The Projector

Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski

How to Judge a Book by its Cover

In my June post “Reading by Design,” I shared some early notes on my fall course on the History of Publications Design.  Sadly, I didn’t follow-up with this post throughout the semester as I made my transition to teaching at the University of Maryland.  Nevertheless, I wanted to continue this thread with a post started in October.

For the seminars on book cover design, I used Philip Larkin’s novel A Girl in Winter and selected novels by Italo Calvino to examine the ways in which individual artists and publishers used cover design to publicize an individual literary and to brand a series of works by the same author.

Students were tasked with describing and identifying various elements employed by an image or a set of images and placing those elements within a particular style or period both.  In previous assignments, students were asked to consider not only the design elements but also the production elements at work.  The latter played less of a role in these discussions since the majority of examples from this lesson were produced in the second half of the twentieth century.  Finally, they were asked to analyze a work’s visual and rhetorical effectiveness.  This analysis included the ways in which the design captured the synopsis, style or theme of the book itself and marketed or appealed to readers and consumers.

The Selected Samples

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin printed 72 times since 1947.  The selected editions were published in the U.S. and the UK by Faber and Faber, Overlook Press, GK Hall, Chivers, and St. Martin’s Press.  The novel follows protagonist Katherine Lind over a twelve-hour period, in which she leaves her shift at a library to escort a colleague who has been taken ill.

The second set examined the works by Italian writer Italo Calvino; groups were assigned various works from his canon to get a sense of his writing style.  English translations of his work were published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, later acquired by Houghton Mifflin.  The set of works that follow were published in the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2010s.

How to Judge a Book by its Cover

To aid students in their analysis over the semester, I offered a series of rubrics for their own evaluations, for their writing, and for the own creative designs.

Generally, I broke down book cover designs into the following categories:

  1. Concept
  2. Clarity
  3. Contrast
  4. Repetition
  5. Theme
  6. Proximity
  7. Color
  8. Typography
  9. Craftsmanship


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This entry was posted on December 27, 2018 by in Art, Books/Book-making, Graphic Design, Illustration, Printing History, Publishing, Writing/Publishing.
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