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Does A Good Book Cover Matter Anymore

Does A Good Book Cover Matter Anymore Kevin Conaghan University of Ulster at Belfast School of Art and Design BDes (Hons) Design for Visual Communication Module VIC303

Contents Page Contents




Contextual and historical changes in the cover design

01 – 04

The book is an object of desire

05 – 08

Case study

09 – 12



Reference list Bibliography

Does a good book cover matter anymore. Introduction The essay will discuss how good book covers enhance the reader’s experience. Through case studies using interviews, books journals and magazines the essay will examine the book as a distinctive object of desire and how the simple act of owning a book in itself can be a great pleasure. I once read in novel, books described as ‘`Brain candy”, I always laugh when I think of this because for me it’s true reading, one of my favourite indulgences.


Contextual and historical changes in book cover design

Why is the book cover important? Since the early years of the use of book covers it all has been a tool if you will. At first the book cover and jacket was a way to protect the book but it quickly moved on the being a selling point. The cover became important to the marketing and advertising of the publication. The lack of dedicated research material available to the history of the book cover I believe may be due to the fact that when people think of books the first thing they think of is wisdom, scholarship and facts, the book cover was initially a protective cover and what lies within in the book was most important. The book cover was used for to the binding, safekeeping and preserving the good condition of the book in the shop and for the trip home. Then with the rise of the printed books they thought of fantasy, fairy tales and fiction, the book cover turned more decorative than protective binding, its potential in the selling of books became a focus. The book jacket started coming into its own in the nineteenth century, particularly in England where the rise of consumerism and interest in books and reading as a pastime allowed the design of the book jacket to grow “when decoration was present on the outside of book, it took the form of either blocking in the binging cloth, or pasting printed paper sheets on the front and back boards. In both cases, the design content may have been very similar to a book jacket, and the blocking of books from the 1890’s in particular, are often charming and original.”(1: Powers)


So from a design perspective it is fair to say these books were decorative and the covers were for the pubic to see and admire. One such example is Henry Harland, literary editor The Yellow Book (Fig.1) and Illustrated Quarterly, Volume One April 1894, London, Elkin Matthews and John Lane. The cover was designed by Audrey Beardsley. This journal stood for a lot of things but mainly it was a symbol or a prop to indicate that the person was part of the avant-garde culture and bohemian lifestyle which was fashionable in some circles at the time. In a case of image is what matters, the most downfall of this once popular publication happened famously when Oscar Wilde was arrested with a copy of the book. ‘Yellow book under his arm is proof of the decadence” (2: Powers) was what the headlines read after his arrest, and the publisher John Lane recalled ‘it killed The Yellow Book and it nearly killed me” (3: Powers)

This cover does seem appropriate for a time I however find it quite ugly and off putting to quote Oscar Wilde “it worried not yellow all”


Fig 1.

The book jacket becomes an everyday sight in the 1900. However the most regular books to have cover artwork were books for children. This was most likely for the simple fact that children learn better with appropriate imagery. Around the time of the First World War we begin to see the growth of the cover design, a comment was marked around this time; “the exigencies of trade have caused publishers to tax’s their ingenuity to the utmost, and they vie with each other in presenting their wares in as attractive a form possible. They are apparently convinced that a book, like a woman, is none the worse, but rather the better, for having a good dressmaker. To this end, they have enlisted artists of distinction to design book covers and end papers, and now it is quite a commonplace remark that, as far as certain classes of literature are concerned, the cover sells the book � (4: Powers) The 1880s saw advertising get really kicked up to a new level; the cause of this was due to economic buoyancy. The new method of selling products was through advertising and creating a connection to the public through print, the selling of products like food, household items and medicines through print advertising increased dramatically. Book publishers learnt from this and started to investigate new ways of reaching the book buying public.



The book as an object of desire

The cover is a communication to a potential buyer; the image on the cover indicates the text story knowledge and adventure to be found behind the image. The artwork itself works his way into the consciousness of the person looking to buy the book. As I said before the book cover is packaging for the book but unlike other packaging such as household objects or food products the cover has a more emotional impact on buyers. Ladislav Sutnars book The Green and the Red (Fig.2) is an example of this. This cover clearly shows a strong emotion that are intended invoke a person to read this novel. The photo shows a man in some state of distressed and the black-and-white of the photo is contrast to the to only other colours used. I feel it was very clever how the designer used the colours green and red instead of the text. Green and red automatically create a response and a person there are visual clues for go and stop. The designer here is trying to set the emotional tone of the book with these colours. Tom Goodwin once wrote “the mass of whispered mental associations which are recoverable invoke to complex, transitory and varied to be conjured by the direct brutal frontal assault and that tries to bully you into buying with a anecdotal realism”. (5: Powers) The cover itself is another form of information and although it may have many copies or poorer clones it should demand a relationship not just with information that is to be found in its pages, it should give a possible buyer of visual clue what’s to come or the values of the book. To backup my point I am going to use the book cover for contemporary novel The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer Michelle Hodkin (Fig. 3). “ The best book covers possess a form of hidden eroticism connecting with some undefended part of personality in order to say take me, I am yours. (6: Powers) From this cover it is clear that the book is a story about young lovers. The reader can tell the story involves great struggle of some kind that the main characters experience through the plot. Got a mysterious and slightly sinister feel to it.


Fig 2.

Fig 3.

“New challenge jackets legibility in a thumbnail icon on a website is almost as much a requirement as legibility across a crowded shop” (7: Powers)

The Book cover” has a low status in the design world, “ Alvin Lustig wrote in 1947 of the way that, in addition to primary objective of helping to sell a book, his work for New Directions allowed him to achieve another, secondary aim of “projecting a series of public symbols of higher than usual standards” (8: Powers)



Case study

Chip Kidd is a contemporary book cover designer he is one of the most high profile and best known designer of book covers. He has over 1500 covers under his belt. He first got noticed for his subtle interplay in using image text in different fields of colour. It has been said that Kidd paid a crucial part in defining the book cover close to the end of the 20th century. He uses his love of pop culture imagery to give book covers a unique while witty stylish look and feel. Kidd when illustrating a book cover he absorbs influences and imagery from the world of arts and literature, along with Kitsch, comic books. So you see that Kidd gets inspiration and unique style from his successors. To see his love of culture and American culture one would look at the book covers for Remote, Boomer (fig. 4) and Watching The Body Burn. These covers though they reflect the clichĂŠ of pop culture they have a sort of his intelligence to them. Kidd likes to lead his audience with the use of text and images, to debate decide for themselves what the covers are about. Being a book designer comes in handy for Kidd especially when it comes to designing his own books. One such book cover designed as for his book called The Cheese Monkeys: novel in two semesters. (Fig. 5)

Fig 4. 09

Fig 5.

“Kidd shows how calculated ambiguity, pastiches of objects, styles and vernacular visual language makes an impressive cover. Kidd incorporates a highly convincing photo of an unfinished comp with an unexplained rebus on the front board by illustrator Chris Ware, leaving his viewer to ponder possible meanings.” (9: Drew) Kidd uses very clever techniques when designing covers printing text on side pages to encourage the buyer to engage with cover to find another meaning or the meaning is left up to the potential buyer. In the case of his book, The Cheese Monkeys: novel in two semesters, places words in the margins ‘Kidd is his own designer here. A small text block surrounded by generous margins gives his pages a period feel. When (book character) Sorbeck arrives on the scene, the typography sharpens, changing mid-page from Apollo to Bodoni. The book’s two slogans, ‘Do you see?’ and ‘Good is dead’ (a Sorbeckism), are printed on the pages’ fore-edge, and the author’s thanks wind eccentrically around the cover binding. (10: Poyner). Kidd tackles the book cover in the best possible way translating the dialogue from the story or the content on to the front cover. To give a glimpse of what’s to come or just to visually delight a prospective buyer this skill is what’s makes Chip Kidd one of the best contemporary book designers there is. “What do the stories look like?” (11:Kidd) stories or books to me anything they can be the textbook full knowledge the guidebook tells where we should go the horror story that scares us Stephen King is my favourite the adventure books that let us escape or a love story. The story can be anything no matter what the genre, age or scholarship the one universal about of all books stories but they should have a look at impression an identity. That first look at the cover is the first impression of what were about to read, first impressions are always important. “A book designer gives form to content” (12: Kidd) As designers we have responsibility to the audience, to clients to get messages across. “The book designers responsibility is threefold: to the reader, the publisher and most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, Wow! I need to read that.” (13” Kidd) Kidd designed a book cover for one of his favourite authors David Sedaris the book was called ‘Naked’. With this book cover Kidd added an interactive feature with this the jackets, so when the sleeve that was an image of man underwear was removed the audience was shown unexpectedly an x- ray of the male anatomy. He use this imagery to imply that the story which was about nudist colonies was so much more and deeper than the simple act of nudity.


“All solutions devise their origins from the text of the book once the book designer has read the text then he or she has to be an interpreter or a translator.” (14:Kidd) As a book cover designer Chip Kidd loves to give his covers designs interactive if not engaging fields of them. And it seems to me that with the rise of the E-reader Chip Kidd would have to do rethink his approach to design the cover. “Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity.” (15:Kidd) I think it’s safe to say that’s Kidd isn’t the biggest fan of the e reader although he has highlighted the positives and negatives. He that much of the impact of book covers design can be lost with the E books covers. Without the spine alone one loses an opportunity to express or show a feeling or impression of the book.


Conclusion “Did you know what John Uplike used to do the first thing when he would get a copy of one of his new books from Alfred A. Knopf? He’d smell it. He’d run his hand over the rag paper and the pungent ink and the decked edges of pages. All those books all those years he never got tired of it” (16:Kidd) here Kidd makes an excellent point that I forgot about a first, there is nothing better than the smell of a new book the pleasure of holding, breathing in the pages. So with our must ‘have to have it now’ generation the instant gratification, we are losing out on the simpler pleasures that comes with a good paperback novel. I personally believe and this is true for any book lover I have ever talked to, find great pleasure in the simple ownership a good book. To be the first to crack the spine of the new book while inhaling the smell of an unread new book may be one of the most simplest or pleasures in the world but it may also be one of if the best. So when the cover art is visually pleasing it’s like a bonus or a point of pride, I like to have people look at my bookshelves and not just see the book but the Art on the cover. Everyone judges a book by its cover when in a bookstore, this is not a bad thing as it reinforces how important book cover design is, the combination of the authors ideas and the designers visual communication of these ideas. A good book cover has the ability to go beyond the marketing. Design matters.


Reference list 1. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg, 6 2. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg, 6 3. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg, 6 4. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg 7 5. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg 11 6. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg 11 7. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg 11 8. Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Pg 11 9. Drew, N, 2005, By its Cover, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, Pg 148 10. PoynerR, “From covers to content�, Eye Magazine, no 49 vol 14, 2002 pp 2425 11. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13 12. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13 13. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13 14. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13 15. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13 16. atter_ok_it_is.html, 04-02-13

BIBLIOGRAPHY Books Connolly, J, Eighty years of Book Cover Design Drew, N, 2005, By its Cover, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, Powers, A, 2006, Front Cover, Mitchell Beazley, London Klantan, R, Fully Booked Articles PoynerR, “From covers to content”, Eye Magazine, no 49 vol 14, 2002 pp 24-25 Poyner R, “You can judge a cover by its book”, Eye Magazine, no 39 vol 10, 2001 pp 21-23 Wilson C, “The look of Lolita”, Eye Magazine, no 43, vol, 11, 2001, pp12 Website 08-02-13 01-02-13 01-02-13 01-02-13 26-03-13 27-01-13 27-01-13 k_it_is.html, 04-02-13

Kevin Conaghan


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