Exercise 3

Book designers

This task was split into four stages, which is how I will split up this blog post. It asked me to explore book designers in depth, looking at their approaches, comparing their cover designs, and assessing how successful they are.

Step 1

This stage asked me to explore the work of fifteen notable book designers. The brief specified that I should write a very brief description of the cover designs and the designer, focusing on keywords rather than long descriptions, and to record my thoughts in note form. The brief also asked me to consider how the cover designs could visually inform how I presented the information in my learning log.

Below are the pages from my learning log where I recorded this research. I tried to keep my presentation in line with some of the cover designs I had selected for each designers and to use keywords and notes to record everything.

Step 2

This stage required that I compare and contrast some of the cover designs, by making a sketch, drawing, or tracing of the covers to better understand the layout, use of imagery and typography, and the overall feel of the cover. I reflected on these comparisons and identified my favourites.

Wolfgang Weingart’s ‘Typography’ and Paula Scher’s ‘Make it bigger’

I chose to compare these two covers because they focus on the use of typography and blocks of flat colour.  I also realised they use similar colours – black, white, yellow and orange – colours that are striking, bright, and contrasting.

I was immediately drawn to Weingart’s ‘Typography’ because the title text is inventive. The letters have been sliced diagonally, so only parts of them are visible, but the word is still decipherable. I think this looks clever and it makes me want to look inside; this playful approach to typography also speaks to an expressive approach to the cover design. Scher’s cover design also shows playfulness; her title ‘Make it bigger’ is tiny, compared to her surname and a giant ‘R’ (I think!) that dominates the cover. Her surname is right at the top of the cover, so is slightly cut off (similar to Weingart’s but cut off by the limit of the page) which also gives the impression of something expanding, becoming too large to fit on the page (linking to her title of ‘make it bigger’).

The yellow and orange and white jump out from the background of black on Scher’s cover, whereas the white is not quite as noticeable on Weingart’s cover. I think, though the title catches my eye, the rest of the cover is a little blocky and conventional (it reminds me of a scholarly textbook, so is not as exciting as Scher’s). I feel like Scher’s cover is more expressive, playful and interesting overall. The combination of the use of typography, colour and breaking the boundary of the frame by overlapping text, makes for a stronger cover design.

When overlapping my traced versions, it is clear that the format is very different, which leads to very different results. The layout of Weingart’s cover uses horizontal text (with the title having the diagonal cuts) and rectangle shapes, whereas Scher overlaps text, uses italics and the ‘R’ acts as a big block of colour in the background, adding more interest. Weingart’s text is placed at the top of the page, in the middle, and close to the bottom, either centred (like the title) or left-aligned (like his surname). Scher’s surname is centred but is cut off because it is positioned right at the top of the page, and the title is on the right, slightly lower than the centre. Although they make use of similar colours, sans-serif uppercase typefaces, and diagonals, they produce quite different results.

Jost Hochuli’s ‘Printed matter, mainly books’ and Derek Birdsall’s ‘Inflation’

I chose to compare these two covers because they both have a plain white background and use text that, rather than going left to right, goes top to bottom or bottom to top. They both also use sans-serif typefaces, so have a more modern, accessible, and clean appearance.

I am drawn to Birdsall’s cover first. The text is bigger, there is nothing else on the page to distract me, and it is playful. The designer has used a number inside the place of letters to portray the concept being explored in the book. The minimal but extremely striking and effective design is eye-catching and is certainly conceptual in approach. Hochuli’s design uses two languages for the title that are almost ‘mirrored’, but slightly offset. This had more of a textbook appearance, with the information needed presented clearly.

Both covers have text that needs to be read top to bottom or bottom to top. In Birdsall’s case, this, to me, looks like a bar from a bar chart that has risen (inflated) and filled the page. It seems like an aspect of this conceptual design to reflect the idea of rapid growth and large numbers. On the other hand, Hochuli’s cover uses this device in what seems to be an expressive way, to gain interest. It works well to have the two languages facing one another (both saying in the same thing) with neither being more important. Hochuli’s design also has blocks of colour and other details travelling either horizontally or vertically on the page. These work well to break up the space and create a balanced design. The colours are all bright and inviting, making the content seem accessible.

Overall, I prefer Birdsall’s design because I enjoy the clever conceptual approach. It is far more striking, with fewer details to distract, and reflects the content of the book accurately. When overlapping the tracings, all Birdsall’s content is on the left; the space focuses the reader on the big text and on this clever use of type.

Kelly Blair’s ‘Drunk’ and Peter Mendelsund’s ‘Hopscotch’

These two covers interested me because they make use of diagrams, almost instructional in their style, that link to the title of the book.

Blair’s design is clear whereas Mendelsund’s design seems chaotic – perhaps this reflects the content of the book? Blair’s cover has one diagram of a bar stool falling, complete with a curved arrow indicating the motion of the object. Any number of comical, memorable moments spring to mind when seeing this diagram, and along with the word ‘DRUNK’ in a traditional serif typeface makes the cover seem funny. There is definitely a case for Blair trying to challenge conventions with this design; a dictionary (which is the genre of the book) is traditionally formal and factual, and everything to do with drinking and drunk incidents is arguably not. Bringing the two together makes the classic type seem humorous. The colours are also bland – grey and black – which does not reflect some drinkers’ experiences either. All these choices make the cover stand out as comical.

Mendelsund’s cover also has motion arrows, but these instead are used to show where feet move during hopscotch. It looks complicated. The style is that of a set of instructions you might get with a new piece of flatpack furniture. Contrary to the ‘drunk’ diagram, this fills the whole page and is flat. The text sits over (and some behind) the drawings, in a bright contrasting orange. This typeface is sans-serif, again, reinforcing that flatpack furniture instructions vibe. It looks more child-friendly – probably because it is depicting a children’s game – compared to the ‘drunk’ cover, which looks more traditional and aimed at adults. I feel like the ‘hopscotch’ novel might be dealing with childish games and complications, based on the cover.

When I overlapped the tracings, it was clear that Blair’s cover kept everything central and used different sized type to capture the attention of the reader; ‘DRUNK’ stands out with the diagram first, then the author’s name, then the subtitle. This central look is also very classic. She has also used lines to separate the information to keep everything clear. On the other hand, although the text is central, Mendelsund’s cover is spread over the whole page and there is lots of overlapping, rather than separating everything into sections. Also, the text is all the same size and weight – it is still clear, but no specific bit of text stands out first. I suppose I read the top line first, as is conventional in my understanding of reading.

I prefer Blair’s design, but I do like the chaos of ‘Hopscotch’ – I think this is intended to reflect the content of the novel, which makes it a clever, conceptual approach. Blair’s cover appeals to me more because it is simple, minimal, and has an element of humour.

Suzanne Dean’s ‘1984’ and Phil Baines’ ‘Confessions of a sinner’

I thought it would be interesting to compare a cover that only uses illustration without text and a cover that uses text with no illustration per se. They both, however, use the same colours, which seemed quite popular during this research; red, white, and black.

Dean’s design for 1984 is very different from the version sitting on my bookshelf. It is so striking, minimal, and filled with hidden meanings linked to the content of the book. It is a very conceptual approach and I adore it. In contrast, Baines’ cover is busy and reminds me of old religious scripture, while still seeming modern. When looking at the tracings, the only focus in Dean’s cover is just above the centre, where the huge eye is positioned. Baines’ cover uses much more space, moving the text towards the right. I tried to see if there was a hidden shape to the text, but all I can see are stairs, or perhaps an outstretched hand.

Dean uses blocks of colour. The background is black, the ‘white’ of the eye is red, and the keyhole (in the place of the pupil) is white. I see so many links to the content of the book in this simple design (it helps that I love the book!) The red can symbolise danger, or lust, the white keyhole can represent seeing the ‘truth’, and the eye as a whole symbol links to the themes of being watched, being spied on, and seeing people for who they really are. Similarly, the colours on Baines’ cover can symbolise themes in the book, such as red linking to the Devil and sin, and white for purity. I like that the cover here is white with black and red seeming to ‘taint’ the background; humans being seen as impure and sinners.

The use of typography on Baines’ cover is stunning. The title stands out, being largest and in red, as does the ‘&’ symbol, which to me resembles a Christian cross inside a ‘C’. The letters vary, providing interest and making it look almost handwritten. This still gives it an ‘old’ feel, while also seeming modern in the layout.

I enjoy both of these covers for different reasons, but I think the 1984 cover is so clever while being minimal. It catches people’s attention.

Jan Tschichold’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Coralie Bickford-Smith’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

I wanted to compare two covers for the same story to see how approaches might differ between designers. This classic novel has had numerous cover designs (I have another on my own bookshelf) so it seemed like a good choice to compare.

Tschichold’s cover is part of a whole rebranding he did for Penguin books. He created a new template for the covers, which kept to this layout for each novel. In this sense, the cover is instantly recognisable – it is split into thirds (orange-white-orange), has the penguin title and logo in the top and bottom section, and states the title of the book in bold and the author below this. The only distinguishing feature is the bold title, the author, and a summary of the story.

In contrast, Bickford-Smith’s cover is much more styled to fit the content of the story – a conceptual approach. She has used white and gold to create a repeating pattern (distinctive in her own work for Penguin) that is reminiscent of art deco patterns from the 1920s. The gold makes the book seem luxurious and reminds me of the parties described in the story – lavish, glittering, and filled with the rich. The author and title is in gold text in a white box in the bottom right-hand corner, rather than being central.

The text Tschichold used was sans-serif, which marked a shift from traditional serif typefaces in these covers. The text is clean, clear, modern, and seems more accessible, rather than being too formal. Funnily enough, Bickford-Smith’s more modern cover design uses a serif typeface. I imagine this was a decision made by the designer to evoke a more classic, traditional feel to the book, defining it as a novel that is not recent.

When overlapping the tracings, Tschichold’s cover design centralises everything and also sections off the title, author, and summary (the specific novel information) and has the consistent Penguin branding take up two-thirds of the cover. On the other hand, Bickford-Smith’s repeating pattern covers the whole page, and there is only novel-specific information included. The title and author are placed in a corner, but still sectioned off, so this information stands out and can be easily located. I prefer Bickford-Smith’s cover, but I fully appreciate the revolutionary value of Tschichold’s design. It is synonymous with Penguin.

Paul Rand’s ‘Perspectives’ and Ellen Lupton’s ‘The ABCs of triangle square circle’

These two are possibly my favourite book covers. Rand’s cover for ‘Perspectives’ is fun, expressive, and has an almost hand-made style. Lupton’s design for her book, however, is orderly, clean, and very minimal in style. I thought they would make for an interesting comparison.

Rand’s design is very expressive and playful. I immediately saw a chicken or cockerel on a roof; the eye shape is certainly the most striking element. Shapes overlap, giving it a collaged appearance, and the handwritten type adds to the homemade style. In contrast, Lupton’s cover is made up of a circle, a square, and a triangle, all contained and very neat, on a white background. The text is small, sans-serif and all sectioned off.

Both covers, however, stick to a minimal palette; Rand uses orange, white and purple, while Lupton uses blue, yellow, and red on a white background. I get the impression that the content of Lupton’s book is perhaps more coherent, clean, and focused on a specific theory. The content of Rand’s book is perhaps more of an exploration, challenging ideas, encouraging thinking outside the box.

Interestingly, when I overlapped the tracings, these covers use a similar shape with their design. The eye on Rand’s cover is around the same place as the title of Lupton’s. The body of the creature on Rand’s fills the same space as the triangle/square/circle on Lupton’s. Finally, the text on Rand’s is all in the bottom third of the page – the same as the majority of Lupton’s. Although Rand’s may be a little ‘untidier’, the design achieves a similar balance to Lupton’s, and has some of those same sharp edges and curves too.

I prefer Rand’s cover, for the sheer enjoyment of seeing different images appear in his creation (I like that conceptual approach to the title ‘Perspectives’) and it seems like a style I could try to achieve.

Irma Boom’s ‘Shot’ and Julia Hasting’s ‘The essence of Japanese design’

Both covers here are minimal, with little or no text, and a limited palette too. Both are bold, striking, and experimental too, so I chose to compare them.

‘Shot’ is a clever design. Boom has used no text, just spots intended as bullet holes. Some are white (misses) and some are red (hits). The background is black, so I get the impression of someone taking a ‘shot in the dark’. It is a sinister cover design, perhaps for a murder mystery or horror story. Although Hasting uses the same colours, the effect is very different. Instead of a black background, there is white, with red splotches of different sizes across the cover. Initially these could also be interpreted as blood (perhaps linking the covers together) but the Japanese binding and the title ‘The essence of Japanese design’ helps contextualise the splotches. I get quite a harmonious, natural feel from the cover, watery, fluid, or perhaps floral splotches. The colours might also be symbolic of the Japanese flag (red spot on white background).

The covers use different amounts of space but some similar layout strategies. Boom only uses up a relatively small area on the right-hand side of the cover – this must be intentional to show someone aiming at a certain spot. Hasting uses the whole space, with a random, natural feel to the splotches (kind of like the bullet holes, but more spaced out and peaceful). In the spaces, the text sits. The text is sans-serif and uppercase, making it very clear, and there are lots of sharp edges, which looks modern.

I enjoy Boom’s cover because it is more mysterious and distinctive – the lack of text would make me eager to look inside.

Peter Mendelsund’s ‘You may also like’ and Linda Huang’s ‘You may also like’

Finally, I decided to compare another two cover designs for the same book, which I stumbled across during my research. I wanted to see if they shared a similar approach with their designs.

At first glance, these covers have a very similar layout. When I overlapped the tracings, all the text was in the same place (the four corners) and the ice cream was central. The main differences lie in the colour, typography, and illustration choices.

Mendelsund’s cover uses a typeface that reminds me of computer coding or the old teletext font. The ice cream is flat, a triangle for the cone and a semi-circle for the ice cream, but it is still distinguishable as an ice cream. On the other hand, Huang has used a more traditional serif typeface, which reminds me of newspaper headlines or classic novels. Her ice cream is more detailed, with a stripy cone and cloud-like ice cream. The colours used are almost the same rainbow gradient as Instagram, which helps define the content of the book.

Both use devices to show that this book is discussing the digital age, whether this be Mendelsund’s typeface choice or Huang’s colour choices. I think I prefer Huang’s – it looks more inviting and I think the black and white is more eye-catching than the black text on the blue background.

Step 3

For this stage, I chose three designers to explore in more depth. These were three favourites of mine; Paul Rand, Coralie Bickford-Smith, and Suzanne Dean. The brief asked me to research their design careers in more depth and consider how they have responded to different design challenges, their underlying approach, and how their work has evolved over time. Again, the brief specified this should be recorded in note form (“See this as a quick fire activity”) and to continue to record the designs visually.

Coralie Bickford-Smith

One of the key challenges I identified for Coralie was her desire to not copy designs from before. She makes sure she choses a motif that reflects a key moment or theme in the story and attempts not to use overdone cliché motifs for some of the classics. Her design approach is mostly conceptual; she has a key idea behind the design that links to the content.

Paul Rand

I think, as he was a real driving force for change in design at the time, Paul Rand’s challenges came from his pioneering of new approaches. Although he had a clear idea behind his designs, I feel that his underlying approach was expressive. Paul Rand pushed the limits, using new typography, and a modernist approach. As time passed, his designs became more confident and refined, with some cleaner, more simple and minimal covers.

Suzanne Dean

I found it fascinating to read in depth about Suzanne Dean’s creative process. Again, there are challenges that come with redesigning covers for classic novels and not repeating what has been done before, but she really emphasises the importance of the research process and being inspired by, not just the internet (where everyone ends up seeing the same things), but events and places outside.

Step 4

This final stage asked me to identify three different book designers that I find visually engaging and find out more about them. I also needed to identify why I found them so engaging, whether this was to do with their approach to design or the genre of the book or perhaps another reason. All the books I chose I own, so I photographed the covers and answered the questions about the designs.

Greg Heinimann

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

I used this link to Greg’s website (http://www.gregheinimann.com/  accessed 13/11/20) to explore more of his cover designs.

Fran Krause

Deep Dark Fears – Fran Krause

I used this link (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/225822/fran-krause accessed 13/11/20) and this link (https://frankrause.tumblr.com/ accessed 13/11/20) to explore more of Fran’s work and find out more about him.

Noma Bar

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

I used this link (https://www.dutchuncle.co.uk/blog/noma-bar-haruki-murakami-prints  accessed 13/11/20) to find out more about Noma and see more of his cover designs. He also redesigned lots of Murakami covers, and this link directly shows some of those in print form.

Grahame Baker-Smith

Leon and the place between – Angela McAllister

I used this link (https://www.templarco.co.uk/grahame-bakersmith accessed 13/11/20) to find out more about Grahame and see some more of his cover designs.

Try to work out why you are drawn to these designs

Greg Heinimann’s designs are clever and thought-provoking. I also think I am particularly drawn to the ‘Why I’m no longer talking about race…’ cover because it is tactile – the ‘to white people’ text is debossed. Similarly, Fran Krause’s ‘Deep dark fears’ cover is also tactile (everything in gold/yellow is debossed) and I love the style of illustration and typography. It all looks frantic and personal (I have quite a lot of covers that use handwritten-style type). In stark contrast, Noma Bar’s covers are clean, simple, minimal in colour, and extremely inventive and clever in utilising negative space. I could stare at his work all day; it is fascinating to find hidden shapes and meanings. Finally, I could have chosen a plethora of picture book designs, but I have always enjoyed the covers designed by Grahame Baker-Smith. He uses beautiful illustrations and elaborate patterns, particularly on the cover of ‘Leon and the place between’.

Is it to do with genre or their approach to design?

I think with all these designers, I am drawn to the covers purely because of their approach to design. The genres are all very different, but the way the designers have reflected the content is inventive, exciting, and memorable. I enjoy looking at beautiful covers.

What is it about the design that captures you?

With Greg Heinimann, it is the simplicity. There are no drawings on the ‘Why I’m no longer…’ cover – it uses purely text to communicate the content. It is a controversial title, which helps, but the clever way Greg has made ‘to white people’ the same colour as the background, so that it blends in (symbolising the way white people blend into a white society), is inspired. It really speaks to the discussions in the book itself and provides another talking point for readers.

With Fran Krause, I am captured by the tactile cover, engaging imagery, and hand drawn/handwritten style. It adds a personal element and feels like an arty book right from seeing this cover. It reminds me a little of the ‘DRUNK’ cover I explored earlier with the simple layout – central text and a single central image – but with an informal style.

I am captured by Noma Bar’s clever yet simple designs. I think the minimal palettes and block colours make the covers striking. Once you have been drawn in by this, it is the manipulation of shapes to convey multiple meanings that keeps you engaged.

Grahame Baker-Smith uses beautiful, elaborate illustrations, that are colourful, quirky and define the content as illustrative and aimed at children. Especially with the ‘Leon’ cover, there are lots of hidden details that keep you exploring the cover.

What sort of imagery, if any, is used on the cover? How does the text relate to the image?

On the ‘Why I’m no longer’ cover, Greg Heinimann does not use any imagery but the colours represent discussions about white and non-white people and the issues surrounding this. As I mentioned, it is the distinctive use of black and white with the text and background that makes this conceptual approach perfect for this book.

On the ‘Deep dark fears’ cover, Fran Krause has drawn a spooky house, bordered up, surrounded by dead trees, presumably to try to evoke a sense of fear and scariness to link to the theme of the book. The hand drawn image and the scratchy, scrawled effect also links to this ‘fear’ theme.

On the ‘Norwegian Wood’ cover, Noma Bar uses shapes to portray three people standing and casting shadows (not immediately recognisable), which also look like tree trunks (to link to ‘Norwegian Wood’). The legs represent the three main characters; Watanabe and the two very different women he encounters. The colours are also symbolic (he uses the same palette for the other Murakami covers). Red and white are the Japanese flag colours, and I like the way the white circle sits in a red background (inverting the flag). The colours can also represent some themes in the book, including lust, love, and passion. There are also some dark themes, and the trees/legs certainly give a shadowy, foreboding feeling.

Grahame Baker-Smith’s ‘Leon’ cover uses lots of imagery linked to the character Leon and his adventure into a circus and a magical world. There are sparkles and gold and lots of magical objects to reflect the content of the story. It is definitely a cover that makes you want to discover what goes on; truly magical.

What atmosphere or style does the cover evoke?

Greg Heinimann – formal, essay-style novel, very focused on the content and the text

Fran Krause – dark, scary, fear, personal (use of handwritten typeface)

Noma Bar – Dark, dramatic, love/lust/passion/blood, a bit spooky perhaps – trees, shadows etc.

Grahame Baker-Smith – magical, gold, exciting, surprising, unexpected, colourful, adventurous


This task truly had me immersed in the world of cover design. I enjoyed learning about some important and notable designers and also discovering who designs some of my favourite covers too. I found tracing covers and overlaying the tracings a fascinating task – it highlighted the arrangement and layout clearly so I could compare and contrast different approaches. There are certainly designs that appeal to me more, but I think I have quite a varied taste, and I am hoping this will help provide a range of inspiration to take forward into my own designs.

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