Getting it covered, Jenny Nicholls

North & South magazine art director Jenny Nicholls looks into the future of book design.

Recently I was sent a photography book published by Taschen – Mario Testino: Private View – to review. I had been looking forward to the arrival of a big book with soft, thick paper and enough ink to make the shadows deep and dark, so the crazy photographs spring to life. I am addicted to Taschen art books. They really know how to print photographs, including photographs of artworks.

The book was emailed.

I tried to see it from the publisher’s point of view. They were saving the cost of one book, plus postage, and surely I should be able to write a short review based on a digital copy of the entire book? It was quick to download, and the design and double-page spread layouts were intact.

The only problem was that the beautiful photographs were invariably blurred, as if seen through a fogged-up bathroom window. A few were sharp, but most looked as if they had been downloaded from low-res jpegs: “websized” to keep the size of the book down to a manageable level.

This digital version was useless, in other words. I emailed back the publisher to request a “real book”.

As digital books begin to outsell the 3-d kind, a host of technical problems and opportunities are emerging too fast for designers, let alone the schools which train them, to keep up. The rather tiresome artistic obsession with “challenging” “preconceived” ideas will be given a good gallop, no doubt. But eventually we will all begin to wonder: when is a book no longer a book?

Cookbooks with their own how-to videos. “Enhanced e-books”, already on sale. And soon, dazzling art, music or science “books” illuminated by music, video or animation will become art works in their own right. An interesting foretaste of how wild things could get is Bjork’s remarkable iPad/iPhone application Biophilia: an example of how a published work freed from its usual physical restraints can look and sound when handled with devotion.

But few local designers are trained in the new technologies, such as they are, and there is little push in this direction from publishing companies in New Zealand, who know a financial black hole when they see one.

The software is far from uniform, although magazines across the world are busy perfecting different platforms which combine words with colour photography and illustration. We await reliable, universally-used software and clued-up design schools to connect the talent with the technology.

Digital books are certainly wrecking the very concept of a “cover”. On Amazon, covers are pixellated “portals”, no longer an advertisement of tone or quality, no longer an elegant, physical package. Once downloaded onto a Kindle, the cover isn’t even the first thing you will see.

E-books also fatally unpick the typographic handling of the text. Myopic readers can change the font size or even the font itself. The designer’s (and sub-editor’s) perpetual enemies, those pesky orphans, widows and loose lines, frolic all over the damn place.

So is editorial graphic design a “sunset industry”? Am I about to be replaced by a video maker or animator? During his Booker acceptance speech last year, Julian Barnes praised designer Suzanne Dean, whose ethereal cover for his winning novel The Sense of an Ending made it “a beautiful object”: “If the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to challenge the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

I suspect we are actually living in a golden age of “real” book design, made possible by digital printing technologies and more urgent by competition from cyber books. In good bookstores, cascades of superb designs vie for the touch of our greedy fingers and eyes. Book publishers are turning their productions into an event in itself. Penguin’s beautifully designed slim reprints with their gravure, embossed covers seem to be selling well, and the Taschen Testino photography book eventually turned up in considerable physical glory, with a “lenticular” 3-d plastic print glued to a cover which itself is available in three different colours.

It seems too perfect that the cover of the e-book phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is so precisely and disappointingly that. This is a cover made for a device which spurns colour, and the book’s physical cover has a “Kindle” look about it. Although the design is unexceptional, it does perform its e-book duties, managing to be simple, feminine and atmospheric at thumbnail size. Although it does smack of the online commercial photo-library. I can imagine the search terms: “expensive discarded clothing”.

The lack of sexual innuendo on a best-seller famous for its sex scenes underlines a counterintuitive fact. “Reflecting the book’s contents” is surprisingly low on the list of tasks for a cover. I know it sounds Very Important, but I have discovered the hard way that a cover needs to be intriguing rather than literal, whether it wraps itself around a book or a magazine. A cover is an advertisement for the text, not the contents page. Do you really need all those images? Keep it simple, leave something out. Secrets are better: this isn’t the front page of the Herald. This doesn’t mean to say it shouldn’t be beautiful. Beauty goes without saying: it is like hygiene, or grammar. It creates priorities, tone, audience and atmosphere.

I have spent a rather interesting working life designing the covers of current affairs magazines like Metro and North & South, where the success or failure of a cover concept is known very quickly. Like book covers, magazine covers need to work their magic in seconds, and they borrow the advertiser’s tricks of a clear message, simplicity and impact.

The reason this works is because a cover is, and has always been, an advertisement, albeit one that works on a peculiarly emotional level.

Designing current affairs covers is a specialised field, where the concept, rather than a fashion photograph or “pap shot”, is king. The cover captures the essence of a story, and must fathom the angle which will interest the most people, without sacrificing aesthetics or ethics. To do this well, it is important to respect your audience. You want them to understand what the often complex story is about, so you need to be intriguing but not obscure. It is far more difficult to be lucid but surprising than it is to be deliberately obscure. (This strange-sounding idea is a good kick start for debates with fine arts graduates.) I trade in visual metaphors, which everyone can understand … a pig in a business suit, for instance, says so much more than the familiar portrait of an Investment Banker In Trouble. The pig image conveys the promise of information we could be sued for saying out loud. It says “You are one of us. We think you will want to read this … and here is why.”

Poor design can bury a writer’s work, even on an Amazon page crammed with covers. (Though perhaps less so than on a bookstore shelf or, so fatally, within the pages of a magazine.) Drama, clarity, finesse, and atmosphere are colours designers paint with, just as surely as they are for writers.


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