Friday, May 2, 2014

Book Covers - Good Design, Bad Design

In your great book,
You got the good looks,
In your great book.
—"Your Great Book," Teitur

I love books. ("Are you sure, James? Or are you just looking around your half-packed apartment and saying you love whatever you see?" "I love books. I love books! I LOVE THEM.") Today, I'm packing my books so I can go move into my new house (it's a house house!), so I decided to take some pictures of my books before they go in their boxes, to be unpacked who-knows-exactly-when.

As a way of sorting which books to take pictures of, I've decided to turn my pictures into a quick illustration of how to design a book cover (and how not to design one).


I'm not a huge typography nerd, but I am a little bit of a typography nerd. I like a good typeface; what can I say?*

The general principles of good typography are all you need for a good book cover: don't use too many fonts, don't use fonts that are ugly or generally despised (most importantly, Papyrus and Comic Sans), and when possible use the font to establish a clear window to the subject at hand.
This wonderful resource (a Bible my parents got me when I was a teenager and from which I indeed learned a lot) suffers from chronic typeface problems on its cover. There are at least three fonts, which is too many, and none of them are particularly enjoyable to look at. What's more, fonts don't really connect us to the subject of the book in a compelling way; nothing about these fonts in particular bespeaks learning, or biblicality. I think the blend of three separate photographs and the horrifying black, oval maw at the enter aren't good choices either.
This somewhat silly book, a volume that tries to find the good bits of religion and make them available to the non-religious, has some fantastic cover design. There are only two fonts here, and they are both pleasing to look at. The ornate, blackletter font used for "Holy Bible" establishes a thematic link to the ancient religious texts and tradition the author is mining, and the breaking through of the simpler, more modern font in the center visually establishes the idea of looking for something new in something old. The hole in the center also succinctly establishes the emptiness an atheist might feel is at the heart of religious traditions.


In general, visual art on a book cover should establish an implicit thematic connection with the ideas in the book, so that the reader gets a sense of what they're getting into just from picking the thing up. It needs to catch the eye, but not be too busy or distracting, and it needs to be pretty, or at least interesting. There are several kinds of visual art available to the designer of a book cover.

Reusing Older Artwork

There are any number of ways to illustrate a cover, but one common way is to pick a painting or other piece of art from the past, often used in order to create associations with that past in the mind of the reader.

If you want to reuse some old art in your cover, it needs to have a clear connection with the theme of the book, and it needs to be engaging and interesting to look at. "Less is more" comes into play here even more than elsewhere: since many paintings and other pieces of visual art are not meant to scale down to book cover size, it's important to pick something that's not too busy so it will really pop.
This image is unfocused, and its connection to the subject—poetry—is unclear. There's a dude kind of looking like he's going to read to an audience (but maybe about to get arrested?) which is a thing poets do, but there's a heck of a lot of other things going on, too, so the poet, if that's what he is, is not the focus of attention. The image is also cropped kind of weird; it's clear there was some kind of visual framing going on with that latticework peeping over the upper corners, but the rest of it's been cut off for some reason. 

This translation of the Pentateuch, done by one of my favorite authors, Robert Alter, benefits from great cover design. The title is overlaid in a beautiful typeface over the image itself, drawing the eye into its drama. The image itself is gorgeous, colorful, and dynamic; it's cropped well, so we get a clear look at the figure of Moses, who looks like he's about to smash the commandment tablets, one of the most iconic moments in the Pentateuch. This establishes a double link with the focus of the book: the person named in the title is depicted on the cover, and a pivotal scene from the events inside is shown as well. 


Same deal as above, but you know, with photographs. Less is more, establish a connection, don't confuse the viewer, etc. A major pitfall with photographs seems to be the temptation to use more than one, but in general this is a mistake; one great picture is always better than a few good ones jammed into one image. (Remember The Learning Bible's three blended photos above? Poor choice.)
You can see what they were trying to do here (the Ayatollah's creepy eye is watching you with disapproval, O girl with balloon!) but it doesn't really work. The photo of the girl is too unfocused and busy, and the connection with the watching eye above is hard to notice right away. The subtitle placed above the title and to the right is also visually distracting and weird, since there's no really obvious reason it needs to be there.
Here the subtitle is above the title, but it works because it's centered in a visually distinct area that looks like it's meant to house something, but is a little too small to hold the title, which needs to be big enough to dominate the cover and catch the eye. The many colored squares of the image, set into distinct sections of their own, call to mind both the diversity of the world's languages and the fact that they will be partitioned into different entries in this reference volume.

Original Visual Art

Commissioning some original visual art is a great, though probably more expensive, way to get something that will both relate directly to the theme or plot of the book, and be eye-catching and new. It's also a great way to get something ugly, so beware.
Cf. "ugly" above. This image represents the unraveling of the narrator's psyche and world fairly accurately, but not in a way that's visually pleasing or particularly interesting. 

This, on the other hand, is a visually arresting image that also captures the ethos of the book—a memoir told through the lens of whatever the author's favorite piece of pop culture was at the time he's narrating—through a slightly surreal, playful picture, one segment of which is boldly transposed onto the spine. 

The Winners:

What, you didn't know this was a contest? Me neither, but that didn't stop me from picking my favorite bad cover and favorite good one:

This violates all the rules, and then some. Too many fonts, a combination of two pictures (a painting and a picture, no less, and the picture is of sheep), and general busy-ness collaborate to form probably the worst book cover I've ever personally owned. 

I bought this book for the cover; that's how much I love it. It eschews type entirely, adhering rigorously to the "less is more" rule of cover design, almost to a fault. The plot of the book, in which two alternate timelines are created depending on the fate of a single aircraft in WWII, is elegantly alluded to in the repeated pattern of aircraft outlines, which could represent a group of planes or a single plane diverging into multiple universes and timelines. 
Now that that's done, I'm off to pack these books in some boxes! And other books, too.

*If I were a real typography nerd, though, I would care about the distinction between typeface and font, which I honestly can't say I do. They will be used interchangeably in this post. True typography nerds: deal with it.

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