Research Point: Book Covers

‘Books used to be made, today they are designed’ –  August Heckscher, 1966.

The thing about book covers is that there are many versions of the same titles. Orwell’s 1984 is a great example of this variety of approach, interpretation of a theme and how publishers, aesthetic taste and contemporary styles shape cover design. The post war period saw a positive bloom of creative designers; Paul Rand, Paul Bacon, Edward Gorey, Elaine Lustig Cohen, and Andy Warhol. It also saw Publishers such Penguin build a contact list of designers to help deliver beguiling, visual stunning yet often simple and abstract covers that were clearly of their period. And that is a great part of thier appeal.

The one thing we tend to look past as researchers is where we find our inspiration. We are almost anchored to the twentieth and twenty first century’s and even more so to the work of culturally familiar writers, works and publishers. A great example of a creative approach is Kolomon Moser’s 1897 book cover design for Ewart Felicie Jugendschatz. This shows creative use of the whole cover and that inspiration and innovation are not a modern approach and deserve to be considered as more art than design. The surface of the book has become a canvas to be utilised by the designer to produce a stunning cover that is more artwork than mere book cover.

This then leads on to looking at work produced by non-English speaking countries, if only for balance and reflection. The creativity is just as wide as America or Great Britain. I chose examples from France and the USSR just to show a visual difference and similarity to how the cover is arranged by artists.

This then brings me to house styles and how each one differs from the other, even during the same time period. As I’m a great fan of Mid-Twentieth century design. Looking at designs its clear to see how certain publishing houses developed their own style. One that springs instantly to mind is Penguin. The colour coded Classics range was initially designed by Edward Young, and developed further by Jan Tschichold, used striking Tyography to introduce and sell the book. The original 1930’s classic covers were split into three horizontal lines, using the white space of the centre line to show off eye catching type as well as book details. The coloured band was the preserve of the brand, with a monogrammed logo at the head and the flightless Penguin, again designed by Young.

Jan Tschichold developed the stripe theme further, inverting them to the horizontal and introducing basic imagery to support the books title and give the potential buyer an insight into the story’s plot. The use of line drawing echoed contemporary illustrative trends, and made excellent use of the central stripes white space. Its also interesting that Tschichold also started to change the font styles at this stage and using it as part of the cover design working with the illustrations.

Of course time stand still for no-man and the covers continued to develop to embrace photography and contemporary illustration styles. By the early 1960’s the coloured stripes slowly began to disappear, slowly replaced by a simple horizontal series of blocks featuring a smaller logo, followed by the title and finally the authors name. The accompanying illustrations had become the key features and the illustrations were visually more powerful and seemingly more important than the author.

This new style continued to develop and soon covers designed by David Gentleman started to appear. The headers were simplified and Gentleman’s series of illustrations for the New Penguin Shakespeare series featured slashed of colour and took on the appearance of wood block carvings. These were intricate, enticing and in some instance, such as Richard III, echoed contemporary paintings with a naivety of touch and lack of perspective.

By the 60’s and 70’s the general style had changed once more and with titling centralised and incorporated into the white space of the cover and engravings continued to dominate. The work of Diane Bloomfield and Bruce Robertson was as challenging as it was enticing. The days of the image reflecting the book were gone, and experimentation was the new game. Here the use of computer generated designs and pseudo science fiction imagery added a touch of modernity.

No where was the use of such stunning and challenging graphs as prevalent as the Pelican series of books. Established as the non-fiction branch of Penguin the covers were always interesting and are worth considerations as they were influenced by the work of Robertson in particular. What is interesting is the use of montage as well as props, which shows a further development of the genre of cover design. The use of symmetrical and abstract themes also help to confirm the type of publications the book is; serious, challenging, no nonsense.

The late 1970’s and 19801’s also saw further developed to include a full CMYK palette and this was used to great effect, providing colourful and enticing covers, often not afraid of raising eyebrows. A Clockwork Orange. Designed and illustrated by David Pelham in 1985 is a notable example of this new found confidence in colour to be found in the library of Penguin books.

Photo Covers were slowly introduced by Penguin featuring the world of designers such as John Sewell. These often featured montages and collages, which as time past featured unique and one-off font designs. The influence of popular culture was clear to see and visual experimentation was not shied away from.

As Steven Heller wrote in his essay Type as agent of Power¹ …the marriage of type and word (and image too) determines tone, tenor, and weight of expression’. Type rarely changed for Penguin in the twentieth century. Whilst instantly recognisable in its varying forms of Gill Sans, as demanded by Tschichold, it was rarely incorporated into the book cover design as a leading element. However, the spread of work by the popular illustrator Ronald Searle in the 1950’s and 1960’s, soon had Tschichold’s policies on Type yielding under his light hand.

However it was in the children Puffin range of books that the fonts stepped away from the rigidity of Tschichold’s edicts and became more playful. They featured often beautifully illustrated covers designed to grab the attention of the young reader, but also featured decorative text. Combined with the smiling Puffin logo the font was often integrated into the cover as in the case of The Jungle Book. These decorative fonts often mimicked children writing, making the title accessible and fun, and event the earlier books, whilst still very rigid in their use of a Serif font, Tarka the Otter for example, they still stood out as something, not adult.

The final set of covers that were used were those featuring elements and close-ups of famous arts works by artists such as Frantisek Kupka (left) N.C. Kierkegaard (centre) and Hans Old (right). The use of such work added a weight of formality to the book, lending them an air of drawing room seriousness that perhaps illustration and photography would miss. In using established and famous artists work not only was there an attempt to provide visual provenance but also an opportunity to expand the readers knowledge of the visual arts. Notice how the details are worked into the overall master designs used during that particular period of publication.

If anything this little foray into the world of book cover design has led me down the proverbial rabbit hole, and whilst I have deliberately chosen to predominantly look at the work of the Penguin House in the mid-twentieth century their twenty-first century output continues to engage the potential buyer through the use of traditional approaches as well as engaging in more contemporary DTP and computer based illustrations. Fonts and type are explored and used to good effect and montage is an increasing staple of visual communication. It will be interesting to see what the future bring the reader.

Resources Used

¹Heller, S, (2014, Design Literacy, Understanding Graphic Design, Allworth Press, New York

Inglis T, (2019), Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design, Batsford, Pavilion Books, London

Paul Bacon Covers https://lithub.com/the-iconic-covers-of-paul-bacon/ (Accessed 24112020)

Edward Gorey http://www.goreybooks.com/cgi-bin/emAlbum.cgi?c=show_image;p=Primary%20Works;i=61#.X71U9Gj7TIV  (Accessed 24112020)

Book cover designers https://thejohnfox.com/2019/09/30-best-book-cover-designers/  (Accessed 24112020)

15 Famous Book Cover Designs https://www.designhill.com/design-blog/famous-book-cover-designs-that-will-inspire-you-to-design-your-own/  (Accessed 24112020)

Best covers of all time https://www.shortlist.com/lists/the-50-coolest-book-covers  (Accessed 24112020)

French book covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?q=french%20book%20covers&rs=typed&term_meta[]=french%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=book%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=covers%7Ctyped  (Accessed 24112020)

1984 Book Covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?rs=ac&len=2&q=george%20orwell%201984%20book%20covers&eq=george%20orwell%201984%20covers&etslf=1879&term_meta[]=george%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=orwell%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=1984%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=book%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=covers%7Cautocomplete%7C0  (Accessed 24112020)

Publishers List https://blog.reedsy.com/largest-book-publishers/ (Accessed 24112020)

Paul Rand Collection https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?q=paul%20rand&rs=typed&term_meta[]=paul%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=rand%7Ctyped  (Accessed 24112020)

Kolomon Moser https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/413838653264018194/  (Accessed 24112020)

Soviet Book Covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?q=soviet%20book%20covers&rs=typed&term_meta[]=soviet%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=book%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=covers%7Ctyped  (Accessed 24112020)

Penguin Classic Covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/403424079126873847/ (Accessed 25112020)

Penguin Classis Covers https://99percentinvisible.org/article/classic-penguins-how-minimalist-book-covers-sold-paperbacks-to-the-masses/ (Accessed 25112020)

Pelican Covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?rs=ac&len=2&q=pelican%20book%20covers&eq=pelican%20book%20covers&etslf=1565&term_meta[]=pelican%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=book%7Cautocomplete%7C0&term_meta[]=covers%7Cautocomplete%7C0 (Accessed 26112020)

Puffin Covers https://www.pinterest.co.uk/search/pins/?q=puffin%20childrens%20books&rs=typed&term_meta[]=puffin%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=childrens%7Ctyped&term_meta[]=books%7Ctyped (Accessed 26112020)

Contemporay Penguin book covers https://www.penguin.co.uk/  (Accessed 26112020)

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