Susan's Design Lab: Book Cover Theory and Practice

Design is all around us. Buttons, jury summonses, floor registers, and Bibles were not born as they are, but traveled through the design process. The bills in the newsstand’s cash register have been designed to represent the best of a society and instill confidence in its worth. Each newspaper and magazine has been designed to appeal to a certain community of readers; each article and ad within has been created by a designer, consisting of type carefully developed by a typographer. In every typeface, even the length of the comma’s tail was a deliberate choice!​

But while all these examples are the result of a deliberate process, they do not all necessarily represent good design.

So how do we identify good design? What’s the difference between a book design that’s plain and one that’s elegant? How do we keep a design with a retro theme from slipping into one that looks corny? The approach that’s worked for me is to strive to reflect the essence of the manuscript.

For example, a few years ago I designed a war memoir recounting a soldier’s friendship with a young Korean boy. The central theme was humanity in the midst of chaos. I wanted the design to reflect both the spare, gritty environment of war and the civilizing force of friendship, with a suggestion of Korean culture.

For the jacket, I found a photo (in the public domain) of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Korean War. Using Photoshop, I applied a grainy texture to give the art a raw feel. I liked the idea of all the type on the front of the jacket appearing as a centered unit within a circle defined by a lighter version of the photo. All type was set in the font family Bliss; I experimented with different styling options until the balance of styles, sizes, and space between lines looked right.

Next, I added Asian ornaments to the left and right, cropping them along the edge of the circle. Showing the complete ornaments would have overwhelmed the type.

In the exact center of the circle is a red bullet. Had the bullet been positioned higher or lower to accommodate the type, the jacket wouldn’t have been as successful. (And since the type had to work around the placement of the bullet, further refinements to spacing above and below each line were made at this point.) The overall position of the type/circle/ornaments is off-center, subtly suggesting the randomness of war.

Rather than take advantage of the full spectrum available in color printing, I opted to use only red as an accent color, thus preserving the impact of the black-and-white photo.

In general, I try to remember that every element in a book—type, photos, ornamentation, space, size, and proportion, as well as balance, variety, and pacing—should reflect a manuscript’s essence. If I find I need focus, I return to the manuscript, noting the spirit, themes, and characteristics to help me in identifying what makes the text unique.

This blog post was adapted from an article published by the Association of Personal Historians in the Spring 2014 issue of Perspectives, a trade journal for personal historians.