Judging books by their covers, literally

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[Emily Potts] Brian Singer, principal of the design studio Altitude in San Francisco, is the author and designer of Rockport Publishers’ latest title, The Best of Cover Design, which features nearly 300 book, magazine, catalog and annual report covers. Here Singer describes the arduous task of selecting the best covers to include and why print is and always will be relevant.

Spread from The Best of Cover Design. Covers by Mucca Design/Erica Heitman-Ford (left), Base Art (middle), Jens Magnusson (right).

How do you determine what makes a great cover vs. a good cover? What are the criteria?
The obvious criteria include concept, visual impact, and ability to stand out amongst the competition. Oftentimes, the simple act of wanting to pick a book up served as a barometer for success. On the other hand, it was important to look at the target market and understand the context within which the cover would be seen. A magazine rack is a different environment than direct mail. Conveying information about an organization or business can be different than selling a novel. And some of the covers were just perfect in their conceptual simplicity, such as John Gall’s cover for The Book of Dead Philosophers, or Ayako Akazawa’s cover for The Underachiever’s Manifesto.

The experience of having to choose illustrated two main points for me. First, there’s a lot of crap out there. A lot. More importantly, the process showed me that successful design solutions always rise to the top. We’re inundated with so many messages today — advertising, product placement, e-mail, chat, twitter — that it’s getting more and more difficult to break through and connect with someone. Good covers — well, great covers — can still do that.

Spread from The Best of Cover Design. Cover by Tomato Kosir.

What was the selection process like for this book?
It was a mess. When there’s no entry fee, people send in anything and everything.

The first step was to sort through the masses of entries and generate a selection of “maybes.” This group was still quite large, but we used it to determine possible categories for the book. Do we organize by style? Format? Color? Many of our original organizational ideas were scrapped, because the work didn’t support them. In the end we opted for a fairly standard categorization based on type of cover. Next, we went through the entries again, with the totality of the book in mind, eliminating more covers. There were a few arguments at the studio, but no arm-wrestling, as we narrowed the final list.

Spread from The Best of Cover Design. Covers by Design Ranch (left) and Paper Plane Studio/Jennifer Bostic (right).

Was it difficult narrowing down the selection?
It was difficult from a curatorial perspective. In one instance, there were two series of Vladimir Nabokov books that were submitted. They were both excellent, but we only chose one series for inclusion. We also received a lot of student work, some of which was amazing, but we decided that this book should be limited to professionals … it’s easy to do great covers when you don’t have to deal with CEOs, publishers and sales teams. Plus, ensuring a good variety of work, from both stylistic and geographic points of view, required a bit of juggling.

Spread from The Best of Cover Design. Covers, from upper left clockwise, by John Gall, Paul Sahre, Yentus & Booher, Stephen Doyle, Michael Bierut, Rodrigo Corral, Carol Devine Carson, Appetite Engineers/Martin Venezky.

With the advent of more and more online pubs and fewer print pubs, did you feel the entries were lacking?
There were definitely some categories that were lacking. With more digital solutions, we saw fewer annual reports, brochures and catalogs. The print budgets for pieces also seemed reduced.

What is it about printed pubs that make them so special to you?
There’s a tactile experience that you can’t get with digital media. Granted, digital media has a lot to offer — interactivity, personalization, analytics — but sometimes you crave that physical connection, flipping through pages, or discovering the temperature-sensitive ink on Jordan Crane and Brian McMullen’s cover for McSweeney’s Issue #35. As things continue to move into the digital realm, I think it’s just going to increase the value of printed pieces.

“Disappearing ink” cover for McSweeney’s Issue 35.

Do you collect magazines and books? What are your favorites and why?
Of course I do. I mostly collect books, design magazines and well-designed collateral pieces. Nothing can replace a wall of Communications Arts magazines, or the short-lived Critique magazine. I’m still in the market for a complete set of COLORS magazines, from when Tibor Kalman was art directing. If anyone has them for sale, let’s talk.

Find The Best of Cover Design at Rockport Publishers, here or at your local bookseller.

Emily Potts is the acquisitions editor at Rockport Publishers.

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