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The Book Cover and The Designer

May 22, 2021

Designing a book cover can be compared to the process of distillation, extracting the essence from a bouquet of flowers or incorporating an entire life’s emotion into a single verse. At its simplest, designing a book cover is basically about providing a visual to a story, whether fictional or not. But look a little deeper and it is what the reader remembers the story by, a sort of first impression. A book designer gives form to content, but also manages to find a balance between the two. “The book designer’s responsibility is threefold: to the reader, to the publisher and most of all, to the author” (Chip Kidd, ‘The Design Studio session’ at TED2012, guest-curated by Chee Pearlman and David Rockwell.)

With publishers overseeing books specific to their genre, they hire specialized designers and artists for the same. The outcome would be the introduction of a visual language that identifies itself with a specific type of book. For example, one can look at the covers of books by Amish in the mythology based series – ‘The Ramchandra series’ and ‘The Meluha trilogy’; the covers of the books have created a recognizable style of composition. These books are immediately identifiable from a distance and have in a way set a trend for others to follow. Now we see various other mythology based works of fiction following the same style of book cover design; some even on the verge of copying the original completely. For the viewer, it is then easy to spot such a book cover and immediately relate its contents to be something that would be similar to Amish’s work. This is the power of book cover design. How a cover style becomes a signifier for an entire category or genre.

Amish’s ‘Shiva Triology’ featuring the art of Rashmi Pusalkar (https://finixpost.com/amish-tripathi-books/)

Art director Cara Petrus at Harpercollins publishers says that the ultimate challenge of book design is how do you make something look close enough to something else so that it’s in the consumer’s comfort zone but unique and different enough that the book gets this chance to really be its own story and really stand out. For an author, the cover of the book represents the story they want to tell. It needs to be unique, that tempts the readers to buy the publication. Ultimately, the book is the author’s baby. It is necessary that the cover of the book is close to their perception of the book itself. Secondly, in case of an established author, there is a history of previously published books. The covers of these previous publications become an identity for the author’s work and often, the author will want to continue a set style or aesthetic. For example, the book covers of writer Haruki Murakami’s books all have a similar aesthetic. This has led to his books becoming a cult symbol with people all over the world using them even as visual elements for photography. This is also a good example of the power of a well-integrated book cover. The popularity of Murakami’s style of writing combined with the unique style of the book covers has become synonymous with a certain section of society.

Haruki Murakami book covers by Suzzane Dean (designtaxi.com)

Finally, for the reader, the cover of a book needs to carry a powerful impact. The readers often scan through the books at the store and pick the one that appeals to them.  Bookshops display books with their covers facing the reader. It’s the first thing a reader sees. It is the reason a customer picks up the book, particularly in a supermarket setting where every book is front facing . Even the author can be recognised not only by the letters spelled out, but by the font, the style of cover, composition, the look of a series. Only when a reader has picked up the book do they actually read anything, and that includes the back cover blurb that you will have spent hours and hours honing– and if the blurb was worth all that effort, then the cover is equally if not more deserving.  (‘The history of book jacket design and its cultural significance’. Lindsay B. Larimore Director: Virginia Green).

Even when, on Amazon and other online retailers, books are displayed as a list, the main thing your eye is drawn to is the cover, because the list of titles and authors are all presented in the same font, size, and colour. As online sales rise, the new cliché today is ‘Does it work in a thumbnail size?’. So for a designer working on a book jacket, combining the aesthetic sensibilities of the writer, with the demands of the reader’s habits and trends becomes an important task. Once upon a time, cover designers enjoyed the luxury of time and a singular format of the printed book. Today one has to keep numerous variables in mind before getting down to the drawing board(J D Smith, amazonauthorinsights.com).  Starting with the way one would approach the cover design brief, from image research, to figuring suitable typography to work across the platforms of print and digital, to production values while maintaining the strength and clarity in a book cover — all of these have undergone a seismic shift. The spine of a book plays a pivotal role as well and designers must pay heed to that aspect. Because of decreasing shelf space, a month after the book is out, a retailer might place it vertically, where all one can see is the spine that’s an inch or two wide . However, it should still speak to the reader. It is a modest but important component as it can showcase the essence of the book (Interview- Ahlawat Gunjan 2019, www.joinpaperplanes.com). Graphic designers such as Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, and Chip Kidd shaped the history of book jacket design during pivotal historical moments in culture and heightened recognition of the art form of book jacket design. Starting as a disposable wrapping, book jackets have undergone an impressive evolution in a relatively short period of time and now represent a respected design field (The history of book jacket design and its cultural significance, Lindsay B. Larimore Director: Virginia Green). Although some scholars and designers believe that evolving technology will bring the demise of the printed book, jacket designs have proven their versatility and adaptability throughout history and will continue to do so as long as passionate designers continue to create innovative designs.

Yaatra Khan, Assistant Professor, Visual Communication, School of Communication Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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