Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Art of Designing a Book
#language & literature
default, Judging a Book by Its Cover:
The Art of Designing a Book, Cover of the book ‘VeryGraphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century’, made by hand in various colour schemes, graphic design by Kuba Sowiński, photo:, center, verygraphic_063.jpg
It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but… By working on the visual side of books, graphic designers, illustrators and typographers help create the perfect reading experience. Magda Burdzyńska, Ola Niepsuj, Przemek Dębowski and Kuba Sowiński tell Culture.pl how they approach the written word.
Graphic designer Kuba Sowiński says:
Designing books isn’t that different from other kinds of design. A lot also depends on the type of the book – fiction is designed differently than guidebooks, for instance. Probably the only rule that’s one can’t to ignore is that somebody’s going to read the book and we shouldn’t make it more difficult for them.
How do they design?
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In the 1990s, Jost Hochuli, a Swiss typographer and author who writes about design, formulated fourteen criteria for judging a book including: matching the font and the content; the proportions between the text and the illustrations; the printing method and the kind of paper used; or even the ‘correct orientation of the fibre in the main body and the endpaper’, he underlined the integral character of the book and its functional character. But how does one design something that matches these criteria? Let’s dive in.
Przemek Dębowski, a graphic designer, publisher and the co-founder of Karakter Publishing House, explains:
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Let’s divide books into those made for reading and those made for looking at. The rules deal mostly with the former, because you have to meet some ergonomic requirements: the text must be legible, which means you should be able to absorb it with no difficulty. It should also be composed in a way that makes the layout of the page arise from its content and that emphasises its meaning.
Dębowski could give you a list: footnotes – easy to find on the page; titles – more pronounced than the main text; calculations and tables – distinguished in some way, etc. This is all done to make communication more efficient. Stating the obvious? Perhaps. But what would the reader say if the footnotes resembled image captions or if the ill-designed page numeration was all too easily mistaken for the numeration of the footnotes (those pesky footnotes) and the poorly set-apart quotes blended with the main text? Designer, we have a problem.
Sowiński points to the sin of neglect committed by those commissioning the book designs:
In fiction, publishers rarely see anything other than the cover, but books should be designed as a whole.
A coherent concept – this is exactly what Hochuli wrote about and what is written (or at least should be written) in bold in books about the art of design. Legendary Polish illustrator Bohdan Butenko always said that books should be created like sweaters: from start to finish. This provides the best end result. Magda Burdzyńska, a graphic designer and illustrator, argues:
A book is above all an object, a consistent whole. All of the elements are of the same importance: the typography, the layout, the colour and the materials – not only the content.
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We should remember that, unlike commercials or posters, the existence of a book is stretched over time, and we judge the cover at least twice: in the bookstore and after reading, and these are two different perspectives.
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The covers of: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Aleksander Dumas, ‘The Doll’ by Bolesław Prus, and ‘Tartuffe, Don Juan, The Misanthrope’ by Molière from the series ’50 Books for the 50 Years of the Znak Publishing House’, designed by Kuba Sowiński, photo: courtesy of the designer
The reader evaluates the publication, but does not always value the work of the designer who made sure the experience of reading was comfortable and pleasurable. As Dębowski puts it:
Only after we go a level below, by looking at how the text appears on its own, will we be able to establish some basic physical properties which determine whether the book is easy to read or not.
The devil is in the details
First up: the font size.
Too small and people with weaker eyesight will have a problem with distinguishing the shape of the words. Too big and the entire thing will seem clumsy and ill-formed.
Second: the line spacing, or the vertical distance between the lines.
Again: too small will make it difficult for the eye to move from line to line. If the line spacing is too large, we will lose the sense of continuity of the text.
Third: the margins, or ‘how the block of text sits on the page, or rather on the centrefold’.
And a short math lesson:
A typical layout has the bottom margin twice as big as the top one and the outer margin twice as big as the inner one. The optimal proportions between the inner, top, outer and bottom margins equal 2:3:4:6.
And a quick side note: in the Middle Ages, it was Catholic monks who were responsible for the survival of Europe’s written word. They valued silence, so when transcribing book after book, they could express their emotions only in the margins of the pages. In The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Keith Houston gave this example of their scribbling:
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Writing is an excessive toil. The back hunches, the eyesight weakens, the sides and the stomach turn.
There are many more theories on the proportions of the margins:
All considerations can be summed up only by the various works on the harmonious and non-harmonious proportions of the page. The subject has been discussed ever since the Middle Ages. In the 20th century, it was studied by Jan Tschichold, first in the 1920s and then in the 1940s and 1950s. Each time, he gave two conflicting answers: one radical, revolutionary and modernist, the other extremely classicist and conservative – both very pretty.
It is clear that everything counts. Dębowski sums up:
The point is to have maximum legibility with the minimum of means. The explanations and the conventions we choose are up to us. What’s important, is to be consistent in one’s choices and to leave as little as possible to chance. Personally, I align everything with micrometre precision. Obviously, nobody’s going to see that and everything’s going to get messed up during printing anyway, but I can at least sleep peacefully.
In Krótka Instrukcja Projektowania Ksiażki (A Short Instruction on Book Design, a presentation given during the Strefa Designu event organised by the SWPS University in Warsaw), Honza Zamojski compared designing to sculpting – the process of subtracting content from a complete or imagined material in order to reach its essence.
Sowiński discourages thinking about the stereotypical understanding of creativity as ‘formalistic madness’. He explains:
Creativity in design is simply the ability to solve problems and to think outside the box, which means, for example, abstaining from something and not overusing paint or giving up on functionality. The map of the London Underground by Harry Beck is the epitome of creativity and, at the same time, it solves a trivial ergonomic problem by saving space.
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Magda Burdzyńska, responsible, among others, for the artistic design of Culture.pl's publication Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words, begins the process of designing a book as soon as she learns its title and subject matter: ‘I first see it as a colour and it’s the colour that is important for me during the design process. I like to use it to set the tone, surprise the reader and evoke a certain mood in them.’
She enjoys hand-picking the materials which emphasise the character of the publications: ‘I’m obsessed with paper, its smell, its texture. The broad offering currently present on the market allows me to experiment.’ She considers it a mistake when the clients prepare print specifications before they even see the design: ‘The choice is often reduced to chalk overlay paper and a foil-laminated cover. And it should be the other way round – it’s the layout, the content and the subject matter that determine the choice of material.’
Thanks to the carefully composed colours, the contrast and the geometric shapes, sometimes as if in motion, her works appear to be three-dimensional. While designing covers, she wants to be provocative: ‘I love rebellious design.’ She makes sure that the book has something unique, ‘a surprise, a detail such as a centrefold, a peculiar play of colours, a stencil or something extra hidden in a pocket in the cover. Something that will make the reader never want to part with the book’.
According to the authors of PGR: Projektowanie Graficzne w Polsce (PGR: Graphic Design in Poland), Kuba Sowiński is characterised by ‘a traditionally metaphorical approach encompassed in contemporary forms’. He specialises in graphic design for publications and is a lecturer at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts. Together with Wojciech Kubiena, he runs the design studio Biuro Szeryfy (The Serif Office) and for years he was the co-creator of the design quarterly 2+3D. His name regularly appears on the list of laureates and nominees for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year Awards organised by the Polish Association of Book Publishers. In 2012, the jury awarded him with a honorary prize for his ‘exceptional contributions to the development of the art of graphic design of Polish books’.
Sowiński’s refinement is reflected in his works: they are elegant and full of character. It is worth mentioning the covers of Znak publishing house's anniversary series 50 for 50, which resemble artistic posters, as well as the book VeryGraphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century, which was chosen as one of the most beautiful publications of 2015. Its cover was hand-made in various colour schemes and its interior is just as interesting.
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Przemek Dębowski designs books for many publishing houses, including his own. A person looking for worthwhile books and design, architecture or photography inspirations (and many other topics) is bound to find Wydawnictwo Karakter sooner or later. The above-mentioned book PGR describes Dębowski as somebody who agrees with the American approach to design: ‘He chooses means of expression proper to the literary genre. Sometimes, it is a powerful picture accompanied by low-key typography. Other times, he uses minimalistic vector graphics or purely typographic solutions.’
He admits that the most difficult thing is designing books written by other graphic designers:
The awareness that somebody knows his craft and will immediately see where you settled for the easy solution or where the metaphor is a bit too obvious – it’s paralysing. I also have a feeling that I’m running out of ideas, which does not make things easier.
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Cover of the book ‘Rzeczy, Których Nie Wyrzuciłem’ (Things I Did Not Throw Away) by Marcin Wicha, cover designed by Przemek Dębowski, published by Karakter, photo: courtesy of the designer
Let’s take a look at Marcin Wicha’s collection of essays Jak Przestałem Kochać Design (How I Stopped Loving Design). It is difficult to find a review that does not mention the design of the cover or, more precisely, the dust-jacket (incidentally, it is also difficult to find the name of the designer in these discussions). Dębowski decided on design without design and it is the best kind of promotion this book could have asked for. The same can be said for the Nike Literary Prize-winning Rzeczy, Których Nie Wyrzuciłem (Things I Did Not Throw Away) – graphic designers often find themselves running out of space but not everybody is able to use this creatively. The letter ‘m’ not quite fitting on the cover is a great way of showing what the book is about.
Any tips for designing book covers? According to Dębowski:
The cover is quite a different beast and if there are any rules to its design, I don’t follow them. Imagination, empathy towards the author and my own mass of cultural knowledge and associations (long live Polish studies!) are more valuable than any pre-given recipes.
How do they illustrate?
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The grumpy woman on the cover of the short story collection Uprawa Roślin Południowych Metodą Miczurina (Growing Southern Plants Using the Michurin Method) by Weronika Murek is looking at the reader as if she were offended by the fact that somebody dared to take her out of a Rogier van der Weyden’s painting. At first glance, nothing goes together well here: the sweater does not go well with the lady, the lady with the forest, the title with the book. Even the book’s content is as if ‘separated’ from reality. And this is where the strength of this work lies. This illustration drawn by Iwona Chmielewska is a perfect introduction to the world created by the writer. This well-respected author of picture-books sometimes designs covers for fiction, but it consumes a lot of energy. As she told Sebastian Frąckiewicz in his book Ten Łokieć Źle Się Zgina (This Elbow Flexes the Wrong Way), ‘I have to accommodate the entire story in one image’.
But the cover is just that – the cover. What matters more is what is inside of the book. Ola Niepsuj, an illustrator and graphic designer, says:
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The publishers rarely decide to include illustrations in books for adults. I think that lower print runs, which means lower budgets for each book, are to blame here. There’s not enough money to pay both for printing and for the illustrations. They are also afraid that book illustrations are too strongly associated with publications for children.
Exceptions, such as the two-volume anthology of short stories written by Polish authors O Psach (About Dogs) with illustrations by Ola Niepsuj and O Kotach (About Cats) with illustrations by Gosia Herba, only seem to further validate this rule. But the two perspectives – that of the child and that of the adult – can come together, as they do, for example, in Chmielewska’s picturebooks. The Wydawnictwo Literackie publishing house invited Marianna Sztyma to illustrate Dorota Masłowska’s book Jak Zostałam Wiedźmą: Opowieść Autobiograficzna dla Dorosłych i Dzieci (How I Became A Witch: An Autobiographical Tale for Adults and Children; although it is not really that suitable for the latter). Dwie Siostry publishing house, which is well known for its books for children, also went with this trend by publishing the works of Ola Cieślak. Her Książka do Zrobienia (A Book to Be Made) uses original means of discussing book design: it talks about the author’s influence, typography and the relationship between words and images.
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Cover and illustration from Książka do Zrobienia (A Book to Be Made) by Aleskandra Cieślak, published by Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry, Warszawa 2017, photo: promotional materials from Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry
The correct proportions between the text and the illustrations give a publication its proper rhythm. Words and images are two different interpretations of the same thing, each created in the imagination of the writer or the artist. The illustration is a recreation of everything evoked by the process of reading – it is usually symbolic and enhances the influence of the work, it controls its tempo. On the one hand, it accompanies the written word. On the other, it pushes it in certain directions.
While working on the illustrations for a book, Niepsuj makes the trust she receives from the author and the publisher her top priority. Next in line, but still as important, is the imagination:
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Let’s put it in the language of illustration: I try to create a parallel reality that would be unique and distinctive. I want my drawings not to go against the world created by the author, but to expand the possibilities of interpretation and to allow the reader to escape into the world of fantasy. Illustrating scientific books is, of course, altogether different, because there, the main role of the illustration is to convey information and help in understanding and remembering it.
Picasso argued that the line is the most difficult. Even it has its own language: a narrow one speaks in a whisper, a ragged one betrays nervousness or uncertainty. A thick outline prepares to scream. The same can be said of colours: for example, intense turquoise used as a geometric speck of colour can stress the dynamic character of a crime novel while perfectly merging the illustration and the text while ensuring reading is not made more difficult. For her interpretation of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues, Ola Niepsuj decided on well-pronounced lines – her simple but expressive graphics bring out the character of the book very well.
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‘Miami Blues’ by Charles Willeford, illustration by Ola Niepsuj, 2014, published by Wydawnictwo Mundin, photo: courtesy of the designer
A distinguishing part of Niepsuj’s work are her collages: they are intriguing, surprising and full of humour. How are they created? After the first reading of a work, her notes and sketches end up on paper:
I usually prefer working with analogue media, but the consecutive steps are dependent on the project, time, and the characteristics of the production process of the finished book – that is, whether it’s going to be printed in colour or in black and white. Collages are very time-consuming, especially when it comes to changing the format, the composition, the details or the colour scheme. Designs created on a computer are easier to edit.
Despite this, Niepsuj tries to work away from the screen as much as possible.
How do they read?
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When the emotions associated with the translation of the text into a visual language are finally let go, designers are able to dive into the books designed and illustrated by others. What attracts their attention while reading?
Apart from the content? The paper and the typography used – the font, its size, the leading, the margins, etc.
When I romp around the library of my parents, I find many books aimed at adults that contain illustrations drawn by my idols – Jan Młodożeniec, Jan Lenica or Jan Dobkowski. I remember a remarkable series from State Publishing Institute PIW with covers printed on coloured paper – it was orange and grey. These books were embellished by smart black-line drawings, any of which would work great as an independent framed picture.
Many books serve as a tribute to these and many other series from the past. Some good examples include the recent, marvellous Pypcie na Języku (Spots on a Tongue) by Michał Rusinek with illustrations by Jacek Gawłowski and graphic and typographic design by Przemek Dębowski and Wojtek Kwiecień-Janikowski, or Kucając (Squatting) by Andrzej Stasiuk with illustrations by Kamil Targosz. Unfortunately, such publications are rarely on the market.
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Before I reach for a book and open it, I take a look, most importantly, at its design. I also like to touch the paper and to smell it. Recently, a friend brought me an old publication from the State Publishing Institute with graphic design by Henryk Tomaszewski – the so-called white series from the years 1981-1990. These were small, notebook-like books, with already yellowed paper, but how beautiful and consistent they were – the font, the size of the letters. Or an old edition of Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes with illustrations by Machi Abe, the wife of the author and a graphic designer. The illustrations subtly complement the content, you could feel the humidity, the stuffiness and the sand grinding on your teeth.
I’m happy that bookstores have more and more well-designed publications on offer and that publishing houses want to work with graphic designers. But it’s still only a drop in a sea of blandness.
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As a reader, I’m too melded with the designer in me to not care about the paper on which the book is printed, how it’s bound, what font was used, how the page looks, what are the indentations, whether the hyphens are transferred to the left side of the column or not, whether somebody uses narrow spaces where they should, whether CAPITAL LETTERS are written in caps or small caps… In short – I notice everything that is usually up to me to decide. That’s probably why I read most books on a Kindle, where the text looks simply hideous, so I don’t even care about how it looks.
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Originally written in Polish, April 2019, translated by Michał Wieczorek, May 2019
Sources: 'Ten łokieć źle się zgina. Rozmowy o ilustracji' by Sebastian Frąckiewicz, Wołowiec 2017; 'The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time' by Keith Houston, Polish edition, Kraków 2017; 'PGR: projektowanie graficzne w Polsce' by Jacek Mrowczyk & Michał Warda, Kraków 2010