Manual By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design

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Every year Design Observer chooses 50 books to honor for their well-designed covers. This one by Janet Hansen creates the illusion of materiality with just black and white lines. Some of the designs are simple, like this book commemorating years of Alfred A.

Book: Cover Art - Illustration History

But Jessica Helfand says it's nonsense. Helfand would know. She's a graphic designer, founding editor of Design Observer , and a bona fide expert at judging books on their looks: Every year for the last half decade, she, Pentagram designer Michael Bierut, and a variety of guest judges have selected 50 of the year's most striking book covers for the American Institute of Graphic Arts' longstanding 50 Books 50 Covers competition. Their designs, like the subjects they encapsulate, are so diverse, it can be hard to pinpoint what makes them so effective as a group.

Not that book covers don't follow trends. In the early s, says Mendelsund, colorful book jackets were all the rage. I loved this image because it was beautiful and spoke to the themes of life, death, and resurrection in this book. Some gold foil was added to the cover for some extra magic and voila! The New Order is a collection of stories that boldly examines the changes in our country over the past 2 years.

Karen shines a spotlight on violence including a school shooting, bigotry, sexual harassment, and the emotional impact of living under constant threat. This was an emotionally charged project for me, one that made me question my role and my responsibility as a designer in addressing some of the dark problems we are facing in our society, and how to do so with sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

The image used on the final cover of the fallen chair was found during my first round of photo research, but I had set it aside. At the time I was concerned that the image would be too upsetting to parents who had lost children to the rampant school violence our country was experiencing. I began designing some versions that felt very safe by using more abstract imagery to communicate the general concept of people reorienting themselves as the world they know recedes.

Typography placed upside down or on its side was a favorite for a few of us but made the marketing and editorial team nervous. The design using the photograph of the bird with legs entangled in a net represents the children affected by school violence in their very own classrooms and the powerlessness of the parents. It was thought that this image may upset readers enough that they would avoid picking up the book. This image that I had found early on which I had set aside I now urgently felt I had to use.

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Book cover design

The final cover is a minimal quiet hauntingly spare design with white type and the overturned desk chair speaks loudly in honoring the lives lost, calls attention to the overall message of the book and the tragedies in modern American life today and connects deeply to the sadness many of us feel over what is happening.

I was really excited to work on this reissue of a classic Bradbury novel, a darkly poetic story about a malevolent traveling carnival. The editor wanted to see a version that paid homage to the first printing of the book which had illustrated typography rising and twisting in a spectral shape. I actually got a projector and tried casting the type on various irregular surfaces.


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The result was probably a bit too experimental and legibility was challenging. From this I developed the illustration of Mr. Dark, the evil carnival owner of the novel, in a design that felt like it could be a poster for Mr. The Bradbury estate felt that the face too closely resembled the Guy Fawkes mask adopted by protest movements.

I found the lettering for the final cover in a book of old typefaces. I manipulated the type in a kinetic style that I had seen in my image research. This one felt congruous with the Fahrenheit cover and the Bradbury estate approved.

About the Book

The Optimistic Decade is a sweeping debut novel about the bloom and fade of idealism set at a utopian back to the land summer camp Camp Llamalo , located on an idyllic mesa deep in the Colorado Rockies. Initial direction was to focus on the summer camp, so the first round of comps explored photographic solutions that involved community at night around a campfire. New direction was to focus on the camp and the landscape graphically.

In a few versions we added a dude ranch arc for the title. Finally, Utopia! I created an illustration of a mesa using the fantastical colors of a radiant golden sunset. But I gotta be honest. I saw this cover shortly after moving to Minneapolis to become a real designer, and it blew me away. It had a retro vibe but still felt so fresh. When I saw it, I thought two things: I want to be a designer, and I want to design book covers.

Lustig essentially branded the New Direction series with a modern look that was reminiscent of what was going on in the fine art world. Each book is reduced to color, line, shape, and type to reflect the feel of the book rather than the literal content. The geometric shapes, the bold color palettes, the freeform lines still feel modern today.

I am in awe of this cover for its simplicity and powerful material quality. The title was painstakingly pinpricked by hand through heavy card stock and then photographed to become the cover.

Judging a book by its cover: the art of late modern book cover design

When I look at this cover, I immediately imagine the ache that Lauren Nassef must have felt in her thumbs after pressing the head of the pin through the card stock so many times. The designers embraced a seemingly simple material and process to communicate the complex, total-body experience of obsession at first glance. The result is a concise and stunning image with a tremendous visual-verbal connection. On the far left sits a young black man talking to a white woman. The two are engaged and immersed in each other. The three girls at the center are embracing and whispering, while two other girls look at something off the frame.

On the right side, an elderly white man is reading a paper. The design is so simply executed — the straightforwardness is what I find so smart. The black background and capitalized Jean Luc type in white and yellow gives the design more punch; it demands attention and almost reminds me of a punk album.

I always love a boxed art design and think giving an image a frame can bring it more into focus. One of those ideas that only seem obvious once someone else has done it. This cover has got everything you could ever want — a great collection of typefaces, a lovely color scheme that fades from red to black and back to red again, an amazing zigzag structure that just about holds everything together.


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And it manages to look simultaneously like a piece of art and a really commercial cover at the same time. Above the image, understated almost generic type delivered this gruesome and well-known chronicle with either respect or dispassion — wisely left for the reader to decide.