Beyond the Portrait: Memoir Book Covers

When one thinks about memoir cover design, the first image that usually comes to mind is a sober portrait of the author, often in shades of black and white or otherwise having the subject posed in a thoughtful, cerebral way. Certainly, this is a representative picture of the memoir standard, and in many cases, the most profitable design route for publishers to pursue. But when might other options work better?

Author portraits have become the norm for the obvious reason that a recognizable face sells. It’s the same concept that leads (to the chagrin of many purist book lovers) to cover redesign after a book has been made into a movie, with the newest edition featuring a still from the film on the jacket, or for the covers of well-established authors to feature their names in a larger typeset than the title itself.

One example of this concept in play is Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. In this cover, Obama is clearly the focal point, compared to its original printing, which features multiple small pictures of the then-future President and his family:

The original cover was published in 1995, well before he was a household name. The cover on the right was adapted years later, when his image became all that was needed to intrigue potential readers into picking up the book. Also note the changes between title and author name in the two covers: they go from being about equal in size to making Obama’s name much larger than the title underneath.

What I am interested in exploring more here, however, are options for non-portraitrature book covers, particularly if the author is not known to general audiences by appearance. Here are some examples I think are done well:

In this feminist memoir detailing Gay’s complicated relationship with food and her body, the “less is more” approach is applied extremely effectively in the cover design. The reader has an immediate sense of what the book is about without being overwhelmed, and the starkness of the image captures the rawness and powerful vulnerability of Gay’s writing.

In this “memoir of friendship,” Caldwell details her long relationship with friend Caroline. This image works well because it can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. The pair often rowed on the Charles River together, as the two figures on the cover appear to be doing (at least on an unnamed waterway), but this design also evokes a sense of a shared, contemplative journey, which aligns with the content of Let’s Take the Long Way Home.


This austere design does well in representing the grittiness of many stages of Asante’s life. You get the sense of a lack of permanence, and thus the periods of transition Asante goes through in life from Zimbabwe to the streets of North Philadelphia, in the smudging of the letters.

This design captures the frenzied and kaleidoscopic journey Flynn takes in this piece of writing, underscored by the alarming and provocative shade of red.

I think this cover is effective in how it doesn’t go the standard route of depicting medical imagery in an account of a women’s struggle with heart disease. Instead, it shows the fragility of Fogelberg’s experience in the torn paper heart and unassuming, beaten-down dress form. Moreover, part of Fogelberg’s journey in this book is convincing Swedish doctors to believe there is something wrong with her (something not confirmed until American doctors finally diagnosed her with end-stage fatal congenital heart disease), so the depiction of a mannequin rather than a real person offers effective symbolism.

Hopefully, this list has given you some ideas for moving beyond the standard portrait in memoir covers. While that schema is useful in cases where the author’s image is immediately recognizable to a large audience, the design world of this genre also benefits from mixing it up and incorporating other concepts. Happy designing!

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