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Thinking Like A Book Designer

Lesson 7 of 15

What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

Thinking Like A Book Designer

Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut

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Lesson Info

7. What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Lesson Info

What Makes a Successful Book Cover

We're back. Oliver is a example of a... quintessential kind of designer who loves working with books. As he said, he's had a long career as a designer and image maker and only when in house as a cover designer at Alfred A. Knopf just a few years ago. But when he talks about the books you'll notice that what he's talking about is every bit as much about the content of the books, and the ideas in the books, as he is about typefaces and things like that. And he loves the craft part too though. He loves the typefaces, loves what it takes to do an image. One of his colleagues is Peter Mandelson, who I think brings the same kind of attention to detail from both sides. And on the lower left here There's this book called Cover. One of two books Peter published last year. The other is called, How We See What We Read. Yeah, How We, What We See When-- What We See When We Read. Yeah. Forgive me for not knowing the title of this. Two books he came out within the same year. Again, a prolif...

ic designer. These guys, they are very intelligent and very sensitive I think. The story that Oliver told was, I thought quite compelling, about the flags. If you pick an anecdote or a moment in a book that then becomes metaphorically the representation of that narrative, it's a huge weight on the sales of the book, on how the author feels about the book, the publisher. So it's a great responsibility but also a great opportunity for a designer. So Peter has had a long career at Knopf... This is a little anecdote that we just wanted to share with you. This is a book, Nabokov's Lolita. Very famous book. Published many years ago. And it's notoriously difficult to do a cover for, it was published I think, I think in the fifties or early sixties, and was notorious because it really is basically about an adult man who is in love with a very young girl and just complete- A minor. A minor, obsessed with her. It was considered a scandalous book at the time. It's beautifully and brilliantly written. One of the diabolical things that Vladimir Nabokov does as an author, is he puts you inside the guy's head to the degree where you become sympathetic to his point of view, right? Nabokov has hated the idea of a, The book became a best seller, translated in to many languages, became a major motion-- Several films. Major motion picture more than once. Remade several years ago with Jeremy Irons. And there was always, everyone who has sort of did a cover for it had this compulsion, a temptation to actually put the character, Lolita, who's the girl he's obsessed with, somehow represent her on the cover. Nabokov hated that, he just hated that idea. He had a whole series of books that were just all type and he wanted it just to be all type. Lolita has had many-- The story is so emotional, and it's so human, and it's so intergenerational, and it's so scandalous, that a friend of ours in California, a few years ago, came up with an idea to do a sort of call for entries to ask a number of people, many of our students actually. Yeah. I think we have some students of Rachel (mumbles) in here. I think Rachel did one. She did a great one. She did a great one. I thought it'd be interesting to show you what Michael did, and what did, and what Peter did. So this was mine... It's the reflection of a man's shoe in this young woman's shoes, and the hand writing is this very sort of, schoolbook handwriting. I tend to, as a book designer, my go to, I'm like Oliver, Monday. I often go to photography, and I often go sort of the theatrical nature of photography. So this was what I decided to do. Michael. So this is a little valentine made out of a little bit of paper, and the paper is from a law book and it's the, it's the the statue that actually makes it illegal to transport minors across state lines for licentious purposes. It's called the Mann Act. I had this idea, and then we were on this quest to find a perfect representation of this piece of legal, which is referenced at one point in the book. This is why what he is doing is actually illegal and kind of not just morally wrong, but legally wrong. The idea of him, they go in this crazy cross country ride, him and Dolores Haze, also known as Lolita. I just pictured him stopping in some library just kind of consulting exactly what law he was breaking. Then sort of saying, "Oh screw it." Ripping it out; making a little (mumbles). Cutting a heart out of it and just kind of putting it in his pocket and walking away. And here's what Peter did. There were hundreds and there's a book. We can find a link and put it on the site. It was so interesting to see all these people interpreting a very famous canonical story. A very tricky story to illustrate something that's emotional. Do you do it through type? Can type be emotional? Can color be emotional? Can the cropping of an image be emotional? Of course they all were, and there really are other wonderful examples than these. I thought since he had done this and we had done this it would be a nice one to show. Yes, it was called Lolita, The Story of a Cover Girl, I think, right? Right. It's one of those things where you just wanna see, almost this compulsory athletic event where every designer comes up and actually has to execute exactly the same task doing a cover for the same book. It's an amazing, it's an unusual book in that it permits those many different interpretations, I think. There are a lot of books that I don't think could withstand that sort of examination. One great thing about book covers is I've given as an assignment in class many times, and, it's both, really hard... but it's deceptively easy, and can be quite hard. What makes it kind of seem easy is that basically you're not orchestrating every page of a 300 page book. You're just kind of reducing it just to a single rectangle. What makes it hard is the same thing. But it makes a great assignment to give yourself to just, if you've got a favorite book, imagine what cover you'd like to put on it. Most of the books that I loved when I was a student had covers, some of them had covers that I hated. A few had covers that I just adored, but trying to figure out how to put a new cover on that book is actually a great exercise and-- It's a great self initiated project that had, (mumbles) conversely from the sublime of the ridiculous. There's a classic project that's given in publication design courses, which is to pick your favorite magazine and redesign it. So what do people do; Rolling Stone, Vogue, The New Yorker. I got very frustrate with that a number of years ago and I started collecting really obscure trade magazines. Like Pizza Today and. Oh, no, Morticians of the Southwest. (Michael laughs) (audience laughs) I thought, all right, go make that look good. Now that's a challenge. Yep. But Lolita, I think, would be a different kind of challenge. So we thought we'd take you through a few examples of different kinds of challenges in book cover design. This is a really seminal, important textbook. I'd be surprised if any of you have read it. Econometrics Econometrics by Fumio Hayashi. It came out about 15 years ago, it was published by Princeton University Press. He was me neighbor, and quite a design junkie, and he said, "Would you design the cover?" I thought, well boy have you come to the wrong person. My knowledge of econometrics could fill in a thimble. But it quickly turned, the case that the number of letters in his name were the same number of letters in the word Econometrics. That idea of starting a logo project, of starting a book design project, but just beginning with the raw material as simple as number of letters. Classic Paul Rand thing by the way. He used to just say, "You don't need the dingbat. "You don't need the illustration. "How many letters are in the word, next? (Michael laughs) "Do the letters have curves? Do they have straight lines? "How do they line up? "What's the constellation that I can create typographically "through just the raw material?" So this was one that, it's actually still in print. Yeah. It was quite enjoyable to find something so simple that I got fortunate. Well I call that the mathematic imperative. You don't get to decide how many letters are in that guy's name, or word econometrics. But the fact that they're actually the same number, that's like god telling you what to do for the cover. (audience laughs) And then particularly, this-- The hand of god coming out. It's really a math book anyway, so the idea about everything lining up, (Jessica laughs) is really appropriate. It would make much less sense with a book like Lolita, which has nothing at all to do with-- Right. It's about-- Nothing lining up. (audience laughs) That's about (mumbles), and not about lining up at all. Exactly. Works for this perfectly though. So this is a cover I did for another Nabokov book. This is his memoirs; an autobiography. We were talking before about books in series format, and the art director had an... idea of having a whole bunch of different designers repackage Nabokov's backlist. You heard Oliver, Monday, use that word backlist. Backlists are books that were already published, that are now in paperback, they were sort of perennials, people keep buying them. I think Nabokov's memoir was written in the late 60s as I recall, and he just assigned them at random, with only one proviso for the game. Which was the everyone had to make a cover using a little box and some pins, with a little kind of glass cover. That box is used to display captured butterflies. Cause it turns out that-- He was an obsessive butterfly guy. He was this obsessive butterfly collector, Nabokov was. Hew had this huge collection of rare butterflies he had found, and these lepidopterists? Yes I think that's the word. (Michael whistles) Nailed it. Lepidopterists; people who study butterflies. There's a very kind of special way you, I think you sort of preserve them somehow, then you put them in this box and pin them. Everyone doing a cover, and there are about a dozen and a half, two dozen of us designers each doing covers, we're given these boxes and these pins and said whatever you do has to go like this. I had this very distinctive idea, or this idea that was very specific where I said, okay what I wanna do is just collect a whole bunch of images, the Nabokov book I think that has images were place in the middle. This shows the house he grew up in in Russia. Shows pictures of him as a child. I thought why don't we just take these pictures and kind of overlay them on each other, then put a piece of this gauzey, yellow tracing paper on top of it. Cause it's about memory, and it's about how memory fades. It's sort of about nostalgia, and it's about going back. So we really carefully made this box, and I was working with a designer named Katie Barcelona. I said, "Oh Katie, I've got it. "Let's just kind of work this out. "But let's take a picture of it, "showing how it's assembled." So we took the series of pictures showing how it was assembled in stages, and she came to me and said, "You know, here's the one that you wanted "where it's got all the pictures underneath "the tracing paper, but here's one "where there aren't any pictures at all." It's just empty. There's an empty space in the middle. The gauzy memory only has, behind it, the title of the book. And pins. And pins. So I said, "That's it. That's the one" I sort of get partial credit for designing the book. I did design the book, the Katie undesigned part of it and made it brilliant. (Jessica laughs) If you're ever working with someone else who thinks they know what they're doing, but you have a better idea, please suggest it because that's the only way that good design happens. When someone volunteers, "I've got a better way to do this." If you ever get a chance, there's a coupLe examples online of what that whole series was. Brilliant designers doing brilliant takes on all of these different books. I believe Lolita was not one of them, because the art director John Gall just thought that was too much pressure. But all the other ones were there though. This is an example of (mumbles). This is a self published book by a rather affluent client who wanted to tell his life's story. And we were dealing with a lot of photographs. Many of the not in focus. Same idea. We came up with this idea of actually just taking text, and creating this kind of texture of, redacted, highlighted, text on top of the image, and it created a vocabulary for the inside of the book, where we took text and made it big. What it did was called display copy. Or sometimes in magazines it's called; what do they call it in magazines? Headlines? Like sidebars. Sidebars Sidebars, right, where you basically eliciting a guess. So this sort of, type as illustration thing. But it's what you do when you have little to work with, You sort of figure out what the ingredients are that you can tweak and elicit. This is the opposite. Yeah and this is a book that is another non-fiction book. It's an account of a woman who had an autistic child, and her struggles communicating with that child. Ultimately, her ability to kind of figure out a way to bring this child to life in the world. There were no images to work with at all. There was just this rather beautiful, poetic title. What we tried to do is figure out a way to suggest through the way we manipulated the typography, that sort of inability to communicate directly by eroding the letters. This just became an exercise in how much of each letter could you take away and still have the title read. I think the thing that's actually so human about it that they fade against the edge. Yeah. They're not chopped up. It's not these shards or letters. There's no violence, it's just meant to be-- Yeah there's something very gentle about it. Something that's so emotional and so profound for a family. Again, sometimes through typography, I think you can do these things that they don't feel quite as specific. If you're an African American parent, or an Asian parent, or an immigrant parent. You're not dealing with an image of a child who's trying, anyway I thought that this solution was really quite elegant. Sometimes with books, the cover itself can slow you down. This is a book that, Kelly Blair, who is another designer at Knopf, did. I looked at this book and I found myself like you can't just look at one butterfly. You find yourself examining them all. So your way in to the book becomes extremely slow, and extremely considered. It's almost like entering an art gallery, where you have these pristine things show in a case. I thought these examples of books by (mumbles) kids are actually the opposite of the Kelly Blair book, in this sense. That they really kind of create this corrosive, complex way of getting you in to the book. So in a sense, sometimes what you do with a book jacket can actually evoke the rhythm, and the speed, and the nature of the language of the book itself.

Class Description

Print is not dead, and in this class you’ll learn about the elements that go into designing a book. Jessica Helfand and Michael Beirut are renowned designers and experts in the field of design, and in this class you have the chance to learn from their years of expertise! If you’re interested in designing a book, personally or professionally, this class will teach you what you need to get started, including:

Lesson 1: The History of Book design

Lesson 2: How to work with Grids, Grid Systems, and Text

Lesson 3: Approaches to Art Book Design

Lesson 4: How Book Design Engages and Entertains 

Lesson 5: Approaches to Cover Design for Fiction 

Lesson 6: What Makes a Successful Book Cover

Lesson 7: How to Approach Cover Design for a Series

Lesson 8: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 1

Lesson 9: Detailing Book Anatomy Part 2

Lesson 10: Approaches to Fine Tuning Typography

Lesson 11: Methods to Creating your Own Book

Lesson 12: Abbott Miller: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 13: Michael Bierut: Personal Book Project-Case Study

Lesson 14: Jessica Helfand: Personal Book Project–Case Study

Lesson 15: Best Practices in Book Design

Jessica and Michael also share a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with seasoned designers working at the publishing giant Random House and award-winning design studio Pentagram. This class provides a full- bodied robust understanding of all the things that go into being a book designer, a classic tenet to anyone who makes things in the world. 


Leonie Holzman

I had an opportunity to be in the live studio audience for Thinking Like a Book Designer. The session was rich with content, taking us through the whole process of what goes into designing a book as well as interviewing top book designers in the field. I also appreciated the lively exchange between the presenters Jessica Heifand and Michael Bierut. As someone who over the years got burned out as a graphic designer, feeling more like a machine than a designer often times, it reminded me of why I was drawn to become a graphic deisgner in the first place.

Sonny Pham

I had an opportunity to attend this amazing workshop by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. I was gained information about the history of book design, the do's and don'ts, and even insight on the industry itself. It was a surreal experience! My favorite part of the lesson has to be when Jessica and Michael interviewed other artists about their books, with an very in depth analysis on their design choices and process. After seeing Michael explain his design process for his book, I bought it after the class was done. Definitely worth the money for the lesson, and will be back for more!

Anna Pankin

Very engaging and informative class! My only 2 recommendations for the creators (if they read the comments) would be to add a pdf file of the presentation available to download (since it has all the references and visual examples) and, as someone below already mentioned, it would have been nice to actually see the magazine and book pages close-up just as they were being discussed in the videos. But overall I loved the course and the lecturers, who are a true inspiration.