When Charlotte Strick and Claire Williams Martinez of Strick&Williams were invited to design Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Strick was already intimately familiar with the work. As the designer of The Paris Review, the magazine that serialized Cusk’s first book in the series, Strick had already acquainted herself with the roving narrative, which traces the journey of a woman enroute to Greece and the strangers she meets along the way. As three books, hatched one after the other like eggs, it only made sense to design Outline, Transit, and Kudos as a trio, with a “spare but evocative” vibe, as Strick put it, which bridges together each part of the whole.
While designing one cover or jacket requires the designer to conjure a single visual solution, crafting a cohesive look for such a project creates an added challenge. Each cover must encapsulate the story within while simultaneously maintaining some coherent iconography that can run through every title—not unlike a magazine design. And that design challenge and opportunity is magnified to the extreme when all of an author’s books take on a clearly defined aesthetic, which Cusk’s eventually did with work by Farrar, Straus & Giroux creative director and designer Rodrigo Corral.
Such comprehensive cover design initiatives tap into the same power as branded objects. It might seem dismal to compare an author to a brand. The writer—the literary purveyor, if you will—is indispensable, and each book they produce is a unique object. To group them together in a branded package like bottles on a drug store shelf can seem reductive, dystopian even, at its face. But this is essentially what publishers do when they commission several books by one author to be designed in a similar fashion. It’s a way for the publisher to associate a particular writer with a visual identity. And ultimately, despite any venal ambitions on behalf of publishers, the designs they require can be demanding and gratifying artistic projects for book designers.
Corral’s covers are the ones Cusk is perhaps now most well-known for. They’re white, modern—brutalist almost—with one slightly oversaturated, often metaphorical photo in the center of each. Amid the swirl of illustrated covers as of late, it seems unique to find photos on the covers of novels. While it sometimes risks narrative misinterpretation, as in Peter Hujar’s enigmatic photo on the cover of A Little Life, for Cusk’s books, it works, perhaps because her writing tends to take on broad philosophical questions. “So much of the [Outline trilogy] takes place in transit and on planes,” Corral explains. “The reading experience is quite similar to eavesdropping. You cannot stop listening or reading.” Fittingly, the image on the third installment of the Outline series is the contemplative view one experiences when peering out an airplane window.
In the case of these novels, Corral and Strick&Williams’ designs are quite different from each other, save for the dominant white shade that’s present in each. But oftentimes, redesigning legacy backlists means nodding to how they’ve been presented historically, while simultaneously forging a fresh face for a popular narrative. At one point, for example, Strick was asked to redesign the e-reader covers for Philip Roth’s novels. The look she went with is subtle: gradients in different palettes foregrounded by big type. Notably, the loopy font used for both the author’s name and title is the same one seen on Paul Bacon’s original red-and-yellow cover of Portnoy’s Complaint. When it comes to authors with such ingrained visual legacies, it only makes sense to maintain at least some element of the design that gained traction previously.
Observing aesthetic predecessors is a common strategy for covers that rely less on type, too. When Strick was art director of the paperback line at Farrar, Straus and Giroux—where she worked for 14 years—she designed the original U.S. cover for Freedom, author Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel. Strick&Williams recently undertook a comprehensive redesign of Franzen’s backlist, which for Strick meant reimagining a cover she was responsible for in the first place. “I had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about Freedom already,” Strick says of approaching the project. “I’d read The Corrections when it came out, and I reread it. And then Claire and I proceeded to read all of the backlist.”
In reading and rereading, they discovered a pattern: “There was this theme of brokenness, and things that were off-kilter. And so that became a theme for the photo collages.” On the new cover for The Corrections, shards of a broken Christmas ornament spill all over, one piece delicately covering the bottom of the ‘A’ in “Franzen.” The photo on the ornament is the same family portrait from the original cover. Similarly, this iteration of Freedom features a photo of a bird with a burnt match in its mouth, overlaid on a periwinkle background. The picture of the animal closely resembles that on the original cover Strick designed. Each cover from this series shares a set of common elements: the monochrome background, the photo in which something has gone awry, and Franzen’s name positioned in large blocky type at the top of the jacket, above the book’s title. If you separate each book from the pack, its primary visual will also hint at that book’s particular narrative.
As with the images on these Franzen paperbacks, the illustration Strick landed on for the redesign of Wise Blood—the first in a backlist rebrand for Flannery O’Connor—reincarnates Milton Glaser’s design for the original. That one is red, with an ominous sketched face wearing a pair of glasses, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Strick’s version uses the same face, but in different colors, painted in ink by the artist June Glasson. Glasson provided the calligraphy as well. “It’s June’s own quirkiness, but it almost becomes Flannery’s,” Strick says. “If the book-buying public doesn’t know Flannery’s work, they’re intrigued by it.” Strick and Glasson’s cover project was so well-received that they were invited to discuss the project at O’Connor’s home in Georgia and reproduce the artwork for prints and USPS stamps. It’s further evidence perhaps that design has staying power for both the book and author.
Which brings us back to the larger question of why books get one of these comprehensive redesigns in the first place.
As Corral explains it, candidates for such branding efforts are practical in nature. If a book is being rebranded, it means “an author has published quite a few books that have been well-reviewed. Well-reviewed doesn’t always translate to sales, so they have also sold enough books to continue the support it takes to publish.” Reframing old books provides a publisher with a chance at garnering press, as well as an opportunity to catch the interest of new readers. Serialized designs also create an urge to “collect them all.”
Ultimately, redesigns behoove the author, in Corral’s eyes. “The world is only getting noisier, it seems, and there is so much for authors to compete with, especially in a time of personal brands.” When young mainstream authors like Sally Rooney are garnering press with tote bags and bucket hats, publishers are eager to find ways to remind readers of deceased or older authors who didn’t start writing at this particular moment of productization. Branded series like The New York Review of Books’ NYRB Classics have recontextualized such writers for the present day.
Newfangled covers play a role in the overall process in a couple of different ways, according to Corral—which also applies to contemporary authors like Cusk. A cohesive design across an author’s archive will signal: “Hey, there was a book that you liked that looked similar to this—perhaps you will love this one too.” It also associates the author with a visual identity so saliently that the bookstore browser is inclined to pick it up: “Wow, that’s nice-looking, and I feel like I’ve seen it before,” they might think to themselves.
At its core, this process of rebranding is a marketing tactic; it’s a way for publishing houses to boost sales and help writers or their estates survive in a society wherein even authors are required to operate like corporations. But regardless of the strangled conditions, which we’d all be better off without, the task itself breeds new opportunities for graphic designers, and greater chances for them to create great art—for readers, collectors, and for themselves.