Image by Laura Thompson

Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby (designed by Random House’s Rachel Ake Keuch) has been one of the most consequential pieces of mainstream fiction to publish this year: a modern relationship story that offers a view into urban trans culture. It’s a singular book wrapped in a familiar package: neon color palette, sans serif title, ambiguous silhouettes. If you look too hastily at the window of a McNally Jackson or Strand bookstore, you might mistake Peters’ novel for Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (designed by Lauren Peters-Collaer), Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In (designed by Terri Nimmo), Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers (designed by Lynn Buckley) or countless other memoirs and pieces of literary fiction published within the past two years. 

I’ve been calling this particular trend the unicorn frappuccino cover, due to its resemblance to Starbucks’ coffeeless drink that went viral due back in 2017. The bright, nebulous style has become so pervasive that folks outside the design community have commented on its prevalence, and writers in myriad publications have reported on various iterations of it. It is current proof that as with any other kind of graphic or textile design, book jackets are part of a trend cycle, borrowing from looks of the past, and absorbing styles from the present. 

A row of three brightly colored books sit on a light blue background
Three books that exemplify the “frappuccino unicorn” trend. | Image by Laura Thompson

Some trends, like hand-lettered titles or nostalgic 1950s graphics will come and go, while covers that feature an image of a woman turning her back from the viewer, for example, are so everlasting that some writers have joked they should be their own category. It seems that the frappuccino trend will likely go the way of the first camp: ephemeral as ever, and overworked enough to eventually go out of style before something new replaces it. But how did such a trend start in the first place? And what does it say about the publishing industry when covers are designed based on the psychology of the busy browser? Members of the publishing community were able to help me demystify some of the cultural and economic forces that intermingle to produce a book’s final visual identity. 

“The current book cover trend is highly influenced by what publishers and sales teams think is ‘Instagram-friendly,’” Ake Kuech thinks. I was curious how she viewed cover trends, given the fact that the Detransition, Baby cover perfectly encapsulates the look du jour. While the publisher will often ask her explicitly to lean into a trend, sometimes, she says, a collective visual consciousness sprouts up organically. “A lot of times, these trends are starting from a few covers that were all being designed simultaneously, individually…each individual designer got their briefs around the same time, read the material, and followed the same line of thinking in their own silo. At least at the very start of a trend.” 

Tyler Comrie, founder of the design studio, TyCo, and alum of FSG (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), says at the end of the day, cover trends come down to marketing. Oftentimes, there’s an inherent tension between the designer working on a cover and the team marketing it. While most cover designers prefer to look outside the literary world for creative inspiration, Comrie says marketing departments at publishing houses tend to lead their designers back to previous bestsellers. “Nobody’s saying, ‘this is an image from a brand that we think would translate well to a book cover.’ The marketing suggestions only really reference other book covers,” he told me over the phone. 

In the eyes of marketing professional Laura Cole, who has been at HarperCollins for three years, the bestseller strategy isn’t a perfect science, but it does carry weight, given how readers tend to make buying decisions. “People [who buy and recommend books] don’t usually advocate for a book just because of the cover—unless maybe it’s a design book or cookbook, because a beautiful cover indicates a lot of beautiful images inside,” Cole explained. “But on the flip side, good covers do get more exposure on social [media] and people buy books for aesthetics.” 

When I asked her if HarperCollins does any research to see what kind of designs or color schemes readers gravitate toward, she told me that the practice is infrequent, but that her team has run polls on their social media channels to test options with followers. Another HarperCollins employee, Milan Bozic, told me that from the design perspective, he could benefit from A/B testing and wishes that it was more common. When it comes to budgets, at least, Bozic says at a big publishing house, money rarely impacts the sophistication of a concept. At smaller places, however, like the non-profit Island Press, where he occasionally freelances, a lack of funds can affect the photos a publisher can purchase or the quality of the illustrators they can hire. 

A row of three books sits on a pale green background
Left/middle: Tyler Comrie designed the cover for Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown Right: No Ideas designed the cover for McKenzie Wark’s Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? | Image by Laura Thompson

At mainstream publishers, the cover design process usually starts with the designer, who reads a manuscript, then puts together a cover option, or several, to present to the book’s editor. In Comrie’s experience in-house, that’s usually where his liberty ends—especially because books can evolve between the manuscript and publishing phases. “It kind of sounds like this idealistic job for a creative,” he explained, “but eventually, once you get a cover approved by the editor and the author, then it goes to marketing very last, and if the marketing department doesn’t like it, you kind of have to start all over.”

From an artistic perspective, Comrie’s goal is always to ensure his designs accurately represent a book’s content. Fiction covers, he says, allow for more creative freedom than nonfiction, but are also a challenge due to the nature of literature. “If there’s a book about a young girl who goes on an adventure, and you don’t cover her face up enough, or you see too much of her, suddenly that’s the character you’re stuck with,” he proposed. Designers have to strike the right balance between representing what’s inside the book, while obscuring just enough to preserve the reading experience. This can be a tricky process, which is perhaps why publishers often draw on examples that have worked in the past, rather than risking the failure of a new idea. 

The guiding principle of like that book but different cover design has existed for decades. In the 1960s, the late book designer Paul Bacon pioneered the “Big Book Look,” which we might associate with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Joan Didion’s The White Album: type-driven covers with large author names and ample negative space  that rely more on hue and font than imagery. Philip DiBello and Devin Washburn, founders of the design studio No Ideas, believe we’re currently seeing an evolution of the Big Book Look. “[There’s] a wave of similar covers that play with type intertwined with a key visual in a striking way,” they suggested. In The Look of the Book, Peter Mendelsund and David Alworth’s 2020 monograph, the authors call this mutative style “the interchangeable, big-type, colorful cover.” It’s a look Mendelsund and Alworth first noticed on the 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, and the style they see as the progenitor of the tired “it will work well as a thumbnail on Amazon” rationale. 

A row of three books sits on a dusty pink background. | Image by Laura Thompson
The “Big Book Look.”

Despite this design tendency, DiBello and Washburn’s covers—which they art direct and design primarily for Verso Books, the independent publisher known for producing leftist works like Andrea Long Chu’s Females—tend to be more minimalist and idiosyncratic than what we see on the the Barnes & Noble bestseller table. “We were lucky enough to follow in the footsteps of Andy Pressman,” Verso Books’ art director from 2011 to 2018. “We think some of the most successful covers Andy art directed were, in part, because the designers he was working with weren’t in the scene, and didn’t let current publishing trends influence what was getting approved and printed,” they told me. “Verso’s titles are radical in subject matter and content, and their visual language needs to communicate that.”

While independent publishers still need to consider marketing and sales, designers for companies like Verso often must navigate less institutional red tape, and thus might have more room for experimentation and collaboration. “The fun part is to explore with the designer, the editors, and the author how far we can push or pull the design to service the writing and stand out on the shelves all at the same time,” DiBello and Washburn explained. Designing a book cover that’s eye-catching while still communicating a genre is the goal for all publishers, big or small. But the market forces at play in the churn of big book publishing mean that, like any form of marketing, we’ll continue to see trends cycle in and out of style as one catches on and another fades away. Book jackets—and books themselves for that matter—may always be subject to the pressures of business-making, but neither is doomed. Creative nonconformity can be found, it just might be on the periphery.