Judging a book by its cover | Monocle

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Olimpia Zagnoli



Our favourite work:
Opus Pistorium
by Henry Miller

The most renowned of Italy’s new generation of illustrators, 35-year-old Olimpia Zagnoli has seen her curvilinear, colourful and evocative work spread far and wide. Her images have featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, La Repubblica and on innumerable book covers for Italian publishers Feltrinelli and Einaudi, as well as Germany’s Taschen.

“Decorative and didactic was never my way,” says Zagnoli at her studio in her native Milan. Her bright images adorn the wall behind her. “A cover should relate to a theme of the text but it doesn’t have to recount every detail; it should be strong enough to stand on its own.” For a series of volumes by classic poets, Zagnoli sought the most elemental details of the authors’ appearance: Pasolini became a stark black haircut and sunglasses; Jacques Prevert a jaunty flat cap and lit cigarette; and Shakespeare some longish locks and an antique ruff.

As the daughter of a photographer and a painter, Zagnoli was raised with art and was “always surrounded by books”. She initially struggled to combine her disparate influences: space-age imagery, The Beatles’ “explosion of references”, Courrèges’s futuristic fashion and graphic arts from the 1960s and 1970s, including seminal talents such as Bruno Munari and Franco Grignani. Now she combines them harmoniously in her high-impact kaleidoscopic images.

“Books are important objects,” she says. “Their design deserves time and attention.” She points to a 1954 cover of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, designed by Munari to resemble layers of abstract stained glass, a vintage favourite of hers. “The cover doesn’t have much to do with the text but it leaves space for readers to imagine the story in their own way,” she says. “We’re bombarded by the internet and television images today so we all see the same things. But books remain very intimate and up to the individual’s imagination. It’s a privilege to be able to influence readers.”

in the words of...

Irma Boom

As told to Venetia Rainey

Nicknamed the Queen of Books, Dutch designer Irma Boom has always brought an experimental and tactile approach to the books she’s created – more than 330 of them. Here she tells us what makes good book design – and how important it is to still make physical titles in the digital age.

“I think it is interesting when books are thought about. It is not about good or bad design but about there being a good thought.

I am not sure that it has to be beautiful; I don’t think that’s interesting. I spent last year studying for five months at the library at the Vatican and when I was there I realised that if you make books, you make books for the future.

For me a book is a container of thoughts, because it is not changeable: it’s fixed information and that notion makes the book extremely valuable. If you compare a book to the internet – which can change any second – the book is a crucial way of freezing a moment in time. If you print something you have to think about it because it will not disappear; so what you do is very important. The world is still for a moment and this is crucial, this is why I want to make books.

For me, a book must be a paper book: I think that e-reader versions are something else. Making books is part of our society and culture, which is why I think that books will never extinguish themselves. I don’t consider making them to be an art form: I see it more as a necessity.”


David Pearson

Type as Image


Our favourite work:
by George Orwell

“I was one of those lucky people who could only do one thing: I could draw,” says David Pearson. “There wasn’t anything else that really caught my attention – other than football, obviously.” While studying graphic design at London’s Central Saint Martins, he fell for book design. “It seemed to fit my natural rhythm,” he says, describing his approach. “Book design gives me time to pore over content and details.”

Pearson started at Penguin Books in 2002 (as a text designer then a cover designer) before setting up his studio, Type as Image, in 2007. He’s produced covers for authors from Cormac McCarthy to Noam Chomsky and clients from Christie’s to the v&a. When we met him, he was awaiting approval from John Le Carré. “Getting the cover approved by Penguin is one thing – but then it has to go through him.”

Working on classics means that, more often than not, there isn’t an author to convince. “You have a chance to do something different,” says Pearson. Take his idea for George Orwell’s 1984: a bright-orange cover with the title and author’s name unflinchingly blacked out. “That felt like the only choice I had left,” says Pearson. “In many ways that’s the best place to be as a designer: it’s often when I have a restrictive brief that I feel the most creative.”

Known for his light, literary touch, Pearson’s covers are unlikely to be clamouring for the attention of passengers traipsing through an airport after a 12-hour flight. Of course, his style is always evolving. “If you work in a creative industry your taste should change daily,” he says. “That will feed into your work.” Ultimately Pearson’s covers are about the tales told on the inside pages, not himself. “If you draw attention to the designer then you’re doing it all wrong,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than being aware that the designer’s wagging their tail when you’re looking at their work.”

Breaking cover

view from the book companies

Industry insiders deliver their front-page news.

Richard Ogle, art director at Transworld, the mass-market imprint behind ‘The Girl on the Train’ and the Jack Reacher series.

“I work mostly on commercial books, where we’re hoping to sell mass numbers. You’ve got a second to attract customers and for them to understand the book. You can’t be too clever: the book needs to say what it needs to say. I work with a handful of fonts; colours depend on the fashion of the market. At the moment for crime thriller we’re seeing blue-and-yellow palettes; it used to be red and, when Gone Girl came out, covers were black and white.

You go by recognisability: if you liked that, you’ll like this. At the commercial end, a book cover is like an ad: it’s a marketing tool.”

Peter van der Zwaag, editor for translated fiction at De Bezige Bij, which releases Paul Auster and others in the Netherlands.

“What we decide to do for the cover after we translate a title depends on each book, whether it’s famous where it was first published and if a certain cover is already well known. The UK market is focused on illustration but that doesn’t work in our market.

Often we’ll create our own design – sometimes influenced by the original – but we have some cases where authors say they like our cover better. A couple of years ago a lot of our covers featured paintings but now it’s very typography heavy. Not every book has the potential to become a big success so we target a specific audience.”

Takashi Kuroda, book-design department manager at publisher Shinchosha, which releases the likes of Ali Smith in Japan.

“There’s no formula for designing covers. As a rule we include the title and author’s name in its original language and in Japanese. We try not to be overly affected by what is written in the book; people buy books before knowing what they’re about. The cover hints at what’s inside, it’s the final nudge.

Every new release comes with a narrow wraparound strip, or obi, which is like an ad for the book and can change for later editions. Fans of novels prefer cover illustration over solid colours and text because it’s softer. Bookshops in Tokyo wrap books in paper also to protect the cover.”


Sonya Dyakova

Atelier Dyakova


Our favourite work:
the story of art
by EH Gombrich

The London office of Russian-born designer Sonya Dyakova has a calm atmosphere: iMacs line one wall, while the white shelves opposite are filled with books, the studio founder’s stock in trade.

Dyakova’s book work started at Phaidon, where she stood out as one to watch after designing a pocket edition of EH Gombrich’s classic The Story of Art. “It was a bestseller for Phaidon,” she says. That was more than a decade ago. Recent work includes a guide to fermentation from Danish restaurant Noma and she has won awards for projects such as Seeing Things, a photography book for children.

Though Dyakova is in high demand, she rejects the idea that she has a visual signature. “It’s exactly what we’re trying not to do,” she says. “We’re trying to reinvent each time. Book covers start with a studious engagement with the book’s contents. It’s the whole thing: the story of it.”

What, then, should a successful cover do? With bricks-and-mortar retail on the ropes, should covers be designed to be viewed online? At Atelier Dyakova, this is anathema. “I think there’s a category of designers who are interested in the whole object as an experience,” says Dyakova. “We know what a book looks like but we like to ask the question, ‘What can a book be?’”



John Gall

Knopf Doubleday

New York

Our favourite work:
beauty is a wound
by Eka Kurniawan

Disfiguring books might sound like sacrilege but for John Gall it was a fresh approach: cutting up old covers and reassembling them was different from designing rectangle after rectangle. The collage aesthetics of that experiment became one of his trademarks.

After graduating in graphic design from Rutgers University in New Jersey, he worked at a mass-market publisher. “I left after a year and said, ‘I’m not going to do book publishing ever again.’” But, in the 25 years since, Gall has become one of the industry’s most treasured designers, having created covers for the likes of Federico García Lorca, Franz Kafka and Margaret Atwood.

Gall’s design process begins with reading: he notes any details that might prove useful. “But being too literal is bad,” he says, and he avoids showing a character’s appearance too specifically.

Gall became vice-president and creative director of New York-based Knopf Doubleday in April. His career coincided with the rise of e-commerce but he believes that the principles behind a well-designed book cover are steadfast. “Reading with a physical book is a deeper experience than on an iPad; it forms an emotional attachment. Books have been put together the same way for centuries – and who knows how long it’ll last.”


Manita Songserm

Chaichai Books


Our favourite work:
by David Eagleman

Manita Songserm sees a book jacket as a whole: front, back and spine share equal importance. “It’s my intention to design a cover as a poster,” she says.

She began her career designing posters for art exhibitions at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Her talents came to the attention of the Thai art and publishing community, who gather at Bacc’s onsite bookshop. A debut commission soon followed: designing Sum by US author David Eagleman for Chaichai Books. Songserm’s covers make use of geometric shapes, straight lines and block colours. Typography takes precedence over imagery in a nod to her favourite book designer, Taiwan’s Wang Zhi-hong. Songserm’s second project – Revenge by Japanese suspense writer Yoko Ogawa – remains her favourite. The US version had knife slashes and scratch marks on a bare wall but Songserm’s inspiration came from art. “Revenge’s cover was shaped by the Futurist and Dada art movements,” she says.

English appears prominently on the covers of translations. “The shape and structure of the Thai alphabet makes it less clear than English,” says Songserm. Her style, however, speaks in both languages. “I play with people’s curiosity,” she says. “The cover might be the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to understand the whole book.”

In the words of...

David Gentleman

As told to Chiara Rimella

Veteran designer David Gentleman has lent his trademark touch to everything from stamps to murals, using wood engravings or watercolours. The vintage aesthetic of his 1970s Shakespeare series made cover-design history. He talks to MONOCLE about consistency in style.

“I don’t think there are any rules, otherwise all books would look the same. You’ve got to be quite tempting if you’re doing a book jacket because it’s no good being obvious.

It’s quite important that one should like the book. I have done a few jackets for books that I hated and for those I simply read enough of them – maybe to about page nine – then came to something that had a pictorial element and didn’t dare to go any further. You need some rapport with the book: that’s all that matters, the contents are valuable. But then I didn’t read any of the economics books; for those covers I wanted to convey the idea of something that was relatively abstract and thoughtful. The ones that I didn’t enjoy doing were the novels that I didn’t really like.

Illustration has got greater possibilities as a medium than photography, which is the most real thing but it doesn’t always make it the right thing: you’re not having to interpret what the writer is trying to do.

The fact that other people might have done a cover for the same book before doesn’t come into it – even for the Shakespeares. I don’t give it any thought; I think the publisher has given me the task to be myself. I’ve only got my own language to fall back on so I’m stuck with it. The publisher, the editors and the salespeople might have views but I seldom take specific briefs or instructions.

Students sometimes come ask me, “How do you get a style?” It’s as if your style were on pegs and you could choose. You don’t: your style is your personality.”

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