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Five Beautiful Book Covers and the Stories Behind Them

The winners of this year’s 50 Books | 50 Covers showcase proves that 2021 was an utterly rich year for cover design

Artwork. Advertisement. Encapsulation. Billboard. Brand. 

A book cover is many things — and the best ones tend to be all things.

In other words, no small feat for the designers tasked with creating covers that are at once alluring and effective. And yet as the winners of this year’s 50 Books | 50 Covers showcase and competition prove, 2021 was an utterly rich year for the medium. 

Here, five winners from the competition break down their designs that broke through the noise of the bookshelf and beyond.

1
No One is Talking About This

Lauren Peters-Collaer, Penguin Random House

Working on the cover for a book like this, which is utterly singular and inventive, is thrilling. The ingenious way Patricia Lockwood uses language felt like it opened the door for visual experimentation and provided fertile ground for many different approaches. At the same time, these qualities that made the book so exciting to work on provided a bit of a challenge since the acrobatic, genre-defying nature of the text felt like it defied a single visual.

Very generally, No One Is Talking About This is about being extremely inside the internet (known as the “portal” in the text), and then being extremely outside of it. So some of my initial ideas were more internet-y. Specifically, some of my first directions integrated explicit internet accouterments—scroll bars, browser windows, etc.—into more analogue imagery. On others, I layered and sliced together images in an attempt to communicate the internet’s visual deluge that the book conveys. Moving away from explicit internet visuals, I also tried some directions that used imagery in a more fragmented and modular way, and others that were more purely abstract and geometric.

Ultimately, I was drawn to the idea of an optical illusion of some sort since there’s a sense in the text of not always knowing where the self ends and the internet begins. The final cover’s expansive setting, combined with the portal-like illusion, aims for a feeling of both disorientation and omniscience that felt apt for the text. — Lauren Peters-Collaer

2
Black Food: Stories, Art and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora

George McCalman, McCalman.Co

The process of making this cover was never corporate. It was always a series of conversations between me and the author/curator of the book, Bryant Terry. 

There was originally an entirely different cover with a photograph (featuring a shrine to a matriarch of Black cuisine, Edna Lewis) that we were moving toward finalizing. Bryant had an epiphany one weekend as we were putting the finishing touches on it that the cover looked a little too thoughtful and academic. He wondered whether it was necessary to create more of a sensory aesthetic direction. He wanted the cover to not just look beautiful, but to also look cool. He wanted it to be as cool as the Black community itself.

I remembered that the very first conversation I had with Bryant about Black Food a year prior had produced an idea that I had sketched after we had gotten off the phone. I drew shapes and pieces, symbolic of the African diaspora scattered across the world, and metaphorically placed them together to create the words “Black Food.” I sketched out an updated version of that idea that same week we were rethinking the cover. The finished version and the sketch are almost identical. 

Since the typography was all custom, I had complete creative control over how it looked. It was an unconventional decision to place Bryant’s name alongside the title; the book cover also has no subhead, which is usually unheard of. The entire thing was unconventional and aesthetically arresting, which is why it worked. The colors represented the palette that fell on the inside of the book, delineating various chapters and themes. Taken all together it was representative of the global Black community.

Ultimately, it communicated feeling more than marketing. Book covers are decided by sales teams. There is usually a dissonance between covers of books and what falls inside them. I wanted this cover to reflect everything that was on the inside of this special project. — George McCalman

3
Double Trio

Boyang Xia

New Directions Creative Director-at-Large Rodrigo Corral approached me with this project, and his email opened with “OK. This project is incredible.”

The fact that this poetry collection is a trilogy allowed us to do a more serialized visual treatment where we really explored the visual progression on each cover individually and together as a whole. 

We also had some initial discussions about collaborating with creative technologists and translating this sense of mobility sonically. Though it ended up not being the case, the final direction was designed with this idea in mind. 

Balancing the tone of this piece was challenging. We were going for something eclectic but not rigid, vibrant without being overtly digital. On top of all that, we did not want to lose the elasticity and free spirit that jazz possesses, which is a huge inspiration for the author himself, [and plays a role in the structure of the book]. 

I had around 10 sketches after the first round, and I noticed that most of them were homing in on either depth or gradient. As a team, we thought the final design effortlessly married both categories while maintaining a sense of movement and introducing a burst of visual energy. — Boyang Xia

4
How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Chantal Jahchan

Despite the shock value of the title, this book makes nuanced arguments as to why and how the climate movement must start to take offensive action. The initial brief was for the cover to evoke hard-hitting journalism while still feeling fairly elegant—to capture both the author’s anti-pacifist thesis and his beautifully written narrative prose. (As Andreas Malm writes, “Sabotage can be done softly, even gingerly.”)

The final cover is actually not that far off from a sketch I showed in the first round. Even though the contents of the book don’t literally outline how to blow up a pipeline, I drew inspiration from historical “how-to” guides and instruction pamphlets, which often used separate boxes to show each step in a process. I borrowed this visual language to create containers for a series of images, which took the pressure off needing to capture the nuances of Malm’s thesis with a single image. In earlier rounds, I used actual diagrams of pipelines within the frames, but I eventually moved toward more thematic imagery like natural landscapes and fences. The latter hints at property destruction, which Malm posits is the only route to revolutionary change. One obstacle I faced during this process was making the images feel visually harmonious even though they came from various sources. In the end, I traced and altered each image, creating a shared handmade quality. 

The vibrant red background signals an urgent call to action and hints at the warming planet. I set the type in a grotesque sans serif that I modified to have softer edges and an imperfect line quality to mimic the wood type on historical protest posters, and to match the style of the images. 

I’m drawn to book cover design because I like the balance of expression and problem-solving. Every cover needs to have legible type, stand out on a bookshelf, work at thumbnail size online, and capture the tone of the book — but the rest is open-ended, especially with art directors like Devin Washburn at No Ideas, who let me run with this cover. — Chantal Jahchan

5
Designing Motherhood

Natasha Chandani and Lana Cavar, Clanada

Our fundamental design concept for the overall book was based on the physical change or transformation of a pregnant person. In design terms, we used different weights of a typeface to show shifts and growth from one chapter of the book to another. Mimicking the growth of a pregnant person, our arch went from condensed to regular, to extended and expanded, back to regular and condensed weights. We carefully scaled each of the different typeface weights to match each other optically, creating a very subtle shift in the typography and retaining a similar scale while extending out or contracting in. This design move was integral to every part of the book, including the front and back matter—and we knew somehow it had to make its way to the cover. 

For our concept of growth and transformation we picked Grilli Type’s “America” typeface for the range of wide weights in the family. We wanted to nod to the color cliché of pink, and for much of the book, sourced a pink stock. It took a lot of persistence to source a matching cloth for the cover.

To us, designing a cover comes from the concept, the logic, the structure, and the thinking we’ve set up inside the book. It’s the culmination of the systems we’ve deployed in the book. The hope is the systems come together in the cover more forcefully and more immediately. It often is the most tedious part of designing a book because it gets the most scrutiny. And sometimes, it all comes together with ease — as it did in this case. — Natasha Chandani and Lana Cavar

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