Exercise 4

Designing a cover

This brief asked me to choose a book to respond to that has more than one cover design, so I chose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This book was first published in 1865 by Macmillan and since then has been reproduced countless times with different cover designs. I was inspired to look at this novel in particular because it is one of my favourites and I saw Coralie Bickford-Smith’s Penguin Classics clothbound design during Exercise 3.

First, I searched for my own two copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One is a paperback Penguin Classics version that uses one of John Tenniel’s original drawings on the cover. The other is a clothbound hardback version designed by Yayoi Kusama (who also illustrates the inside pages) which is quite abstract. Even just comparing these two covers shows the variety of approaches.

I was overwhelmed by the number of covers I found for this novel. I decided to pick out various covers through time, starting with the original cover (in 1865) and ending with a cover designed by Chris Riddell this year (2020) to see if there were any patterns of change over time and any overarching themes or recurring motifs.

One of the key changes I can see over the 150 years of covers is the increased use of a variety of colours and of bright colours. This could definitely be down to improvements in technology and the book-making process. The published version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was initially illustrated by John Tenniel using wood engravings and full colour illustrations were included, which at the time was a more lengthy and costly process. It was quite a luxury. Now, it is much easier and cheaper to produce colour covers and illustrations, so perhaps this is why the covers from the 1960s onwards are much brighter. We can use more colours.

I also wondered if the change from the 1960s onwards was potentially the representations of Alice in the media. From my research, I found that from the early 20th century onwards, films and television adaptations of the story were created – quite notably, the Walt Disney animated classic in 1951 – and these gradually became more colourful and vibrant too. We tend to associate Alice with this surreal, colourful world and perhaps even the psychedelic, drug-induced visions of the 60s and the music (I seem to recall John Lennon explaining his love of Alice). Maybe the cover designs reflect, not only the story, but also these bright images we link to this story. It is known for being vibrant.

Some recurring motifs include Alice herself, hearts and the Queen of Hearts, chess pieces, playing cards, flamingos and croquet, the White Rabbit, clocks, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and pots, cups and tables. These can be grouped into themes (and also into separate parts of the story). There is certainly a focus on the characters, especially Alice. There is also an effort to show some of the surreal world called Wonderland, whether this be a scene directly from the story, or a collage of several characters and items.

This brings me to another change over time. In the late 19th century, the covers mostly use characters, whereas more recently, covers use repeating patterns, symbols, and new illustrations of the characters (rather than using John Tenniel’s). The past covers look traditional and portray events in the story, such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I feel like the story is so well-known now that cover designers can afford to take a more abstract approach, using these recurring motifs. Yayoi’s cover is just black and white dots on a block of blue and red (to me, I have always seen this as blurry vision before a dream, and I associate the colours red, white and black with the playing cards and the Queen of Hearts). This is also a reflection of the changes in artistic approaches over the past 150 years. There has certainly been a shift towards modernism. I would also say this dotty cover is an example of a more expressive design. The rest are very obviously representational, with a direct link to a moment in the story.

Thumbnail sketches

Next, I used thumbnail sketches to explore some different cover possibilities. As per the brief, I tried to generate lots of different layouts, layering, framing, clashing, and balancing the elements. I used black, white, and red (mainly because of the motifs I identified – playing cards and chess pieces and hearts), the teacup/heart design, the title, and the author.

This initial stage involved identifying some recurring motifs and playing with illustrations and text. I chose the teacup and heart combination because it seemed simple and effective at communicating the feel of the story (and the cultural phenomena that now exist because of the story – like Alice-themed tea parties).

I found that I drew inspiration from Coralie Bickford-Smith with her use of repeating motifs, and also Paul Rand, with his expressive cover designs that played with shapes and colours. I wanted the design to hint at the topsy-turvy surreal world of Wonderland, so I tried to use odd angles, quirky text, and strange perspectives.

I found myself playing with the idea of the Q from a playing card and creating a teacup shape that merged with this, but I don’t think this quite worked. I preferred the designs that were more simple and had some repetition.

While I was creating these thumbnail sketches, I thought of Ruth Martin’s little eraser stamps and wondered if I could create some of the hearts and teacups to try out some of my layouts. I created a simple heart shape, a teacup, and a teacup with a heart in the centre. Using red, white, and black, I trialled a number of patterns and designs. In doing this, I stumbled across some new designs that worked really well.

First, something that did not work so well; I tried white stamps on a black background. Although I really liked this effect, it does not suit the story. It looks too ghostly and cold. Perhaps this would suit a novel that has a creepy ‘otherworld’ feel, with more spiritual, dark elements, but ‘Alice’ is much more light-hearted and quirky.

Anything on a white background looked great though – it reminds me of a playing card (black or red on a white background), which fits with the theme perfectly. I found myself experimenting with cutting larger teacup shapes from the heart patterns to place on other backgrounds. These looked very effective, with a balance of pattern and block colour. The quirky teacup shapes were still very reminiscent of Paul Rand’s shapes.

I then tried adding text to some of the designs to see what this would look like. I was particularly fond of the big central teacup, so tried fitting text around this. I wanted it to look playful and quirky.

To me, the right design looks best because it is more balanced. I like how the text fills the space and does not keep to straight lines. It is as if the letters are bouncing around the page.

Although I liked these designs, I wanted to try a black teacup silhouette on a heart patterned background. I thought this would be another way to balance block colour and pattern. I love the way the text is contained in the teacup, still playful, at odd angles, and filling the space. It is a good mix of orderly pattern and unexpected text. This is definitely my favourite design. I think I would want the text to be embossed (raised) to add some texture.

I went back to my sketchbook, armed with these experiments, to create some more thumbnail sketches that incorporated my favourite results.

I found that I quite liked the tilted teacup design too, so I tried a few variations on this. The teacup and heart repeating pattern might work well as end papers (the paper just on the inside of the book at the front and back).

I really enjoyed this exercise. It was a nice way to go through the process of research, experimentation, and thumbnail sketches, without the pressure of producing a finished design. I liked physically trialling some of my ideas as I found this inspired more designs and helped identify what worked and what didn’t. I also noticed how my research was feeding into this process – some of the designs can clearly be linked back to covers I have seen by other designers.

References (images of covers)

https://booksonthewall.com/blog/15-alice-in-wonderland-book-covers-and-illustrations/  Accessed 17/11/20

https://www.lib.umd.edu/alice150/alice-in-wonderland/bindings  Accessed 17/11/20

https://cb-smith.com/#/cloth-bound-classics-series-two/  Accessed 17/11/20

https://www.goodreads.com/work/editions/55548884-alice-in-wonderland  Accessed 17/11/20

https://www.amazon.co.uk/ Accessed 17/11/20

https://jncinc.co.uk/ Accessed 17/11/20

https://www.worldofbooks.com/ Accessed 17/11/20

https://wordery.com/ Accessed 17/11/20

https://schooldepot.co.uk/ Accessed 17/11/20

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