Judging a Book By Its Cover: New Releases for a New YearThe New Year is upon us, and it seemed fitting to look at new releases this month with an eye towards books covers that are subject to some sort of active design consideration. It’s really easy to pick up a book with a terrible cover that nobody really cared about, or something insipid and fades into the background. So these book covers featured this month are not necessarily the worst of the lot or the best, but for some reason caught this critic's eye. They all have interesting takes on the use of type -- the bread and butter of our visual culture -- or use questionable or apt visual motifs. They are not boring in the way they present information, but instead serve as useful and educational tools to understanding the way some book covers work and some don't.
It's disheartening to see books marketed like hamburgers, Barbie dolls, yeast infection cream, and deep fried chicken nuggets instead of these beautiful objects containing stories, tales containing the very fiber of the human condition... or something like that. Even the worst of stories -- the most badly written doggerel that is fit to be used as toilet paper -- should at least carry some sort of nod to good design sense, but even when designers do take a pro-active approach to designing something that fits the theme of the book, there's still the chance of making a book that resembles a box of detergent than a novel. Looking at Slick, a novel about L.A. media culture, it's obvious that the designer did take into consideration the story of an unscrupulous publicist and this is aptly reflected on the cover. And yet, color me stodgy; it looks like a box of Tide. The bright yellow background and the large title font reflect this. The only parts of the cover that appeal to me are the top and bottom ends where the designer has stretched the title and superimposed a white outline of the word “slick” over it. But it still looks like a box of detergent. The font is a big factor in all of this. It wouldn’t surprise me if next time I'm at the grocery store I come across that is the same exact font that designers in the household cleaning aisle.
Trash by Ha Jin
Jacket and binding design by Brian Barth
Back of jacket and binding photo: Chinese troops crossing the Yaeu river into Korea at Antung 1950 Xinhua/Soufoto
Usually when designers confront a novel with an Asian or Asian American subject -- Amy Tan especially -- they revert to the lazy use of oriental motifs such as dragons or a Mandarin pattern or, at worst, a vague "Zen" minimalist feel. Frankly this is boring and condescending -- I am sure Edward Said would have something to say on this. It's refreshing to see a book with such a high minded and intelligent consideration towards an Asian topic that could be easily reverted to some "stereotypical" design and yet doesn’t succumb. Ha Jin is an exceptional writer who doesn't dwell at all on the whole idea of Asian identity or any tired post-colonial whining, and I am glad that the designer, like the author, has not kowtowed to that subject too much. The only Asian design vestiges are the black stylized whorls and band framing the title and even then it's not terribly "Oriental." It actually looks more Moorish. But what is wonderful about this book cover is the subtle and almost ominous militaristic atmosphere of the book cover -- so apt for a book about a Korean War POW camp. The black whorled band framing the title is aggressive in its starkness and stylization. The reticulated shape and the Martian red of the font also emphasize this. The dirty green of the book cover and the hint of the war march photograph lurking behind the dust jacket lends to this quiet and ominous atmosphere: the terror of war and its bloody gifts.
Tom Wolfe's latest book's cover is very twee. It's clever and smart in its hijacking of the college theme of the novel: the purple sports letters marking off his name’s first initials to the decidedly old-fashioned and gold embossed hand lettering of the title. I am really taken by the hand-lettered title that Daniel Pelavin has turned out for this cover. It's at the edge of schlock and kitsch, but it's a nice throwback to the times when people would practice their letters and made sure their handwriting was neat, legible, and beautiful. The skill is very much evident in the title. The strokes are done with such gusto, confidence, and precision, and yet it seems really sad that people don’t write like this anymore.
The big question I had in confronting this book cover was this: did they really need three designers working on this? It doesn't seem any special or extra wonderful for the addition of two extra people. The book appears insipidly edgy -- perhaps a case of too many cooks stirring the pot. The crisp lettering of the author name is disrupted by the smaller size of the second letter "k" in his last name. Maybe this is to break the kind of visual monotony that sets in when you have a string of capitalized fonts in one line. The title is shoved asymmetrically to the right in order to suggest a vague sense of trendiness, I suppose. These design tactics in of themselves are becoming more like calcified conventions that seem to be the default for any kind of the run of the mill thriller. But what is really absurd is the abstract, Zaha Hadidesque image on the bottom half. What is it? It appears to not relate to the subject of the book, which appears to be some sort of thriller involving an apocalyptic virus and a hot chick, natch. It's just there, a silly abstracted ornament to lend to an opaque feeling of dread and danger. But what is actually more telling about this whole book cover is what it leaves out. This novel as well as Ted Dekker's other books fall into the Left Behind camp of literature -- in a term: Christian fiction, or to be more technical: Christian thrillers that usually involve end of the world scenarios and the oh so typical last and decisive battle of good versus evil. His books are marketed in Christian bookstores, but lately, I have noticed a few copies at the local Barnes and Noble. It is revealing that the book cover and the book description go out of their way to not say "Christian" fiction. Is this just a way to market the book to a wider audience or to sneakily proselytize to the unsuspecting?
This book cover is my favorite from this whole entire list. I love it not only for its beautiful simplicity of design, but also for the jacket's subtle use of type, ligatures, color, and transparency -- an intelligent kind of complexity that underpins the whole design and yet manages to come off as minimalist and quiet. The first of the design features that I would like to point out are the use of the ligatures. Ligatures are certain combinations of letters that are joined on the page like Siamese twins. They have a tendency to have typographical strokes, the bridges that serve to join one letter to the other -- especially in regards to the letter "f" and its relation to the letters " b, f, h, i, j, k, l." There are more combinations of ligatures besides these depending on whether they are italicized or even the language. Ligatures act like locks in a canal -- making sure letters flow from one to the other without them jamming up into an unsightly typographical omelet, but they could also be vestiges of the time when people did not use computers or metal blocks of letters to set type -- but the touch of the human hand writing our most important to very mundane documents. In this book's case, the ligatures don’t serve as useful little joining devices but more like ornaments -- flourishes that add a touch of whimsy to the letters and also recall, again, the flowing beauty of hand lettering. There's something almost superfluous to the ligatures of "st" in "restored" and the "ct" in "selection" of the second title, but it adds a little spice and a layer of visual but subtle complexity to the cover.
Besides the use of ligatures, there's an interesting use of transparency on the cover. The pink transparent band and the bold red title echo the scrawled writing of the original document shown in the photo and the thin, attenuated rubber band holding it all together. The use of red type in the most salient parts of the book cover also adds to the effectiveness and legibility of the book cover and its unspoken smart design.