The Need for a New Cover

Book covers have long been considered the most immediately important part of a book’s design. A book’s cover is the first thing a potential reader sees in a bookstore, and has the dual job of adequately invoking the book’s contents and being aesthetically pleasing. Before the popularity of ebooks and buying books online, book covers were seen in person, usually on a shelf. In more recent years, publishers must take into account how their book cover will look as a thumbnail, which drastically changes the requirements. Some publishers believe fonts must be bigger and more legible so they reduce well, while others, such as Seth Godin at The Domino Project, have no text at all on their covers so the cover can function as an “icon.” However, both seem to agree that it is best to have simple cover art that is easily understood even when reduced in size.

As Tim Kreider laments in his article for the New Yorker, much of modern cover design no longer “beguiles” the reader into picking the book up—instead, it tries to attract the attention of both the in-person shopper and the online shopper with one image. Of course, this works to varying degrees, and in some cases better than others. Craig Mod, a book designer, writer, and publisher, muses in several essays and blog posts on the future of book cover design in the digital age, and urges his fellow designers to embrace the new parameters of digital design rather than simply creating one design that works for both the print and digital productions of a book. Ebook consultant Alex Ingram furthers the argument when he points out that audiobook covers are often adapted from the printed version of a book’s cover because the medium has different requirements. Yet Kindle and digital versions of book covers are often almost exactly the same as the printed version of the book’s cover.

There is great potential in creating versions of book covers specifically for their format. We could see more beautifully designed books whose covers must be understood in a physical way, such as Chip Kidd’s hardcover design of Haruki Murakami’s book Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or more covers with complex designs that won’t render well when reduced to a thumbnail. Meanwhile those same books could have digital covers that embrace the freedoms that come with their format. Some publishers are already making different versions of covers for their books—Normal by Warren Ellis and The Musical Brain by César Aira both have moving elements to their digital covers. These covers function similarly to GIFs, and work very well to grab a reader’s attention when scrolling through a long list of static thumbnails.

However, Craig Mod believes designers can push covers further than moving images—that physical books should embrace the constraints of the format and be high-quality, enjoyable items to hold, and that duplicating the physical into the digital format is a “disservice” to the possibilities that come with it. Though none of these authors explicitly say where they think designers should go in terms of book design trends, the overwhelming consensus is that we can do better, and the future of book covers is full of potential for innovative new designers.

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