Books as Objects

Uniformity and Blandness: Designing the Body of Work

By posted at 3:44 am on June 10, 2009 6

If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you’ll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.

From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:

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The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner’s novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner’s work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.

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Maybe it’s the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving’s masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects – a nurse’s uniform, a motorcycle – that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving’s books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving’s covers.

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For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big “V” on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut’s novels.

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Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami’s fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.

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6 Responses to “Uniformity and Blandness: Designing the Body of Work”

  1. Anonymous
    at 9:15 am on June 10, 2009

    ack! the WORST offenders are the Nabokov titles currently available. i hate to admit it, but they actually turn me off from buying them, and i will make an effort to seek out a used paperback with a different cover design… i mean have you SEEN the cover to "invitation to a beheading?"

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51DAZWQN5VL.jpg

  2. willsy
    at 11:18 am on June 10, 2009

    Yeah, Vintage is–in my book–the biggest sinner in this catagory of just slapping horrid crap on their even flimsier built novels. They did do well with Murakami, but, that's about it. I hate to say it, but a lot of covers keep me from buying a book. Penguin generally does a decent job, but even they mess it up: ie, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Deluxe Edition. I find myself trying to find another edition, sometimes waiting a long time for a completely different version. Keep up the good work, Millions. Maybe write about the horrible binding and acid paper that is still being used in the market.

  3. Jeff
    at 7:40 pm on June 10, 2009

    While the Vintage Faulkner covers are dated, I've always thought they were very appropriate for Faulkner. I definitely don't think the prior covers of Faulkner are better.

    I'm not a big fan of the Vonnegut covers, but it certainly isn't bad for a series. Just a note: it's more cost-effective for a publisher to establish a cover style for a series of titles that are re-issued rather than spend the funds on new unique designs. That's probably a huge factor in the decision in adopting a common style.

    The Murakami covers are spectacular! John Gall & Chip Kidd: hard to go wrong with those guys.

  4. Sonya
    at 8:14 am on June 11, 2009

    I found the process of cover design a bit perplexing. As an author, you have a distinct sense of what you think evokes, visually, the essence of your work. But you also recognize that you are not "the general reader" and that the design and publicity teams may know better how that general reader chooses a book when browsing at the bookstore. I suppose it's a familiar art vs commerce question; one would hope it needn't be either/or, but still, I found it a complicated thing to navigate.

    Isn't it possible that the designers of these covers know something about consumer habits that we don't, and that these designs contributed positively to the sales of these books?

  5. Edan
    at 10:33 am on June 11, 2009

    I'm waiting for the redesign of Margaret Atwood's covers. Her new books don't match each other, and the older ones have an early 1980s-spirituality shoppe look to them.

  6. Anonymous
    at 5:07 am on June 15, 2009

    FWIW, that Chip Kidd design was also used for the US hardcover. It was beautiful, with all its gizmos.

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