When it comes to judging books by their covers, we’re pretty much experts (hey, it’s sort of our job). But we’re far from the only ones casting discerning glances at the jackets that filled the local bookstore. Every year, AIGA and Design Observer put out a call for the best in book design from the past year for the 50 Books 50 Covers competition, and a small jury selects its favorites.
This year’s winning covers are a varied bunch. Some covers play with typography; others use photography as a graphic statement; some are stark declarations, and others make bold and brash use of color. What all of them have in common is a sense of cleverness and taste that might make you feel ok about buying books solely for how they’ll look on your shelf.
We asked three of the winners for the scoop on their cover designs. Because, yes, book covers are full of stories, too.
James Jones, How Democracy Ends
“The brief for the cover came from the brilliant art director Peter Dyer. It was quite open, allowing me to explore different ideas. The main thing mentioned was to make use of the strong title—utilizing bold typography and being confident with the overall approach. For me it’s about creating something original. But being original doesn’t require being the first to do it. It just means being different and better.
“My original ideas always come from reading the initial brief and manuscript. My working practice has changed quite a bit since making the move full-time freelance. Sometimes these ideas end up in the final selection, but mostly they are the beginnings of a jump off point into more research and other avenues to explore. What got me excited about this book was when I read the line: ‘Nothing lasts forever. At some point democracy was always going to disappear into the annals of history. They would not have expected it to happen in their lifetimes. Very few would have thought it might be taking place before their eyes.’ It was that final line that really struck a chord with me creatively. How could I represent the end happening before their eyes?
“Being original doesn’t require being the first to do it. It just means being different and better.”
“To begin ‘realizing the end,’ I started playing around with the idea of the text coming to an abrupt stop. Ideas ranged from the title fading out with the title being made of tiny voting crosses: placing some confrontational looking crosses over the final line; having a cross over the entire title. But it was whilst sketching these ideas out that I began to think about actually ripping a page or even the book to communicate the idea best.
“If possible I always prefer to try and actually create the idea myself, rather than using a sourced image. I knew instantly I needed the impact of the real thing for this idea. I used one of my old sketchbooks, but it just didn’t have the right feel. Maybe it was due to the dimensions. The black also seemed a little too brutal, so I sacrificed a book I’d just finished reading, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. I can’t tell you how hard it was to bloody rip the thing! This turned out to be the book we went with. I played around with where the rip should go in my mind, so I’d printed off the title and placed it over the book to scale to make sure the rip aligned over half of the ‘Ends’ of the title. Once ripped, I photographed each book in my studio and then transferred this over to Photoshop where I removed the previous books title, and added my typography. I went for quite a bold headline feel to the type, as if this was a message for the masses.
“I needed to strike a fine balance between the idea and not making it look too cheesy or obvious. At first there was something missing. It was only when I realized I needed to show the text from the pages underneath that the whole cover came together. I typeset the first initial paragraph with the line that inspired the design, and had that peak through the rip underneath. At first, I wanted the cover to be shown as a whole, with the ripped book in the middle of the cover with space around. It was Peter’s idea to take the cover full bleed, to give it that impact that is was the actual book being read that has been ripped. That was the final piece that was needed to help elevate the cover beyond the typical political book.”
“Rubem Fonseca is one of the most celebrated and influential writers of Brazil. For his new book of short stories, the publisher decided to go for a new design, too, despite the fact that Fonseca’s other books use a series-like, standard scheme. The very words used by Nova Fronteira editor Adriana Torres to describe its content were ‘strong texts, some violent, and others talking about sex in an almost pornographic way.’
“The first obstacle was to represent all of the different plots, characters, and settings, as is the case with most short stories collections. We settled for choosing one of the stories to work from, backed up by the writer’s choice of doing the same for the book title. Carne Crua, meaning “raw meat” in Portuguese, talks about a man who develops an uncanny preference for uncooked beef as soon as he was weaned off breast milk. Eventually, the narrative comes to cannibalism, which is a tough thing to portray without shocking sensitive audiences.
“We were looking for a straight-on headshot of a woman wrapped in cling film.”
“Our first idea never made it to InDesign. It was a variation of those butcher charts and, as a good wild and inhibition-free brainstorm concept, was dumped right after we started the criticism. Creatively speaking, the harsh and gritty text prompted the possibility of doing something more bold and daring, maybe even brutalist, more akin to one of our current visual interests.
“The main character’s first human victim was a widow, which sparked the idea of depicting a tray of minced meat that only upon close examination revealed itself to be a red and white yarn knitted piece. Even though this seemed to be a clever concept at first, it lacked the visceral and rough aspect of the book. We thought something ordinary like a consumer good or retail product had a welcome irony, so we experimented with a man’s hand on a plastic tray. That turned out to be too descriptive.
“This is when we tested with the photo of the wrapped woman’s head tightly framed and everything clicked into place. We realized we didn’t need the styrene tray. The low-resolution typography, hard-edged like the book content, with the other elements grouped in the label over the image were enough to convey the idea. Due to various reasons, but usually related to tight deadlines and budgets, it’s not common for us to commission a photographer for book covers. Luckily, we came across this breathtaking (no pun intended) image by Camila Massu on Getty Images. We were looking for a straight-on headshot of a woman wrapped in cling film and, among all the others we found, this one felt particularly right because, besides being direct, arresting and distressing, it has a certain serene, peaceful quality. This and the total absence of gore suited our goal of doing something a bit wry, almost pertinent to everyday life.”
Jason Ramirez, Frankenstein in Baghdad
“Frankenstein in Baghdad happened to be my second project with the same editor, by an Iraqi author whose book addressed the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective. Fiction that details the gruesome effects of war is a challenge to package. The cover for the first book, The Corpse Exhibition, ended up being a purely typographic design. So for this novel, the design brief was similar: The editor requested a type-driven direction. He also asked that its status (at the time that it was to be published in the U.S.) as the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction be integrated into the design rather than be treated as an unconsidered reading line placed on the cover.
“The book itself is pretty wild. It’s a contemporary retelling of the Frankenstein myth set in U.S.-occupied Baghdad. A local scavenger collects human body parts from the war-torn streets and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal is for the government to recognize the parts as people who deserve a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. My original idea came to me after reading the first few pages of the novel: The various elements of text would be ‘stitched’ together to create a cohesive whole, similar to the monster who is essentially a sum of its parts. Initially, I imagined thread weaving in and out of letterforms, but ultimately arrived at the idea of using the title to tie the collection of text together. I love the challenge of creating an all-type cover, and the idea of ‘type-on-type’ thrilled me.
“The initial cover design is dark and brooding. The bold slab serif typeface is meant to reflect the immovable force of the War and the Monster. The thin serpentine script typeface in a bright red is meant to evoke thread and the act of stitching, as well as the sinuous nature of the biology beneath our skin. I was so smitten with my initial idea that I foolishly did not bother to show any other concepts, just several variations on this one idea. Suffice to say that the concept was promptly and soundly rejected. I remember that my publisher studied the handful of iterations, then looked up at me and asked rhetorically, ‘You cannot read it, can you?’ Not entirely unexpected.
I love the challenge of creating an all-type cover.
“My second concept—what would be the approved cover design—rests on a secondary character in the story: a photographer/journalist for a weekly magazine who follows the murder spree and ultimately encounters and interviews the monster. I imagined torn pieces of paper as the primary vehicle to reinterpret and reimagine the monster as a sum of both his human parts and his spoken words from the interview.
“The dark and brooding background is meant to evoke menace. Engravings of body parts along with English and Arabic typography are superimposed upon graphically rendered pieces of paper. The title and author name are composed of different bold typefaces and reproduced in a bright neon green ink—a nod to a common representation of Frankenstein in popular imagination. The jagged pieces of paper, intended to mimic news clippings, symbolize not only the pieces of the monster but also the explosive setting in which this dynamic retelling of Frankenstein takes place. The final version best embodied the novel (maybe pun intended). It is a relatively simple composition but with a several layers to provide a bit more context to the story that the other directions may have lacked.”