Autumn 1995

The 30-second sell

Eight-page illustrated feature on paperback book cover design, including interviews with the Senate, Rex Ray, Angus Hyland

Where once they served merely as protection, book covers today are the unceremonious equivalent of product packaging. Their impact as ‘mini-posters’ in bookshops is supported by enlargements or images on walls, tailor-made retail display systems and point-of-sale material. Sales-conscious authors now often insist on having cover approval written into their contracts, and they, the publishers and the booksellers all assess the success or failure of a cover in hard-nosed commercial terms. ‘If a cover doesn’t succeed in at least making you pick the book up within 30 seconds of spotting it, it will be considered a failure,’ says Fiona Carpenter, design director of Macmillan, Pan and Picador.

Of course, the need to make an impact does not always produce attractive design. But at the highbrow end of the market at least, cover design has become more subtle. Britain’s leading imprints in the ‘intelligent’ fiction and non-fiction fields – Picador, Vintage, Flamingo, Penguin and Minerva, for instance – still aim to grab the customer’s attention but the task is approached laterally rather than literally. Picador covers, says Carpenter, aim to ‘provoke, challenge and inspire customers into a purchase with images that capture the mood of a book but leave something to the imagination’.

The new sophistication owes much to the emergence of the larger ‘B’ format paperback as a focus of publishing investment. The rationalisation of the industry in the 1980s that saw paper and hardback companies join forces brought about a shift in attitude towards ‘serious’ books. Traditionally the hardback had been the bastion of highbrow writing, but publishers were beginning to feel that hardback sales failed to capitalise sufficiently on the potential of upmarket books. So since the 1970s and 1980s bigger publishers have thrown the weight of their promotional efforts behind ‘B’ format paperbacks, launching fiction and non-fiction ‘originals’ without printing a hardback version. Despite the flatness of the market, the ‘B’ format has held steady, with Random House launching Vintage in 1989 and Harvill planning to introduce a new imprint in the near future.

The interest in design emerged out of publishers’ desire to give their imprints a higher profile and more of a populist edge in a competitive field. In the early 1980s companies including Futura, Collins and Picador began to replace the standard cover imagery for classic authors’ series – usually details from existing paintings – with new illustration. The approach worked. Picador certainly owed its prominent place in book-buyers’ consciousness to its then art director Gary Day-Ellison, who commissioned illustrators to create striking images that took a more oblique approach to the subject matter of original fiction titles. By the late 1980s other publishers were following suit. ‘The scene was ripe for an injection of design because the ‘B’ format lists were aimed at 25-to-45-year-olds, who were becoming more design-aware in the 1980s,’ says John Mitchinson, former marketing director of Waterstones and now managing editor of Harvill.

Peter Dyer, then head of design at Secker & Warburg, proved an important influence on the direction British book covers took at the end of the 1980s. He put Secker’s new Minerva paperback range on the map with covers with mysterious and intensely detailed collages. ‘Dyer made publishers realise that paperbacks did not have to be throw-away items but could be precious and collectible items in their own right,’ says Mitchinson.

Dyer’s work also turned conventional notions of imprint identity upside down. While American publishers are more likely to treat each cover as a one-off item, many European companies hold firm to an austere house style. In France, for instance, titles and authors’ names remain subordinate to the publishers’ logos, and illustration is secondary, if it appears at all.

British publishers have generally steered a path between the two extremes. But while Dyer’s work at Minerva was unified by a consistent use of Garamond, in his subsequent career at Cape in the early 1990s and now in independent partnership, as React, with the illustrator and designer Conor Brady, he has shown less and less concern with the imposition of a house style. Instead, visual adventure and a subtle approach to subject matter are his trademarks. Cape might have been disturbed when Dyer began to dispense with the design grid inherited from his predecessor at Vintage. But Dyer is unrepentant: ‘A house style can kill a picture,’ he says. ‘I think people buy on impulse, not imprint.’

Pentagram partner John McConnell would not agree. Since 1986 he has been honing Faber and Faber’s diverse paperback portfolio into a coherent whole with a programme predicated on the principle of ‘distinction with consistency’. Pentagram’s original format was strictly defined by boxes, logos and the consistent use of Palatino, and a disciplined attitude to photography and illustration. It was updated last year by a redesign that installed Sabon as the standard typeface and revised the dated-looking cover grid. The new identity seems fresher and more versatile, but brand recognition – including the repeated use of illustrators such as Andrzej Klimowski and Pierre le Tan – clearly remains Faber’s priority. ‘The look is a guarantee of quality,’ explains designer Alan Dye. ‘It means readers always know the sort of highbrow book they can expect from Faber.’

Yet Faber is ploughing an increasingly lonely furrow. Most of the more adventurous British art directors seem to have opted for Dyer’s formula rather than McConnell’s, preferring to tailor typography and illustration to suit the character of an individual author or title. The graphic elements of the publisher’s identity tend to be confined to the spine and a discreet logo, their impact increasingly subliminal.

Partly due to the ubiquitousness of this policy, the spark of originality that lit up British cover design a few years ago seems to be fading. Once the richness of its illustrations and the sensitivity of its typography allowed a list like Minerva to stand out from the crowd. Now, the crafted, bespoke quality that defined Dyer’s output then seems harder to find, perhaps because the sheer volume of work and low fees most of the time render such attention to detail impractical. There are still striking covers to be found, but the ‘B’ format imprints increasingly clamour for public attention with techniques that have become industry standards. Today it is hard to tell one publisher’s cover from the next.

David Elridge and Stuart Brill, collectively the Senate, first made their mark in publishing after leaving the in-house design team at Penguin in 1988. Their Penguin Originals series was a mould-breaking departure from previous standardised paperback formats. Originals were square, expensively produced and, most remarkably, the title and author’s name were confined to the back cover and spine, leaving luscious illustrations and photographs to dominate the front cover and inside wrap-around panels. ‘It was an attempt to shift the traditional way of packaging and branding books,’ explains Eldridge. ‘We thought that people would buy the series because they were beautiful objects. Unfortunately, they didn’t.’

But if the Penguin Originals soon disappeared, the Senate has grown increasingly visible. Over the past five years they have art-directed and designed thousands of covers for a list of publishers and imprints that includes Arrow, Chatto & Windus, Cape, Picador, Granta, Fourth Estate and Verso. Today the company is probably the most prolific of all Britain’s cover designers. Eldridge and Brill reckon they each produce an average of three designs a week, working with a staff of three from their south London studio.

Yet for all their success, the partners are fatalistic about the creative possibilities offered by their area of design expertise. ‘It’s W.H. Smith and the book clubs who dictate the ground rules for our work,’ says Eldridge. ‘The attitude is often “if it’s worked before, it will again”, so anything that in their view is too “designery” is squashed.’

Relationships with publishers – even the more upmarket ones – can be strained by such inflexible attitudes. Eldridge and Brill were jointly responsible for the entire list of the feminist publisher Virago until they parted company earlier this year. The ‘torn paper’ identity for Angela Carter was one of the more memorable series. Eventually though, Eldridge and Brill began to find the lack of adventure in Virago’s strictly policed corporate design policy oppressive: ‘There was a constant pressure to tell the whole story of the book on the cover,’ says Brill.

When given a little more leeway, the pair have proved themselves capable of producing memorable imprint identities as well as individual covers. Collaged covers for the Guardian annuals, published by Fourth Estate, strike just the right classic-meets-quirky note. But perhaps because more publishers are relying on in-house design teams, such all-encompassing commissions are becoming rarer than the demanding but low-budget one-off.

‘I use the Senate to come up with solutions to covers that we are having difficulty with in-house but don’t have much money to spend on,’ says Fiona Carpenter at Macmillan. ‘They understand books, they’re very versatile, strong on ideas and good at finding and exploiting existing pictures.’

The Senate’s ability to make simple but telling use of the found image is well illustrated by their work for the literary magazine Granta, which is published by Penguin. To convey what they view as the ‘dirty-realistic’ boldness of Granta, Brill and Eldridge have often dug through the archives, turning up photographs that give the covers a gritty sense of immediacy.

Curiously, the Senate partners seem less proud of such work than they are of their forays behind book covers, in particular their identity for the last Labour Party general election campaign. Eldrige insists that their achievements in the publishing field have been modest. ‘We simply can’t have a vision of design in the sense that an architect like Richard Rogers can,’ says Eldridge. ‘What we do is commercial packaging.’

When San Francisco-based book and CD designer Rex Ray was asked five years ago to construct an identity for High Risk, the New York imprint of the small London publishing house Serpent’s Tail, he had an advantage book cover designers usually do not. Most publishing identities have to be all-purpose creatures versatile enough to encompass every variety of fiction and non-fiction title, whereas High Risk was set up with very specific ideas about what sort of books the imprint would contain and what sort of people would read them.

‘High Risk is cutting-edge American fiction whose subject matter is consciously transgressive and challenges frontiers,’ says Pete Ayerton, editorial director at Serpent’s Tail. ‘It is very much aimed at a young urban audience.’

Rex Ray’s response to this highly focused brief was a cover format that is appropriately distinct and challenging. Covers are split horizontally, with each contrasting half containing a found image or one of Ray’s own mistily vibrant photographs. Colours are consciously daring – ‘sickly,’ according to Ray – both to make the books stand out and because he believes their boldness will appeal to the sort of reader prepared to take a chance on High Risk’s ‘taboo’ literary agenda.

‘I’m trying to ring the bell of the sort of audience who might be drawn to the trashy 1970s revival colour schemes and the assortment of strange typefaces I use, rather than repelled by them,’ says Ray. The placement of the cover type around the central dividing line – sometimes above, sometimes below, often overlapping it – serves to subliminally reinforce the reader’s sense of the series’ identity.

Ray’s choice of pictures is also intended to strike a chord. ‘I don’t want to illustrate the text,’ he says. ‘I read the manuscript and try to boil it down to two essential or contrasting images that might stimulate people to read further.’ Ray has a knack for creating thought-provoking tableaux which draw you back to them again and again. On Catherine Bush’s Minus Time, skyscrapers seen in steep perspective find a visual echo in the tapering lines of a space capsule. A connection is implied: but what?

Both the audacity and the calculated ambiguity – ‘the edginess’, Ray calls it – of the covers helped draw attention to High Risk when Serpent’s Tail launched the imprint in Britain three years ago. ‘The covers send the right sort of message about the book’s contents,’ says Ayerton. ‘The strong colours and images both say, ‘Expect to be challenged because this is not going to be an easy read.’’

The distinctiveness of Ray’s work also helps justify the slightly higher price of the books, which at around £10 each are twenty per cent more expensive than comparable British paperbacks. Ray, who set up his studio in 1980, designs all his covers on the Macintosh but is concerned that they not look like computer-generated work. ‘The digital age has spawned so much mediocrity,’ he says. ‘I don’t want the covers to feel like stereotyped cyperpunk graphics.’

There is little danger of that. Covers such as Pagan Kennedy’s Spinsters and Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe share a sense of three-dimensional texture and a loving attention to detail that extends even to the imagery on the inner flaps. Perhaps Ray’s covers for High Risk owe their richness to the relaxed pace at which he is able to read the work. Ray says he always has the time and the budget to read the text and to prepare three or four alternative mock-ups for discussion – luxuries most British cover specialists can rarely dream of.

‘In an ideal world book covers wouldn’t contain anything but essential information,’ says Angus Hyland. ‘A cover image may help sell a book, but it distorts it too. As designers we’re part of a marketing conspiracy.’ Hyland has been a co-conspirator since the early 1990s, when after freelancing for Peter Dyer at Minerva he became art director once Dyer left to join Cape.

Hyland says that he acquired from his predecessor an understanding that determination and diplomacy are essential attributes to win over publishers with little visual awareness. He also inherited many of Dyer’s design attitudes. At Minerva Dyer had blown away the notion of a strict imprint identity by tailoring each cover to suit its author’s character. Hyland was content to follow suit. By applying a similar bespoke approach to Minerva’s back catalogue, he gave a new visual edge to several series of modern classics. Striking abstract images replaced the hackneyed Dublin street scenes used for James Joyce, while blood red graphic panels and totalitarian imagery infused the Kafka series with a sense of brutalist bleakness.

Hyland admits that not all publishers might have been so unconcerned as Minerva about his relaxed approach to imprint identity. ‘Publishers are traditionally conservative about house style, but the problem with a rational approach like Faber and Faber’s is that it homogenises things. You don’t get the lows but you tend not to get the highs either.’

Two years ago Hyland found himself trying to resolve the identity-versus-innovation dilemma when the Turin-based publisher Gianni Borga asked him and his then partner, illustrator Louise Cantrill, to create a house style for the new paperback imprint Instar Libri. Hyland and Cantrill designed the logo, a Henry Moore-style harpist representing ‘the storyteller’, and then set about devising a format to dovetail list recognition and the ‘stamp of quality’ that Faber stands for with the flair and adventure Hyland had championed at Minerva.

Within an overall style – Gill as corporate typeface, black spines, acid-coloured inner flaps – Hyland and Cantrill created two subtly different formats for fiction and non-fiction. Aside from the spine treatment – mini-pictures for fiction, coloured graphic bars for non – the categories were distinguished by means of illustration. ‘The idea was that the fiction covers would be commissioned out, while Louise and I handled the non-fiction ourselves,’ recalls Hyland.

Instar Libri made a promising start. Hyland and Cantrill produced some outstanding covers – including Hyland’s intriguing collage of paintings and Japanese ephemera for Sayonara Michelangelo, an account of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel – but Hyland’s hope that ‘Instar Libri would become as collectable as Granta books’ remains unproven. Hyland lost the account soon after his partnership with Cantrill split up last year. Ironically, responsibility for the design of the imprint has now passed into the hands of his mentor, Peter Dyer, and his partner, Conor Brady.

Hyland admits to being a little weary of the constraints of cover design. ‘Working with a very rigid format is a good training discipline,’ he says. ‘But eventually you end up with a portfolio containing 200-300 things that look exactly the same.’ He still freelances as a cover designer – recent work includes an understated travel series for Picador – but he has been concentrating on expanding his range by working on complete books. ‘Cover design is a ghetto that’s hard to get into but even harder to get out of,’ he says. ‘I’m much happier dealing with all the issues you have to cope with in designing a complete book than I was when I faced exactly the same problems every day.’

First published in Eye no. 18 vol. 5 1995

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.