The Cover Just “Spoke” to Me




b1Cover design by Pete Mendelsund




Cover design by James Alexander

Anyone who likes to read or has spent time browsing a bookstore can easily tell you the necessary appeal of a striking book cover.  Often times, it is the book’s appearance that awakens our initial interest and compels us to examine it further. As such, the allure of a well-designed book cover can introduce us to previously unknown authors, or encourage us to read something outside of our typical interests or favored genres.



Cover design by Allison Saltzman



Cover design by Helen Yentus

Despite the impact of book covers, the effort and talent that goes into their creation is usually not given much consideration unless they are done badly.  A badly designed cover is often remarked on as it can be misleading, or fail to properly represent the story within.  However, when a designer creates a successful book cover, people are instinctively drawn to the book.  And once the book has been read and enjoyed, the cover is rarely considered again as it has become such a satisfyingly integral part of the story.  Although good book covers are commonly overlooked, they contain an interesting history and their creation is vital to the world of good design.



Cover design by Helen Musselwhite



Cover design by David Gee

A quick perusal of the shelves at any bookstore makes it abundantly clear that there are specific guidelines which should be followed to create a successful book cover.  A proper book cover must first identify the genre and tone of the book.  It should be immediately apparent if a book falls into the category of romantic historical fiction or is a humorously crafted memoir.  The cover should also denote the scope of what information is and is not included; any imagery or symbolism utilized should present a clear and understandable message.  And most importantly, it should present something to hook the viewer and generate interest and excitement.  This aspect is often achieved by the colors, imagery and typography chosen by the designer.  Yet everything must fit together to create a cohesive result that also succeeds in marketing the book and making it something that consumers want to buy.  After all, a pretty picture may entice people to pick up the book, but it won’t sell many copies.  And the top designers in the field achieve all of these things while working under ever-increasing restrictions and pressure to create covers that mimic currently successful works.



Cover design by Chip Kidd & John Gall



Cover design by Paul Buckley & Gregg Kulick, illustration by Matt Taylor

While books first became widely available with the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, book cover design does not have such a long history.  Early books were covered with wood, and later pasteboard, and typically hand-bound in leather. Apart from gilt edging, most covers were left untouched and any identifying information was placed on the spine of the book.  Many books were sold in plain paper wrappers and bound with temporary sewing so the owner was free to have the book bound to match his personal library.  At the time, it was socially expected that a book owner would bind his book properly, as the outside should match the richness of the expensively created individual pages.




Published by L. Prang & Co. in 1878



Published by Pan Books in 1959

With the introduction of mechanized book-binding in the early nineteenth century, the cost of book manufacturing decreased greatly and this was aided by the use of cloth, and then paper, for book bindings.  Soon, it became cost prohibitive to continue binding books in leather.  The new covers could also be easily printed upon, and as time passed, this aspect was greatly exploited by advertisers.



Published by H. Hallett & Company in 1883




Cover design by Paul Buckley

The potential of book covers as a marketing ploy first became apparent in the 1920s in America.  During this time of economic boom and with the rapid rise of advertising, the sheer number of books available on the market compelled publishers to take action.  Publishing companies began to create book covers that would be easily identified within the marketplace and the first branding of books began.  Many publishers utilized fine artists to create images to adorn the covers of books, while others made use of the first wave of commercial artists entering the field.  Savvy publishers kept the authors out of the cover design process and left it in the hands of the newly made professionals, as the successful marketing of a book became the only goal.




Cover designed by Milton Glaser




Cover designed by David Pelham in 1972


After World War II another shift in book cover design occurred. Suddenly, it seemed as if the standards had risen and it wasn’t enough to just sell books.  Cover designers also had a responsibility to communicate truthful and meaningful information about the book while continuing to create a marketable result.  It was at this point that the art of the job was reintroduced and books became culturally elevated objects once again.



Cover designed by E. Michael Mitchel in 1951




Cover design by Jamie Keenan

Examining book covers over the last century or so, one can see societal shifts, trends, and innovations which occurred along the way; our history and cultural differences are easily apparent in a comparison of book covers from different times and varying parts of the world.  Unfortunately, in today’s consumer driven society, it seems that the risk of a beautiful, meaningful book cover is an idea that has fallen by the wayside.  As publishing houses have merged to become multinational conglomerates, the designer’s freedom to interpret a book has become restricted.  Instead, the focus is on the selling, and publishing companies are more likely to imitate one another to ensure high sales of similar products than to risk creating something unique and evocative.  With the widespread use of computer-driven graphic design and the easy availability of design templates for self-published e-books, it seems that anyone is capable of producing a book cover.



Cover design by Matt Dorfman




Cover design by Gabriele Wilson

So what does this dreary state of affairs mean for the world of book covers in the future?  The impact of technology has already been observed with the recent trend of hand-scripted titles accompanied by minimalistic illustrations which have appeared everywhere from young adult fiction to Pulitzer Prize winning novels in the last few years.  While this approach is valued for its ability to evoke a sense of comfort and familiarity to the reader, its pervasiveness speaks to the powerful influence that e-readers have had on the publishing world.  The smaller size and reduced resolution of e-reader screens has created the trend of simplification in book cover design so that they will still appear clear and recognizable regardless of their reproduction size.




Cover illustration by Ralph Steadman


Cover illustration by Edward Gorey

Many professionals in the field of cover design feel sure that technology will soon catch up and most of them believe that despite the prevalence of digital book buying, actual books will not go extinct anytime soon.  Although e-readers and tablets offer certain enhancements that physical books cannot provide, nothing can replace the heft of the book in your hand, the sound of the pages turning, the smell of the paper and ink used, or the joy felt when closing the cover on a satisfying read.  And the feeling of comfort that one feels in a bookstore, surrounded by shelves filled with the possibility of new adventures to be had and new ideas to be learned, all found thanks to that one book cover that just “pops” out and begs to be picked up off the shelf?  Well, that’s a feeling that ensures that books and their alluring covers will be around for years to come.




Cover design created by Aled Lewis as part of a re-covered books challenge at The Fox is Black



Cover redesign created by Dane Cozens



Cover redesign created by Andrew Brozyna for a Polish book cover contest sponsored by 50 Watts



Cover design by David Pearson for Penguin’s Great Ideas series



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