / April 7, 2014)
A “recovering adman,” David Gee still has the mind of a great copywriter. His witty cover design for Enlightenment 2.0 is an immediate visual joke that plays on the book’s title and its central theme. (David is also responsible for the cover of Cheers! An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada by Nicholas Pashley, quite possibly the greatest Canadian book cover of all time.)
Les fantômes fument en cachette by Miléna Babin – design by David Drummond (Les Editions XYZ / Feb. 28, 2014)
It’s often the case with David Drummond’s designs that they appear so simple and incisive that it’s a wonder no one else thought of them first. His recent work for Quai No. 5 is no exception – he has brought a certain Anglo-American je ne sais quoi to the Quebec imprint. The cover for Miléna Babin’s Les fantômes fument en cachette is cool, cinematic and intriguing.
Friendship by Emily Gould – design by Jennifer Carrow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / July 1, 2014)
Mercifully, Jennifer Carrow’s design for Emily Gould’s debut novel is a welcome departure from the kind of wispy clichés too often foisted on female literary authors by unimaginative publishers. The hand-drawn letters and illustration are perfect, and the neon colours work beautifully on the jacket’s inky blue background.
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus – design Peter Mendelsund (Knopf / Jan. 7, 2014)
Perhaps best known for his cover design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Peter Mendelsund’s designs are frequently thoughtful and uncompromising. Last year, he surprised and delighted everyone with a paper-cut design for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. The same technique works just as well here on the cover of Marcus’s new collection of stories.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – design by Jamie Keenan (W. W. Norton / Jan. 21, 2014)
Jamie Keenan’s design for The Metamorphosis combines an ornate typeface and the legs of a stag beetle. It resembles an insect pinned under glass in an elegant display case – something from another time that is at once fascinating and deeply creepy. I half expect it to twitch.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee – design by Helen Yentus; lettering Jason Booher (Riverhead / Jan. 7, 2014 )
Helen Yentus, art director of Riverhead Books, is consistently one of the most interesting and innovative book cover designers in the industry. As if this distinctive, beautifully rendered black and white book cover wasn’t enough, Yentus also produced a 3-D printed slipcase for a limited edition of the novel.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan – design by Janet Hansen; photograph Joy Shan (Scribner / April 8, 2014)
This jacket catches my eye every time I’m in a bookstore. The vibrant colours and stylish type have a freshness that makes the book feel very of the moment. The photograph is a mix of confidence and vulnerability – perfect for a collection of essays and stories by a young writer. But with the beauty of this cover, there is also tragedy – Marina Keegan was killed in a car accident at age 22, and I cannot help but think of the life cut short.
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart – design by Keith Hayes (Little, Brown & Co. / Jan. 14, 2014)
Keith Hayes’s design for The Visionist needs to be seen in a bookstore – the digital image doesn’t do it justice. The jacket is translucent acetate decorated with gold foil in the shape of a Shaker Tree of Life. The photograph of the Shaker woman so visible here is obscured underneath. It is a lovely, thoughtful cover.
Editor’s note: Janet Hansen designed the cover of The Opposite of Loneliness. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected..