Let’s all just admit it: we judge books by their covers.
Faced with endless rows of shelves and one heavily laden display table after another, we all look for the books that stand out from the crowd. It’s not surprising, then, that in this season of rankings, lists of the best book covers of the year are popular. These lists contain the most eye-catching and uniquely designed books of the year, and help us to remember that book covers are themselves works of art.
Here at BookTrib, we like a good list, and so we turned to some top cover designers for their insider opinions on the best book covers—of 2013 and of all time. While we had their attention, we also wanted their help understanding a bit about the process of designing a book cover, and what it takes to get readers’ attention from amidst those crowded shelves.
The designers, it turns out, were attracted to eye-catching books—just like the rest of us. Their descriptions of these books, however, illuminate something about what it takes to stand apart from the rest of the covers. Simplicity and balance seem to be important. Independent designer Kimberly Glyder, of Kimberly Glyder Design, praised Jenny Grigg’s design for the UK version of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for its simplicity and elegance, and Roberto de Vicq for the restraint of his design of Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, Glyder’s choice for one of her favorite covers of all time.
Glyder’s own work includes Therese Walsh’s The Moon Sisters for Crown and the upcoming trade paper edition of Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light for Graywolf.
Independent designer Kyle G. Hunter expressed similar sentiments about his 2013 pick. Of the cover of Stories From Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski—designed by none other than Kimberly Glyder—Hunter says, “That title, in all caps, with its secondhand gift of sight, is made doubly inscrutable, running as it does across an open sky not as a single word but stacked as individual letters… Every element is beautifully composed and balanced, while suggesting all those invisible forces that are neither.”
Hunter’s recent designs include The Year of What Now: Poems by Brian Russell and J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, both for Graywolf.
From HarperCollins, Vice President and Senior Art Director Robin Bilardello chose Elena Giavaldi’s design for Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius as among her favorites of 2013.
Some discernible connection to the book’s theme was important for many of the designers we spoke with. Jarrod Taylor, a senior designer at HarperCollins selected Roberto de Vicq’s design of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera as an all time favorite because the cover, in his eyes, “captures the mood of the book perfectly.”
Taylor selected A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, designed by Christopher Brand as his favorite cover of 2013.
A deep connection to the content of the book is, however, not always necessary for a successful cover, nor is it always possible. In discussing their process, many of the designers we spoke to explained that they start by reading as much of the book as they can, but often that amounts to only a synopsis. As David Baldeosingh Rotstein, Executive Art Director at St. Martin’s Press, elaborates, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“While not having a full manuscript may seem like a hindrance, there is an up-side — it forces the designer’s perspective to be the same as that of the audience. Someone viewing a cover in a bookstore or on a website knows virtually nothing about the book. And a cover needs to be in-tune with that viewpoint. A potential danger for designers (and others intimately involved with a project) can be a tendency to fall in love with ideas or visuals that are reliant upon having read the book already. Only if the audience already knows that Rosebud (spoiler alert) is a sled, can an image of a sled can be a powerful visual — otherwise it can be meaningless to those not in-the-know.”
Independent designer Kapo Ng, whose recent work includes Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods for Soho Press, chose F: Poems by Franz Wright designed by Carol Carson for his favorite cover of the year, admiring the “simple and powerful” use of positive and negative space. Ng cited his own 2005 design, along with design partner Sam Chung, for Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love as his favorite overall cover.
For the designers we spoke with, something unexpected was more important in a cover than an accurate representation of the book. “In any design I always crave the element of surprise,” Hunter explained. His choice for his favorite book cover of all time was actually a series of six covers designed by Cardon Webb for books by Oliver Sacks. “I love the inventive combination of old and new.” Jarrod Taylor agreed, explaining that, “A really successful cover is one that meets all the commercial requirements of the book, and at the same time has a new and unexpected approach to the subject.”
The connection between the cover design and the viewer described by Bilardello is an example of what Kimberly Glyder identified as “a boldness that can make someone pick the book up in a bookstore.” This is the ultimate goal of any book designer and as David Baldeosingh Rotstein points out, “A successful book cover is one that sells the book best, and helps connect readers to the writing.”
Which book covers drew you in this year?