Conscious Book Design: How to Decrease Harmful Practices and Embrace Diversity

There is an ongoing conversation about conscious editing and how important it is to making great inclusive stories. I would be the first to tell you how crucial it is for books to be edited consciously, as it increases the accuracy and the quality of a book and helps it appeal to a wider audience—something that is very important in publishing. But that is not the only area in book production that has so much to gain from conscious practices, diversity, and different perspectives—design can also benefit from these things.

Incorporating culture, race, and ethnicity into a design is a difficult task on its own, and it can be even more difficult when you don’t have any personal experience with the subject matter. But there are steps we can take as an industry to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of cover designs and to be conscious of what we are creating, who we are trying to represent, and how our designs will be perceived and interacted with by people of different cultures.

First, it is essential to be aware of the design practices that are decreasing the visibility of characters of color or obscuring diversity in a cover. Making a conscious effort to be inclusive—rather than hiding the diversity of a book—is the first step toward reaching readers who long for diversity at a glance.

A well-developed and well-written design brief is also key. Working with a good design brief is the easiest way to avoid majorly harmful design mistakes like whitewashing characters on a cover, which is a very big problem we often see. While a character’s race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality may not seem relevant to the design of a cover, it absolutely is! Knowing these things not only will ensure that you are not accidentally misrepresenting a book but also can really inspire a design and can affect the designer’s approach and the final product.

And of course, the best way to ensure accurate representation in a book’s design is by actively seeking out designers who have firsthand experience with all the visual elements that you are trying to represent. It is no surprise that the publishing industry is very homogenous and mostly white. Graphic design is no exception to this. In this 2014 AIGA article, we see that around 86 percent of professional graphic designers are Caucasian. In the overall publishing industry, around 76 percent are Caucasian according to the 2019 Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey. These numbers are widely representative of this huge gap in the industry, and this lack of diversity in publishing can absolutely affect what books are being acquired as well as how these books are designed.

Cultural perspective is such an important thing, and it can bring so much more life to a design. Someone who has actually lived the experiences they’re depicting can bring something to a design that others can’t. They will know the difference between a Chinese dragon and a Japanese dragon; they will know the difference between a Spanish guitar and un cuatro; and having grown up hearing stories about their own mythologies, they will probably have a very good idea of how these mythologies could be represented on a cover.

At the end of the day, these seemingly small details can make all the difference to whether or not a reader will pick up a book, and in the business of books, that’s what it’s all about.

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