NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 46/47

Design Today

The Not-So-Subtle Art Of Book Cover Design

Sarah Snaith

Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan are two of Britain’s most renowned book cover designers. They shared a studio space for several years and are regularly invited to give public talks and lectures as a double act – one of which is titled ‘The 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design’ that consistently leaves audiences in stitches of laughter. Together they also run a competition called The Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD), held annually in April, which showcases the work of fellow cover designers and brings the local design community together to celebrate and rejoice. 
While in conversation they often quip that book cover design is just about ‘moving type around’ on the page, both Gray and Keenan have created individual covers and series designs that have come to visually represent contemporary fiction (and non-fiction) through a variety of techniques including illustration, collage, typography and hand-lettering, to name a few.

Jon Gray (Gray318) has a formidable client list: he has worked for publishers such as Penguin, Faber & Faber and Granta designing covers for books by Zadie Smith and Jonathan Saffron Foer as well as Truman Capote, David Foster Wallace, J. D. Salinger, and dozens more. "Every project is different but they always start in the same way. Reading." says Gray. "The text is key. If I can understand the themes, flavours and textures of a novel; to understand not only what the author is trying to convey but how they are conveying it, then it helps enormously."
Jamie Keenan has designed for novelists such as Martin Amis, Stephen King and Alain de Botton, with notable series designs for Tate Publishing, the crime imprint Pushkin Vertigo, and books by Kazuo Ishiguro and Georges Simenon, among others. Keenan places equal value on reading the manuscript but takes cues from the text that dictate the visuals: "I’m not very good at making simple things look beautiful, so instead I have to come up with a concept that will form the basis of the whole cover and from these, choices like colour schemes and typefaces become automatic – the concept dictates the direction the cover will go in and from there it takes on a life of its own – your role becomes less like an artistic director and more like a zookeeper."
A book cover, in some ways, is a little poster fighting to be seen from the bookstore or library shelf that comes to represent the narrative in the reader’s mind. It also has to function both in print and online, usually at small sizes – a multiplatform design challenge that also presents itself to magazine and album covers designers. Keenan sees little difference in his approach – "I think you should always make something work best for the size it will actually exist at in real life" – whereas Gray observes a shift from differing approaches for country-specific markets to a more homogenous one, in part the result of online sales platforms. ‘Book covers are now called on to do so much more than work in shops,’ says Gray. "You are now effectively designing an icon for a novel. It has to work an inch high online and 20ft high on billboards. It’s a constant consideration." Exemplary of this was Gray’s striking three-colour typographic cover for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time that had to operate as a painted mural on a London street; multiple printed book jackets displayed together in shop windows; and as a single, tiny icon online. Gray says, "The current trend is for hi-neon colours in publishing. Fluorescents and punchy yellows are all down to print trying to replicate the RGB of online space."
Theory no. 4 in Keenan and Gray’s 20 theories of cover design points to typography’s ability to communicate ideas and provide a sufficient frame for imagery, often using hand-rendered or customised typefaces as with Keenan’s design for Stephen Levy’s The Perfect Thing and Gray’s design for Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond. For covers such as Keenan’s design for Kevin Ovenden’s Syriza, the geometric, severe nature of the letterforms extends to the labyrinthine motif that dominates the remaining space. Gray says, "Typographic covers have become very prominent because they convey an instant unifying message. They don’t require any unpacking or decoding. The challenge is to work within those confines to make something interesting and not just something as big or as loud as possible."
Further challenges are presented with series designs – one of Keenan’s specialities – that require both uniformity and flexibility. ‘The biggest problem with series design is getting the balance right: if the series design is too restrictive, individual titles in that series get smothered and you can become confused as to whether or not you’ve read one of the books before, as they all become too similar’, says Keenan. "But if the design is too loose, the book won’t be recognised as belonging, so the whole point of creating the series is lost. The other problem is coming up with something that can work with whatever you throw at it in the future. A classic example is a really long author name or a book with two authors that suddenly upset a rigid series style."
Their humble natures are withstanding; Keenan and Gray continue to make light of their great talents – further theories in their list include ‘turd theory’, ‘Maximisation’, and ‘fluffy kitten theory’ – as they individually express their anxieties about longstanding relationships with authors and publishers. Keenan jokes: "There are quite a few authors whose covers I’ve designed for years, but they are either dead or the publishers have kept us well apart – I can see why." 
Gray’s relationships with authors also spans decades: "I get very anxious about no longer living up to their expectations or perhaps them wanting a change, but feeling stuck with me! I never take it for granted and am always grateful to be asked. Fortunately the authors I have worked with over time: Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, they are extremely visual people. Often with strong ideas and with a definite sense of what they like or don’t."
What stands above all else is Keenan and Gray’s shared desire to consistently design covers that feel fresh and appropriate. Gray concludes, "The best book design for me is one, strong clear idea, well executed. Not a pastiche of something else or a series of compromises."

Sarah Snaith

is a Canadian-born design writer, editor, lecturer and consultant living in London. She works with several leading companies, institutions and organizations including holding the positions of Assistant Editor of Eye magazine and Pulp journal, Visiting Lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication, and Editorial Consultant to Alliance Graphique Internationale. She has written for many international journals including Creative Review, Gym Class, Progetto Grafico, Design Indaba, Design 360 and YouCanNow, among others.


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