Onomatopoeia is the term used for words that sound like what they are describing
— words like zip
, 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.
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
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.
Loneliness, by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick, cover design by Peter Mendelsund, 2008Made 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:
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.