Reading & Writing
Gateways / Essay
This is the text from the Gateways book and exhibition which was the 6th exhibition in the 'Idioms' exhibition series. (see 'special projects' section in main menu)

There are times when you are confronted with a choice of directions. You may be at a crossroads, a junction of pathways or standing before a variety of doorways and entrances, not knowing what lies beyond or at the end of each one. You only have the gateway itself or the beginning of the path as a guide to what you may encounter; each one proclaiming its own promise of what lies beyond. This is one of the beauties of the gateways we know as book covers. 

A book without a printed cover and title seems incongruous to us today but until the late nineteenth century few books had the sorts of covers we are now accustomed to. Traditionally, books were hand-bound with covers made of wood, leather, silver or gold or even ivory. Many were decorated but for much of the books’ history, titles did not appear on the front. The heavy materials that were used for binding existed only to protect the expensively printed pages. By the nineteenth century those materials changed to cloth and paper and for the first time it became possible to print on covers. Alternatively, paper covers were wrapped around traditionally bound books, but still mostly for protection (as the term ‘dust jacket’ suggests), in many cases to be disregarded at home after purchase. Paperback books, although they existed in the nineteenth century, only started to become acceptable and widespread from the 1920’s onwards. Albatross Books, a short-lived project in Germany pioneered the first popular paperbacks but it wasn’t until 1935 when Allen Lane launched Penguin Books in Britain that mass-market paperback books with distinctive cover designs really caught on. This was echoed in the United States by Robert de Graaf’s Pocket Books (1939). Surprisingly perhaps, only in 1960 did the total sale of paperback books in the US surpass that of hardback books. With the development and spread of the advertising and publicity industry in the beginning of the twentieth century, concepts of packaging and marketing began to be applied to every conceivable industrial product and service. Publishing was no exception. 

Nowadays, publishers fight for our attention and we have long become accustomed to books being displayed with covers facing towards us. Paradoxically, the essence of a book is that it cannot be viewed in one glance, only in sequence, one page at a time. Except for the cover, which is the only part of a book that can be viewed in one moment. Considering the number of books that exist, designing covers is not an easy task. In a competitive market place a cover must be able to distinguish itself from the others that surround it. For the designer, the creative challenge is demanding but highly rewarding; to create a gateway into the world the book represents. 

This exhibition displays over 400 cover designs by 56 designers from 14 countries. As part of, and in the spirit of the Idioms series, of which this is the sixth exhibition, Gateways is both an exploration and a celebration of yet another form of graphic design that is part of our daily lives. In gathering together a selection of memorable, often ingenious and frequently beautiful contemporary book covers from around the world, the exhibition aims to display the range of graphic and conceptual approaches and solutions that designers utilise in their endeavours to capture the essence of a book, and by doing so, our attention also. In addition to the work submitted through an open call, the exhibition features the work of David Pearson and Jon Gray, two outstanding contemporary cover designers from the UK, especially invited to participate and whose work occupies a separate section of the exhibition. The exhibition also features the work of other especially invited designers including Ariane Spanier (GER), Helen Yentus (US), Paul Sahre (US), Coralie Bickford-Smith (UK), Clare Skeats (UK),Juan Pablo Cambariere (ARG), Gregg Kulick (US) and Jamie Keenan (UK). 

Look Again
Conscious of our familiarity with the physical form and visual characteristics of books, designers often play with our expectations, making us look twice at objects we think we understand. This is what Argentinean designer Juan Pablo Cambariere does for the cover of El Oro de Moscu [p.170] for example, when he plays with the surface of the cover, or more to the point, with our understanding of cover surfaces as essentially two dimensional. Through the use of carefully conceived and well executed photography he reproduces a postal stamp and some string, and in doing so doesn’t just create the illusion of three dimensions, he also manages to turn the whole of the book itself into another object; a parcel. Likewise, Leonardo Iaccarino, through a combination of photography and special varnish, transforms Saia da sua caixa [p.228] into a box. In a much more minimalist and underplayed design, charlotte strick in Varieties of Disturbance [p.334] explores the notion of real and perceived surfaces in a different way. In a book that contains a series of short stories that have been described as ‘tiny epics of paranoia and ennui’, Strick establishes the base of her design concept by creating a delicate, cream background over which – barely visible in a gloss varnish – is the title and author’s name. The required visual tension and incongruity is completed as the image of a solitary fly is placed on the cover. Moving away from the surface in a design concept that projects beyond the two dimensions of the cover, Eric Heiman, in symmetry with the subject of the book Safe Food [p.220] – an exposé of how industrialization and science is adversely tampering with our food supply – packages the book itself in shrink-wrap, matching the sort of packaging we encounter at the supermarket, thus making this additional feature an integral part of the design. Occasionally, a designer may go beyond changing the appearance of the book and actually make it into another object. Perhaps one of the biggest transformations of all is the Tankbooks series Tales to Take Your Breath Away [p.358]. Collected together in a tin box are 6 small books designed to mimic cigarette packs – the same size, packaged in flip-top cartons with silver foil wrapping and sealed in cellophane. 

Look no text
Tried and tested ways of doing things become convention. We need convention. Living in a world in which every task had to begin at square one would be intolerable. Understandably though, we often loose track of the origins of conventions and are left instead with habits, intellectual as well as practical. But whereas conventions suggest histories that can be studied and questioned, habits are ways of doing things in default mode. That doesn’t strip them of sense or value, it just makes them reflex responses instead of calculated ones. As a result, partly because of the expectations of clients but mostly because of the reflex response of distributors and retailers, book covers devoid of titles or texts are a rarity – the opposite of how they once were. How can a book cover have no title distributors ask? Surely the potential reader will be lost and confused? Even though some may argue that this reasoning has more to do with common sense than habit, in the busy visual environment of most bookshops, a cover that utilises image and no text may, paradoxically, be a way of attaining the single most important objective of publisher and retailer alike; that of attracting the viewers attention. Needless to say, few designers have the opportunity to elude the reflex responses. But some do. Ariane Spanier for Oskar Hansen’s Moma [p.326] draws from Oskar Hansen’s hexagon-shaped architectural modules to create a powerful and colourful cover design absent of any text. In contrast, alberto rigau, in a design free from colour for Detrás del Silencio [p.286], uses an ornate blind emboss on matt white paper to evoke the work of one of Puerto Rico’s most prestigious dancers.

A picture is worth a thousand words we are often told. And if it’s used well it stays in people’s mind. Paul Sahre in what he describes as a literal translation of the title, places a diagonal red cross against a peaceful and ‘celestial’ photo of a blue sky with white clouds for the cover of Killing the Buddha [p.298]. The simplicity and ambiguity of the composition makes it memorable. The book was accompanied by a poster campaign in the streets of New York. The poster, like the hardback edition cover, consisted only of the combined sky/cross image. Sadly, the publishers didn’t have the courage to go with the design for the paperback which has the title, authors and press review on the cover, destroying its impact. 

Just words
Our familiarity with letterforms and language allows endless playfulness, both in formal visual terms and with regard to syntax and sequence. As might be expected, typography, and lettering in general, is always a major player in a designers repertoire. We know that the same words set in different typefaces and lettering can elicit differing responses. Hand-drawn lettering for example tends to stimulate different sorts of associations and sentiments than does mechanical type.

For Fort Asperen Ark [p.226], a simulated log of Noah’s long sea journey, designer Alfons Hooikaas uses an ink-drawn title which is then made to run and smudge by being made wet. In this way the title is not just a piece of information, it is a part of the log itself (that got wet on the journey). Utilising the text in a slightly different manner, Paul Sahre again, for The Friends of Freeland [p.296] transmits a personalised, off-beat and almost postcard-like association with the use of hand-written text for all the information on the cover, including the press review. This, combined with the picture of two sheep looking out at the reader goes quite a way in capturing the mood of this unusual and satirical novel. 

As many of the covers in this exhibition demonstrate, words do not have to be rendered by hand in order to carry sentiment and meaning and the huge variety of mechanical type available to designers is matched by the huge variety of ways it can be designed on the page. But in addition to what form the letters and words appear in, there is the added component of where they are placed. Because books cannot be viewed all at once but only in sequence, the different sorts of texts and information they contain (contents, preface, introduction, acknowledgements etc.) are normally ordered according to a fairly strict hierarchy governed by convention. Playing with those conventions can be another way to confront expectations and generate meaning. Rearranging the order texts and the placement of titles begins to affect ideas about the inside and the outside, the beginning and the end of a book (and a story), and this in turn affects both how we relate to the narrative of the book, and to the book itself as a device that expresses a narrative. Although this exhibition does not contain many examples of this kind of exploration, some touch upon it. 

Art director Andrew Blauvelt and designer Emmet Byrne for the Minneapolis Walker Arts Centre, create a type-only design for Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love [p.380], in which a provocative text by the artist is embossed into the cover. Instead of being a resting place for a title, the cover becomes part of the work, inseparable from the rest, blurring the distinction and division between inside and outside. If the cover of this work could be said to be the start of the inside then in Hundertmal im Schtei [p.158], the cover almost becomes the inside itself. In a book full of poster designs, Erich Brechbühl was reluctant about using an image on the front. Instead he transferred the preface for the book to the cover, filling the entire surface, front and back, with vertically laid black type on a yellow background and a horizontal white belt over the top, carrying the title. Consequently a text that would normally be found on the inside is used to encapsulate the work it refers to.

In yet another example of side-stepping convention and attempting to displace formality, designers will sometimes use the cover text as a way of addressing the reader in a more personal or direct way rather than using the title simply as a label. The creative and managerial negotiations that are a normal part of the relationship between designer and client are usually hidden from view. It’s not that they are secret, it’s that they are not visible in the finished work. This is true of most productive processes; they normally appear to be seamless. With a touch of humour then, André Cruz in a book for the Portuguese Short Film Agency [p.190], creates a cover design that instead of presenting the sort of cover title we might expect, produces instead a design that whilst it contains the title, also reproduces a statement that parodies the sometimes conflictual relationship between designer and client. 

Covers work as artificial constructs, as of course does most graphic design. That’s to say that the visual compositions they present do not exist in the real physical world. They may use photographs of the real world but we do not see giant lettering floating in space over landscapes as we go about our daily lives. From time to time though, designers will ‘borrow’ bits of the real world, transforming familiar, sometimes unexpected scenarios and objects into visual supports to carry text information. In a genial design, Jamie Keenan for the cover of The Blind Watchmaker [p.238] for instance, the famous and controversial 1986 book by Richard Dawkins about evolution and natural selection, appropriates the plastic frame most commonly found in kit model boxes as a support for the title and author’s name. He does this in conformity with Dawkins refutal that human existence and evolution is an act of God, or as Keenan states in his explanation of the cover, that there is a Creator with a master plan... or a box of plastic parts to stick together. Meanwhile, for the cover of Martín Eidán [p.180], Juan Pablo Cambariere cleverly uses the airport gate departure information board to support the title and author’s name in a surreal cover photo of a naked woman sitting in an empty airport waiting lounge. 

Feel the book
As books are small objects meant to be hand-held and looked at in detail at close range, the utilisation of touch and texture, of special inks and varnishes, of different materials and dye cuts, is always a part of a designers potential vocabulary. Loose covers and hard covers are usually solid surfaces but it’s possible to have shapes cut out of them (a process called dye cutting). Doing so allows a designer to play with the way in which information is revealed with the added opportunity of playing with layers of meaning. The interchanging worlds of normality, crime and insanity in the novel A Fraction of the Whole [p.164] are paralleled in Nathan Burton’s cover design by the use of dye cut holes, like bullet holes, in the black and white full page photograph of a ‘normal’ Australian domestic landscape on the loose cover, which then reveals the title and author of the book on the contrasting magenta hardcover underneath.

In another use of dye cutting and brilliantly conceived optical illusion, the letters on the cover of European 9 Norway [p.330] by Ariane Spanier are cut out so the underlying first page of the book is visible through the cut forms. The line design she creates on this first page, seen through the dye cut cover, creates an illusion of 3 dimensions. When the book is opened, the letters disappear and only what appears to be a random line design is visible on the first page. Os homens que mataram o facínora [p.230] is a story about a man considered a bandit or a hero depending on the point of view. In his cover design, Leonardo Iaccarino sets out to present this duality of interpretations by revealing through the dye cut shape of a pistol, another facet of the man portrayed on the cover. 

The material a cover is made of, especially if the material is unconventional, can be an effective way of helping to enforce the theme of a book. This is used to good effect by Diogo Vilar and Miguel Salazar in 2nd Skin Cork Jewellery [p.376]. The book, which is available in 3 variations of cover, uses 3 different textural grades of real cork in symmetry with the book’s subject. Hong Kong-based design group Victionary regularly produce books that explore the creative possibilities of materials. Neighbourhood [p.374] for example, a book documenting a collaboration between artists and designers around the world in which hand-made toys are progressively reworked by the participants, echoes the subject matter by using a variety of different embroidered badges that are sewn onto a felt cover. In contrast, more advanced printing technology is used for the cover of Alter Ego [p.336], a book by Studio8design that brings together a series of images comparing the everyday identities of online gamers with their virtual identities. The front cover features a lenticular image showing a couple from South Korea and when the book is tilted back their online ‘Alter Egos’ are revealed. 

Series design
Dealing with individual covers is one task. The rationalisation that a series design-logic brings to bear on the work of a single author provides another, different design opportunity, with problems of its own. Authors work in different ways and their body of work may span decades, encompassing changing personal literary or social concerns, stylistic periods and motivation. The work of George Orwell, to use one example, has many times been reproduced in series. Works like The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, to cite two examples, are journalistic texts, whilst Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four are novels. Although it would be difficult for any reader to fail to notice this, the rationalisation process involved in a series design could still be viewed in both positive and negative ways. Positive because it creates an aesthetic – visual and perceptual – which unifies a body of work and builds the idea of oeuvre; negative in that in doing so it imposes a uniformity that may flatten out histories and contexts.

Creating a series is a publisher’s decision of course but designers have to find ways of approaching this proposition. Jamie Keenan in his Stephen King cover series for Hodder Headline [p.242], gives prominence to Kings name in large roughly drawn black letters. As one of the world’s best selling authors, Keenan states that it would have been unlikely that the publishers would have permitted a design in which King’s name was not by far the largest visual element on the cover. Keenan’s solution was to make the best of this requirement by building the design around the lettering he created for Kings name. Using this as a basis, the resulting (original) designs are predominantly black and white with a small area of spot colour, no halftones and individual high-contrast illustrations. I inserted the word ‘original’ above because the covers that Keenan conceived were not the ones that the public were to see. After Keenan had submitted the artwork, someone it seems came to the conclusion that the covers, and the design concept, could be improved by reproducing the authors name in variety of different colours. They were mistaken. The overall effect of the original design is stark but powerful and fulfils the idea, says Keenan, to move away from the stereotype gold foil, embossed covers normally used for Kings work.

In her Arthur Conan Doyle series for Penguin [p.146], designer Coralie Bickford-Smith creates a wider visual narrative. Although the covers utilise the same typeface throughout the series, its use, in size and layout, varies from cover to cover. The design aesthetic she employs, drawing on early film poster and illustrated magazine styles, manages to create an individuality related to each title, due in large part to the complexity of the compositions.

In a softer, less graphic but no less evocative manner, Clare Skeats series of Edna O’Brien covers for Orion [p.316], uses full page black and white photos of young women from the 1960’s as a backdrop for a transparent band of colour that secures the book titles. It is the nature of the photographs both technically (sharp and with a high degree of grey tone), and pictorially (of pretty young women with an air of independence), together with the softly rounded serif face which give the covers their appeal, although strangely, Girl with Green Eyes fails to fit the scheme because of the high level of grain in the image. 

The subject of a series is not restricted to individual authors however. They are also created to bring together different texts by different authors, as in a Crime or a Philosophy series for example, where the parameters are slightly different. People will have differing ideas about what it is that makes a series appealing, as a concept and as something to collect. Perhaps it’s convenience – the fact that the task of bringing together a body of texts, unifying them both visually and in literary terms is being done for us. The fact remains that having a ‘complete collection’ is often a point of pleasure and pride and somehow not quite the same as having all of an authors work, but in different books of different sizes and designs. It’s precisely this point on the other hand, that has to be reconciled with a conviction that the function, and the beauty of design is contained and reflected in the skill of being able to create forms that embody and express the individuality of their content. To be able to do both, to unify or standardise without loosing personality, means finding a point of commonality. This is one of the most difficult tasks to achieve because agreement over commonality will invariably differ. Probably one of the most successful recent ‘solutions’ is David Pearson’s Great Ideas series [p.74] of covers for Penguin Books. The size, format, paper and visual characteristics of the covers clearly expresses a series but the personality and tailoring of the cover designs to the individual texts maintains their unique identity. Each cover has its own special appeal as opposed to some cover series which only really begin to function when considered in conjunction.

Before moving on, a special mention is deserved for an unusual and delightful design concept encountered for the Harper Collins, Perennial Collection [p.212], art directed by Julian Humphries. One integral and continuous drawing was created by Swedish Illustrator Petra Borner, which was then divided into 15 equal sections to serve as the 15 separate covers in the series. The covers consequently fit together to reconstitute the original illustration. The use of different coloured metal foil stamps on each cover and spine (inexistent on screen in most internet references) gives the work a finishing touch. 

All these covers in their different ways, demonstrate the range of strategies and tools designers are able to utilise, the considerations they have to manage and the skills that need to be acquired. Considering the possibilities of cover design, as the examples in this exhibition will testify, it’s with some sadness and an equal amount of frustration to witness that a visit to any bookshop will reveal so few covers of real quality. Certain publishers have a clear understanding of the value of cover design and have a history of commitment and investment. It’s a shame that their understanding and knowledge is not more contagious.

Finally, there remains one fundamental point to make. I was already familiar with a number of the books reproduced in this publication but the majority I saw and held for the first time when the packages arrived. What I cannot stress enough is that no matter how good the reproduction quality of a catalogue or the amount of information you are given about the dimensions of the books, absolutely nothing can substitute holding the real book in your hands. I have been surprised, delighted, intrigued and yes, even slightly disappointed through my direct contact with these books, and even though this may seem the most obvious of points, it’s surprising how easy it is to overlook. Our emotional and intellectual connection to the physical presence of things is more fundamental than we sometimes imagine. It is why books for one, continue to be so appealing and so desirable.

Andrew Howard / June 2008

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