A book cover has a challenging job. Not only must it represent the depth of knowledge between its pages, but it must also stand on its own as a form of storytelling. Though a book is certainly more than its cover, the best covers can draw readers in with images and text alone. They can pique interest, hint at what’s to come, and communicate, at a glance, whether a book is worth picking up. The books chosen as the winners of the year’s 50 Books 50 Covers competition accomplish all of that, but no two look the same. We asked six of the winners to tell us the story behind their cover designs—here’s what they had to say.

Jon Key and Wael Morcos, Morcos KeyBlack Futures

“This goes back three years ago now, when Kimberly Drew reached out to me. She called me and she was a big fan of The Tenth magazine, which was one of our big editorial projects at the time. And she said, ‘This is very cool; it’s like art or an object, and we want our book to be an object that will beautiful, but also of the culture, of the time, and something that people can read and enjoy.

“Surprisingly, the cover that we made for the first sketch was the cover that they actually ended up choosing, which never happens. For us, one of the things that we really loved was the idea of was having a solid black book. I think that really speaks to contemporary art theory and all of these painters that paint in black-on-black tones taking out colorism. It’s very interesting how that can unify the the Black experience. And then the rainbow metallic foil really speaks to black as a color. The Black experience is not a monolith—there are different expressions. I love that this iridescent color shows the different nuances and values and depths of our experiences. It also kind of brings the past and the present and the future into one frame. It was nearly impossible to pick one image that summarized everything that you were going to experience in the book, so I think that it being this holographic, abstract color that you can almost reflect yourself into, helps [readers] start to imagine this broad world that’s going to be inside.

“One of the other things about making covers in general in 2021 is that everyone is super concerned about things like: What does it look like on the thumbnail? What does it look like on Amazon? What does it look like when people are buying it online? And I think we really tackle that legibility problem by having this big, bold typography claiming and taking space that you can see at various scales. You can see it across the street and you see in a bookstore window, and it just brings you into it [the book]. I think it’s nice seeing ‘Black Futures’ big on a cover. Even if you don’t know what it’s about, you can just walk by and be like, ‘Wow, I’m Black, and I have a future.’ That’s really inspiring. It’s almost like a mantra.”

Stephen Brayda, HarperCollins | Almond

“For this touching tale of love, friendship, and acceptance, the original cover design brief was left fairly wide open. Editorial requested a cover that was heartwarming but also quirky, something in the same ballpark as The Emissary or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Author Won-pyung Sohn’s writing is sophisticated and accessible, so my immediate goal was to encapsulate the depth of her words in a simple, graphic way. I considered the opportunity for this cover to live on the same shelf as the iconic book The Emissary and started sketching (and sweating) as I read.

“Sohn’s protagonist Yunjae is born with a condition called alexithymia, which affects the two almond-shaped neurons deep in his brain. He struggles to feel emotions like fear and anger, so his mother and grandmother leaves Post-it notes around the house as daily reminders. Many of my initial ideas incorporated the Post-it note visual in colorful variations. These options felt appropriately youthful yet missed the mark in terms of emotional significance.

“The final cover was one of the last I originally designed. I began with exploring more traditional type in this layout, but these approaches felt more expected and restrained. I quickly scribbled the cover copy onto a Post-it note and began piecing the puzzle together. I tucked the subtitle “A Novel” into an almond shape where Yunjae’s neurons would be found, and used that same shape in different sizes to squeeze the title and author name in. This design felt more intentional and immediately elevated the concept. Scaled versions of the same almond shape house the body copy throughout the rest of the jacket.

“On the printed cover, the cool background’s gritty matte contrasts with the soft-touch lamination of Yunjae’s profile, another nod to his youth and innocence in a disorderly world. Much of my work happens organically, a constant evolution through thinking and rethinking, reading and picking apart each Photoshop file’s hundreds of layers. I tend to tackle a project in waves of self-doubt and hyper-focused creative blocks. This cover was the result of back-and-forth, push-and-pull until something memorable emerged. I landed on colors as I played with Post-it notes, and the typography formed as a result of trying to humanize the overall piece. I imagined this scribbling might resemble how Yunjae and his family would have communicated. A fun side note: I lettered the type on a Post-it note and stuck the note onto my office window on the twenty-second  floor of the HarperCollins building, where it stayed for more than a year overlooking City Hall Park.”

Nathan Hill of Spaeth Hill | äntrepō vol.1, “Revelations”

“The design of the publication was a huge experimental exercise: äntrepō is a mixture of concepts that we’re interested in and trying out. Things that ended up not making the cut were ones that felt too trendy. We really strived to create a piece that comes from a place of originality versus producing more variations of things that already exist.

“Since the bulk of the book is about experiencing texture and mood, it only made sense to bring elements of that to the cover in a more reserved way. The contributors’ names on the cover was a way to immediately recognize and celebrate the folks who participated in the project. The goal was to produce an object that felt both conceptual and curious, and as such, the cover hugs and protects all the work inside like a cloak, while the gold foil logo hints to the visual celebration waiting inside. It’s meant to be a reflection of the thoughtfulness and care that went into designing and producing it.

“For us, the printing process was the most challenging and educational aspect of making äntrepō. Our choice for a larger format and limited run presented some navigational challenges in producing it. For example, parts of the book had to be hand-fed and collated due to the size limitations of the press. Handwork is great, but allows for human error and imperfections—something we had to be vigilant about and look out for.”

Renata Graw, Normal | Duro Olowu: Seeing

“The brief for the book was a bit unusual for a museum exhibition: this was not to be a one-to-one catalogue of the show, but a companion piece. Duro [Olowu] had mentioned it in an interview with the exhibition curator Naomi Beckwith:

I hope the book will present the exhibition in a different light. One that is very much about what’s in it, explains further this great cacophony of work and eras…. But also somehow tie that in with what I do with my work as a fashion designer. It’s letting people into my world.

We started by experimenting with Duro’s fabrics and patterns, some of our original sketches had combinations of two or three of his fabrics. As the interior of the book was taking shape, we realized the cover should not just be about Duro’s fabrics, but also about the way he sees, curates, collects, mixes, and remixes. The type was set as a frame. Separating the title gives the viewer the necessary space to see, to pause, to maybe take a second look.

“We had always wanted to use fabric for the cover of this book. At the same time, we wanted an approachable, soft-cover book. We ended up using what we call a “cloth jacket,” which embraces the fabric’s tactility as well as the soft-cover’s approachability. The color was a combination of ideas: During a meeting with Duro, he brought up burlap as a possible fabric to use on an exhibition wall. He had also mentioned his fascination with the Chicago brick as a possible background or inspiration for the show. So we arrived at a terra-cotta brick color. The type was then set with the bright blue foil. The palette (blues, yellows, terra-cotta) came from one of Duro’s fabric patterns, printed on the inside front and back covers. Under the cloth there is a light yellow cover, an afterimage—Duro always mentions collecting with his mind’s eye, so we thought it appropriate to give him two covers.”

Ben Grandgenett | Wild Thing

“Steve Attardo, the art director at W.W. Norton / Liveright, reached out to me and was looking for something ‘unconventional, typographically interesting…and of course using some amazing image(s) of Jimi.’

“It’s Jimi Hendrix! Need I say more? I knew this cover would have to use his image in some way, and my hope was to bring something artful to this. Hendrix’s image has been seen and manipulated a million times over. I wanted to avoid representing him in a way that felt cliche or like a knockoff psychedelic poster. Keeping that in mind, a lot of the sketches that I sent affected his image in a subtle way by layering color and image to varying degrees and used different tones of typography (handwritten, bold, overlay, gradient, etc). I did try a few iterations that the type were more of a direct homage to the psychedelic/event posters but they didn’t quite work. In the end the publisher liked one of the original/image driven sketches which eventually became the final cover.

“I loved the intimate, emotional quality of Hendrix’s gaze in this photo. Color is a fundamental visual motif of the ’60s and ’70s. It felt important to have that be a part of the cover in some way. I liked the way the vibrant color could be both consuming and revealing at the same time. Similarly, the typography (ITC Bookman) was a subtle nod to that era.”

Nick Adam and Bud Rodecker, Span with Lucie Van der Elst (illustrator) | Nkemdiche

NA: “The author of Nkemdiche and Founder of Ọkpara House, Obiora Nwazota is an architect born into the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. He practices design here in Chicago and intentionally builds diverse design teams so that many perspectives are present in the collaboration. That said, as this book is rooted in Igbo culture, Obi guided the vision as he has a deep understanding of Igbo life, history and representation. Obi conveyed that there are few accurate representations of Igbo and Nigerian culture in the West. With that being the situation a primary objective of this book was to create a book for children that was accurate.

The idea was a simple one: celebrate the beard and introduce the main character, Nkemdiche. The story of Nkemdiche takes place in a time when women grew beards. The name Nkemdiche is an Igbo term translating to ‘mine is different’. In the story, Nkemdiche is widely known as the woman with the most magnificent beard. This book is unlike any of the children’s books I grew up with. It was exciting to be part of bringing something so unique into the world. When Obi introduced this story to us, he asked us to imagine that for all of time women grew beards, and that these beards were unlike anything we have ever seen before. He asked us to imagine what Bjork or Lady Gaga might do to their beards when prepping for an award ceremony.

Our background is highly western, and this book needed to avoid euro- and Western-centric troupes or cliches that are often seen in the representation of African culture. As we got to know Obiora Nwazota, we brought this up right away. Obi assured us that he and Ọkpara House would be leading all of the cultural context and that based on our portfolio and process that they were confident in our collective ability to be uncompromising and accurate. I think the only idea that was rejected—and it was rejected completely—was to do that thing we often see in Western Children’s books where you become illustrative with the typesetting. The book’s story and illustrations are already introducing so many new ideas, the text needed to be clear and support the reader.”

BR: “I had been reading this fantastic series of children’s books to my son called “Iggy Peck Architect,” and “Rosie Revere Engineer.” They both have lovely moments when the type starts to float away, or fall down. The response, rightly so, was that this approach was too childish and that this book, while meant to be read to children, was not a children’s book. 

Our work with Obi started on the interior of the book, and specifically with the typography. Our first question was what is an appropriate type specification that is as connected to the Igbo culture as Lucie’s beautiful illustrations were. Through our process we settled on Kigelia and Minerale. Kigelia for it’s conceptual foundation, and Minerale for its formal connection to the illustrations. When exploring cover options, we knew the illustration we were going to feature. From there it was an exercise of exploring how to weave in the typography in a way that was harmonious.

This final version of the cover just puts the right emphasis on the right places. Nkemdiche is front and center, her beard is the star of the show. The size and scale of the Title interacts with the illustration in its form, size, and positioning behind the beard. It’s tight. You can’t change the position or crop of anything without the whole thing falling apart.”

LV: “For the illustrations, I worked with paper cuts to create all of the shapes, that I then assembled in illustrator for flexibility. Beginning with paper was a nod to the Igbo statuary art — symmetrical but organic. The Uli Patterns, used in murals and traditionally as body painting, were also a big influence.

Nkemdiche’s beard is an upside-down version of the hairpiece of some of the ‘maiden masks’ in Igbo Art, or Agbogho Mmuo. These female ‘spirit heads’ (not masks) are truly magnificent. Not only is the beard a beauty statement but it is also invested by sacred powers. For the face I wanted to give Nkemdiche a contemporary look, but looking at old archive photos, it could also be a young woman from centuries ago. However, for the legendary side-eye I need to give a shout-out to Fatou N’Diaye, founder of the blog Black Beauty Bag. We used colors that were commonly found in Igbo Art or architecture. The vibrant oranges and reds can remind us of the bridal coral beads, the ocre symbolized the Earth, and the fuchsia and purples on page nineteen are inspired by the kola nut, a staple in Igbo hospitality that creates a sense of community.”