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Book cover design: ‘Dead authors get the best book jackets’

October 30th, 2014

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Steve Panton, Penguin Design Award 2013 second prize winner, is an in-house Junior Designer at Profile Books and Serpent’s Tail.

‘I’ve noticed that dead authors get the best book jackets. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to why this is.’ Peter Mendelsund

There is something incredibly rewarding and liberating with designing book covers for classic titles. Rewarding in that you are adding your interpretation to a book that will very likely be read by many generations to come; liberating in that the absence of an author allows a designer to focus on others’ views of the book, rather than relying only on the author’s interpretation. Kafka famously requested that the bug in The Metamorphosis should not appear on the cover. Whether the author’s request is understandable is neither here nor there, but it proves authors can tighten the reins on a designer. As designers of classic titles not only do we have the resource of previous covers, but given time our reading of any book will naturally deepen and broaden: more time since its first publication allows for more minds to consume the narrative and themes. All of this proves to be invaluable research for a book cover designer.

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Due to this freedom and wealth of resources, whilst also posing the challenge of adding a new representation to a text that could very likely be several hundred years old, designing classic book covers is the dream of a designer. And so when I was given the opportunity by Art Director Peter Dyer to expand upon his outstanding series design, I was thrilled to say the least. The titles that I have designed for the next season are A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (1993; new edition out June 2015), Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette (1977; new edition February 2015) and The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt (1929; new edition February 2015).

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The strength of this series design is the prominence it gives the photography selected. By having the title and author separate we can really give the image the focus it deserves. With The Seven Madmen we knew from the start we wanted to go with contemporary 1930s photography, to capture the sense of revolt and chaos associated with the book. We looked at a lot of crowd and riot imagery whilst also looking at authentic images from Buenos Aires. The strength of the period image we have selected is in its sense of confusion and claustrophobia, with only the odd person staring directing upwards breaking the pattern of hats, creating a dynamic image with an element of conspiracy.

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Keeping a recognisable series style but allowing elements to change such as the colours and the typefaces allows each title to have its own individuality and helps separate this series design from many other classic book ranges. Penguin’s classic range for example uses a house style across type and layout, whilst still focusing on powerful imagery to capture the individuality of the title. In the case of Fatale we used a bold orange, wanting a strong vibrant colour that is not overly feminine to contrast against the photography and represent the strength of the lead character. The choice of type is a throwback to the aesthetics associated with classic crime novels and cinema.

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In a world where products – even books – are becoming increasingly disposable, you might ask why we need to re-package a book. But with re-packaging we reinterpret and expand the possible audience for that product, making the packaging understandable to a modern audience and hopefully playing a small part in the continued life of a classic piece of literature. With the repackaging of A Lesson Before Dying we have moved away from a darker image to one of a more personal depression and melancholy, in an effort to represent a different side of the text, one perhaps more reflective of my own interpretation of a book that focuses on small victories in a lifetime of defeats. It is the complexity of classic literature that allows for great design, the deep underlying themes allowing different generations of designers to come up with their own interpretation time after time.

“There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

For more information on the Serpent’s Tail classic design read this review from The Independent .

Twitter: @stevepanton

Instagram: @stevepanton @serpentstail