Judging a book by its cover

Oliver Canessa 26 April 2016

Book covers are the vessel of an organised piece of text: they wrap it, colour it, set the perimeters of its universe and radiate meaning. Much like record covers, book covers are a visual statement; they no longer serve just a utilitarian purpose. Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, knew early on that book covers go beyond just binding, so he appropriated the fantastic design principles of Albatross Books: a three colour palette, Gill Sans as a typeface, a formidable grid system and a bird as the name of your brand. Even today, Lane’s vision of a beautiful, balanced and visually potent dressing for text remains.

The philosophy behind the Penguin Book designs has created a space for books to become a work of art in their own right.  David Pearson has forged some breath-taking covers for Penguin Books recently. This inspired me to create a series of posters that pay homage to their legendary design history. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Albert Camus in Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ collection is my favourite cover: the symbiosis of the meaninglessness filled void and the boulder is gorgeous. It is also a testament to continuing design legacy of Penguin Books.

There are other publishing houses who have the right idea too. I came across Fitzcarraldo Editions recently via their designer Ray O’Meara.  Fitzcarraldo is the latest project by Jacques Testard who co-founded The White Review. In an interview with Entropy, Testard revealed, “we wanted to design the books to make them visually striking and desirable as objects, because that’s how we believe books will survive in the new media age. It’s difficult enough to sell books, and good design makes you stand out from the crowd”.

Just because something can stand out from the crowd, can become iconic, does not mean it is well crafted. Take a look at the Subway logo for example: green and yellow. Nice one guys. Like Subway, the downside of books becoming commodities is that shelves are saturated with too many intellectually vulgar  book covers. The artists, illustrators, graphic designers and creatives of this planet need to cover books and text sublimely because in the words of Massimo Vignelli, the “life of a designer is the life of fight: fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design”.

You can check out more of Oliver’s cover designs and his portfolio at www.olivercanessa.com