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Comments (21) Posted 08.19.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand


Trauma by Patrick McGrath, cover design by Peter Mendelsund2008

Onomatopoeia is the term used for words that sound like what they are describing — words like zip and boom, for instance — although the concept, it should be noted, is hardly limited to the English language. Every culture has its proprietary sounds, its bespoke idioms and particular turns-of-phrase, and the beauty of the sound-like-what-they-are examples lies in their tendency to defy language barriers. (An English person's tick tock translates, in Romanian for example, to the nearly identical tic tac.)

So what do we call it when book jacket designers deploy a similar strategy in the effort to use the cover itself to illustrate a book's content?

The answer: biblionomatopoeia.

Steal This File Sharing Book, by Wallace Wang, cover design by Octopod Studios, 2004

The relationship between form and content has long been perceived as a particular hallmark of modernism, and could be loosely said to characterize a good deal of the educational basis for teaching graphic design. Or at least it used to be: one of the most memorable features from Richard Wilde's primer on visual literacy are the examples, taken from a classic introductory class exercise, in which students are asked to express specific personalities through key typographic choices on calling cards. (A larger-than-life Texan, for instance, might require a more robust set of letterforms than, say, a shy and retiring librarian.) The range of possibilities revealed here is striking, and helps to highlight the sorts of decisions a graphic designer is likely to face when visualizing varying sorts of content.

Visualizing content itself is indeed the primary domain of the graphic designer. Beyond type, there are numerous choices a designer makes in order to identify — and ideally, to amplify — a particular idea. Where books are concerned, there are further considerations of context and series, of imprint and size. There is the relative question of the display area (bookshelf space being fairly limited) and the issue of visual competition (lots of books sharing minimal space) and no shortage of opinions (book designers juggle authors, publishers, publicists and the ever-present agendas — read egos — of all of the above.)

In principle, the goal is to accurately represent — and boldly differentiate — a given book from all the others in its vicinity. "Vicinity" is, of course, a term open to some interpretation, largely actionable at the discretion of the bookseller: it's a categorical conceit that can manifest itself through alphabetical organization, genre-based groupings, books recently reviewed in the popular press, flagged by experts, recommended by the bookstore staff or even (and often) those books jettisoned to the discounted sale pile.

In this tumultuous and unpredictable visual climate, why not turn to the book as a self-referential object?

In one example, a book about trauma literally traumatizes it's own spine, while a riff on the famous Abbie Hoffman volume "Steal This Book" becomes a fingerprint-laden surface featuring a casual subhead scribbled on masking tape. In another, a novel by John Darnton appropriates the language of the newspaper, bleeding the headline and blurring the fine print, while a dessicated trio of letterforms makes Augusten Burroughs's new book — aptly titled "Dry." — (note the full stop for emphasis) into little more than a shadowy skeleton. And finally, there is Homecoming, a more abstract illustration in which the book's title is placed inside a cutout portion of another book, pages splayed open yet oddly inert, becoming, in a sense, an inanimate yet oddly imposing three-dimensional frame — much like a house, in fact.

Black and White and Dead All Over, by John Darnton, cover design by Peter Mendelsund, 2008

Dry: A Memoir, by Augusten Burroughs, cover design by Chip Kidd, 2004

Homecoming: A Novel, by Bernhard Schlink, cover design by Helen Yentus, 2008

Childrens' books are more suited, technically, to the obvious visual metaphor — Peter Newell's The Hole Book being a prime example — but the range and subtlety of biblionomatopoetic interpretations extends far beyond mere juvenalia. Indeed, levels of obsession rendered as fastidious pindots, degrees of loneliness expressed as a lowercase "i" (the word itself locked in a sea of white space, separated from its ubiquitous dot) and even stickiness as a social concept have a kind of immediate impact when rendered as tight, refined self-referential compositions.

The Hole Book (Detail), by Peter Newell, 1908

Obsession: A History, by Lennard J. Davis, cover design by Isaac Tobin, 2008

Loneliness, by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick, cover design by Peter Mendelsund, 2008

Made to Stick, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, cover design by Stephanie Huntwork, 2007

As biblionomatopoiea goes, these books are loosely connected in the sense that they basically illustrate the word itself rather than its implied concept — duct tape symbolizing stickiness rather than representing enduring value, for instance — but they're still fundamentally tethered to the central modernist model of form-reinforcing-content. (With the possible exception of that lonely "i", which remains woefully tethered to nothing.) It may seem like a no-brainer to those of us who spend a lot of time looking at books and appreciating their covers, but there remain plenty of covers that do little to reinforce their content — an especially egregious matter if you stop and imagine some of the immensely gratifying solutions any of a number of capable designers could have brilliantly envisioned. Consider, for example, the missed opportunity here:

Malignant Self Love, by Sam Vaknin

It's about self-reflection! How meta is that? The textural, material and interpretive possibilities are considerable — and yes, it is likely there was neither time nor budget to really think this one through, and for all we know it's part of a larger series that includes titles which have nothing to do with narcissism, but that still doesn't excuse it. As long as there are graphic designers, as long as there are people who think, and as long as there are gifted people out there turning paper upside down and inside out, there should be new and unusual ways to give book jackets their due.
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Comments (21)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

What exactly is the point of this "article"?

To complain about post-modernist design that refers to itself?

To whine about how some covers could have been better-designed?

To sniff about right-thinking-ness of "those of us who spend a lot of time looking at books"?

Please. Why not just write "you kids get off my lawn!" and be done with it?

Also: this whole book-cover-designed-to-look-like-a-distressed-book-cover thing has been endlessly debated over at FWIS [google: "book covers" and it's like the first thing that comes up], and plenty of other book-cover related blogs, so maybe do a little research on book covers before writing a faux-scholarly complain-a-thon that adds nothing to the debate, whatever it is you're debating, which, it isn't even clear?

Hugs, Another One of Those of "Us" Who Look At Books A Lot Because It Pays Our Rent
Christian in NYC
08.25.08 at 04:06

Christian, I didn't notice the complaining, whining and sniffing that you referred to. Jessica's reaction to the work struck me as generally positive.

Since you obviously felt compelled to write, is there anything you'd like to add to expand the discussion? Not picking an argument, just curious.
Michael Bierut
08.25.08 at 04:44

Thanks for this great post on book covers, Jessica. You've posted some of my own favorites here (Trauma, Dry, and Homecoming). Another jacket that might fit into this collection is the one Peter Mendelsund designed for In Praise of the Unfinished: Selected Poems, by Julia Hartwig.
Ricardo Cordoba
08.25.08 at 06:26

Is that Tang or just Magical Thinking?
What do you see tucked subliminally within Chip Kidd’s other cover design for Augusten Burroughs?
Carl W. Smith
08.26.08 at 12:25

Nice blog you have here. I pretty much lurk the internet when I'm bored and read all I can about the organic lifestyle, but I really liked your view on things. I'll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!
Acai Research
08.26.08 at 12:32

Great post, I haven't been back to DO in a while so I've some catching up to do.

For me, I love when the designers are given the opportunity to take a little more time and resources to produce a truly unique cover. It compliments and enhances the content within. Books with exposed stitch binding or covers using unconventional materials really catch the audience's attention. But nothing beats a cover that just uses type effectively The Penguin line of "Great Ideas" is the first to come to my mind.
Kevin Chan
08.26.08 at 04:10

Jessica, while I agree that the book on narcissism has a amateurish cover, it's not as facile as you paint it. The image is a painting of Narcissus, from Greek mythology. And, obviously, his name is the origin of the word we now use. Again, not a great design, but a bit deeper than simply the idea of self-admiration.
Chris Rugen
08.26.08 at 09:50

Another half-baked article about the relationship between form and content? You've got to be kidding me. This is writing for writing's sake. It's the sound of nothing to say. It's the sound of complacency of thought. Why must a certain class of designers feel they need to intellectualize for it's own sake?

What does this even mean?

"As long as there are graphic designers, as long as there are people who think, and as long as there are gifted people out there turning paper upside down and inside out, there should be new and unusual ways to give book jackets their due. "

Their due? What does this mean? A ticker-tape parade? A spot on Larry King? It's a book jacket. I'm quite sure most Book Jacket Designers are thrilled the desperate world of publishing is churning out more books than there are people to read them, but let's please stop talking about the jackets in these terms. Don't force words where none are needed.
08.26.08 at 10:02

call it whatever you will, poindexters. but is it good or not is the only criterion, and not by "critics" either
Gavin Hashimoto
08.26.08 at 12:49

Jessica: Thank you for the insightful article.

"... The relationship between form and content has long been perceived as a particular hallmark of modernism... It may seem like a no-brainer ... but there remain plenty of covers that do little to reinforce their content ... there should be new and unusual ways to give book jackets their due."

It appears you are in strong favor of modernism. I would like to argue that there could also be old, tried and true ways to give book jackets their due.

The job of the book jacket is well, to sell the book. Traditionally this was done by use of an attractive typographic design, sometimes in combination with an illustration or a photograph. This is how W.A. Dwiggins and George Salter designed their Knopf covers. This is how Hermann Zapf and Gotthard de Beauclair designed their Insel and Fischer covers. This approach is very much alive in Europe today. For those of us who design art books, this approach is alive in the U.S. as well.

The conceptual approach to book covers, first introduced by the Constructivists and later in the U.S. by Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig, has made a resurgence since the 90-s with the widely emulated work of Chip Kidd and the Knopf art department. As much as we all admire it, it remains only one way to package a book effectively. As you say, "the range of possibilities" typography alone offers "is striking," and good design is not necessarily determined by a clever visual metaphor.

Did I hear someone say modernism was passé?
Misha Beletsky
08.26.08 at 10:21

Actually, the job of the book cover is to protect the inside of the book, and to perhaps identify its contents. It's the job of marketing to sell the book, and the jacket as well as designers are co-opted in that mission.

I interpret "biblionomatopoeia" as it's presented here as more of an idea of one-to-one illustration that has its roots in the "big idea" or "conceptual" approach to graphic design popularized in the 60s. In this approach's use of the vernacular and illustrative methods, the concern is meaning or wit, and it is a primarily narrative and semiotic-based approach rather than a design-based one. It exists in the world of meaning and not materials, technology, form, or structure. It's also a method that lends itself better to advertising.

Going to a North American bookstore vs. an Asian or European one is a very different experience. In American bookstores, book covers compete for your attention and exist as 'packaging'. Book covers are sites controlled by marketing departments and are employed to create the desire to purchase and consume, and the Fresh Dialogue 2 Bookcover illustrated this idea quite well. In European or Asian ones, you have an experience of modernism different from the one described above: books tend to be organized in series, and design is used to visually unite books under either themes or publishers. Repetition and templated systems across a number of publications indicate that there is a consistency of thought, and that books can exist not only as individual experiences, but also as part of a larger curation of themes and ideas.

One cover I thought was interesting was for Miranda July's no one belongs here more than you. There's absolutely no critical idea except that perhaps it illustrates an idea of straightforwardness and simplicity, and that language can stand on its own, which relates very well to the content of the book. The paperback edition came in four colorways, hinting even more strongly at a design-based approach rather than an illustrative one. I couldn't say, however, that I could see this working across ten different titles.
08.27.08 at 01:53

In European or Asian ones, you have an experience of modernism different from the one described above: books tend to be organized in series, and design is used to visually unite books under either themes or publishers. Repetition and templated systems across a number of publications indicate that there is a consistency of thought, and that books can exist not only as individual experiences, but also as part of a larger curation of themes and ideas.

Manuel, that's interesting -- I've seen the same phenomenon in South America, but there it generally means that there is not enough budget for a different approach.
Ricardo Cordoba
08.27.08 at 09:09

Nice article by Jessica; brilliant comment by Manuel.
08.27.08 at 10:51

Another great example: Bradbury Thompson's design for 'The Red Badge of Courage.' Bullet holes and blood included.
Jason A. Tselentis
08.28.08 at 07:38

Speaking of book covers...

Seeing as Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel recently juried the 2008 AAUP book jacket competition, it would be wonderful to see a recap here on Design Observer! (Here's a list of winners:
click here for AAUP design show website
08.28.08 at 12:53

"Brilliant" writing and reviews by all like minded navel gazers, the 98 pound weaklings of the decrepit "art" world.


Bloggers will write about anything at any time for any reason.
John Kelin
08.30.08 at 12:26

This is my favorite series so far. Thank you, lady.

Chika Azuma did some interesting work for Herman Wouk recently.

Note: Doral did a recent series of cigarette cards, too. Can't find any good examples on the Web though. Watching.

Joe Moran
08.30.08 at 11:49

I began studying Graphic Design 4 years ago (I was a fine artist in high school and during my first two years of college) and when I see these wonderful book covers as a design student, especially those designed by Mr. Kidd, I wondered: Where were they before? And I am no stranger to the libraries and bookstores; in fact, I find myself spending more than 80 hours a week in them. But those designs were nothing compare to even the covers shown in this article. As the matter of fact, it is my strong beliefs as a kid that should one ever judge a book by its cover, that person will never read a single book.

My main goal in life is to become a novelist (but I see no point in spending 4 years learning how to write a novel, so I decided to go with Graphic Design major, and fell in love with it but that's another story) and I promised myself that no matter what happened, I will be the one who design my own book's cover.

Anyway, this article is quite helpful. Thanks.

Panasit Ch
09.01.08 at 08:43

You've overlooked one of my favorite covers, the cover for Pragmatism: A Reader by Louis Menand. The design was John Gall.
09.21.08 at 12:56

Good design, who make it?.
I am from South and also now am reading in English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: "Interview with the filmmakers of the irrelevance, this is a benignly amusing family movie talks about her new movie, god said"

Thank :-D Lisle.
06.09.09 at 11:58

Although the given examples are impeccably designed and my eyes were drawn to most of them on the shelf I somehow always feel cheated by this approach. I always imagined it being a way to package music not books — maybe a tad too clever and somewhat shallow?

I defend the post.
• it is design observed
• elicits dialogue, especially Manuel's comments
• informative, especially for younger designers

03.01.10 at 10:07

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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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