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Sunday, December 11, 2011

How designers are helping to keep the old format alive

Towards the end of his Booker Prize-winning speech, Julian Barnes paid the following compliment to the designer of his novel's jacket: "Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you may think of its contents, will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we've come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying, and something worth keeping. So my final expression of gratitude is to the best book designer in town, Suzanne Dean."

Dean herself, creative director at Random House, perhaps unsurprisingly concurs with his sentiments. "I personally spend all day in front of a computer screen," she says. "The last thing I want to do at night is sit in front of another to read my book. I want the real thing." Dean has been a designer for 18 years now, and has created some of our most iconic books, among them Ian McEwan's Atonement, Bret Easton Ellis's Glamorama and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

She's not alone. Despite the inexorable rise in popularity of the e-book – 115 Kindle editions now sold for every 100 paperbacks – more and more people are coming out in support of the increasingly old-fashioned physical one, the one still made out of trees, with real fold-downable pages, and, on its jacket, lovingly crafted, bold designs. And thank God for that.

I myself am a book obsessive; I love everything about them the feel, the heft, the smell. I relish the sense of ownership that comes from cracking the spine of a new one, and I fail to see how a bunch of icons on a small electronic pad could ever compare to indulging in that most guilty of pretensions – standing in front of our bookshelves and imagining that our collections say all sorts of things about the kind of people we think we are.

I got rid of my entire CD collection recently (the vinyl went years earlier) in order to donate more space for my books. And while I am happy, now, to have my still-cherished music live quite comfortably inside my computer, I can never imagine the day when I will do to my hundreds of paperbacks what I so airily did to my thousands of CDs.

A big part of any publisher's annual calendar is the republication of classics, the bringing of new eyes to old texts. Currently, they achieve this by redesigning the author's backlist, both handsomely and daringly. How do you do that on a Kindle?

Dean isn't the only one attempting to keep the physical book alive. Here are four more of the best jacket designers in the business.

A book designer for 12 years now, Nathan Burton worked for Harry Potter publishers Bloomsbury, before becoming an independent. He has designed the jackets for Zadie Smith, Michel Houellebecq and James Kelman.

"Literary fiction is my favourite to work on," he says, "because unlike with crime fiction, say, or mass-market women's fiction, you get to be really creative, and that throws up all sorts of surprises." Perhaps surprisingly, Burton owns a Kindle himself. "I did feel guilty buying one," he admits, "but it's great to take on holiday. I do still definitely prefer books though. If I've read something on Kindle that I really like, I go out and buy a copy. I hope that's what everybody else does, too."

Regarded by many in the industry as the king of the designers, Chip Kidd has spent the past 25 years creating the visual identity for some of America's best writers: Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Cormac McCarthy. He has just designed the US jacket for Haruki Murakami's celebrated IQ84.

"It's a deliberately complicated design," he says, "and not just on the jacket, but across the opening pages, and even in the numbers of the pages themselves. The aim here was to celebrate the book as an object."

Many consider that Kidd has elevated the process into an artform.

He smiles. "Well, that's debatable. Jacket design is ultimately a piece of art serving a more important piece of art: the writing itself."

If most authors crave a Kidd design, not all of them are immediately easy to please. "I did about five jackets for Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child," he says. "He didn't care for the first four."

Arguably the UK's answer to Chip Kidd, Jonathan Gray – or Gray318 – is the go-to designer for a truly bespoke jacket. Twenty years in the industry, he shot to fame in 2002 with his arresting work on Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, and has since designed for Nick Hornby, Scarlett Thomas and Roald Dahl.

"Originally, design was very much about finding a lovely photograph for the jacket," he says. "I like creating more of a brand, a logo for the book. I'm a big fan of text, and of pushing that text to the limits of legibility. I don't want to give a literal sense of the book's subject, but more a flavour."

Unlike many of his peers, Gray celebrates this current evolution in publishing. "It's an incredibly exciting time," he says. "It doesn't bother me that people are finding a new way to read. Film survived video, didn't it? Well, traditional books will survive e-books as well. We need to embrace it rather than worry about it."

After graduating from design college in the mid-1990s, Greg Heinimann struggled to break into the world of graphic design. "I got a job in a bookstore instead, and that paved the way into the book industry," he says.

Learning his craft under Suzanne Dean at Random House, he now works at Bloomsbury. He also illustrated, for the publisher Corsair, Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad.

"I love being able to reinterpret a book that already has a strong visual image for readers," he says of his recent redesign of Will Self's backlist. "Will's books were very aligned to the illustrations of Ralph Steadman, so it was a challenge to go in a different direction altogether."

Heinimann doesn't much relish seeing his work shrunk to thumbprints on a screen, but believes that, "it may mean we start designing apps as well. If nothing else, that'll mean more work."

Nick Duerden -

Additional Resource:
You can design your own book covers; take graphic design college classes to learn the best techniques.


  1. As much as I enjoy the technology- to me there is nothing more exciting that opening a new book that I can't wait to read. I love it when it's just me and the pages; the smell, the feel-the whole experience. I cherish my books, which I have been collecting since I could read. ~ Jess

  2. I totally agree. I am resisting the new ebooks, and still love the feel of a real book in my hands. Thanks for joining my It's a Wonderful Life Planet Weidknecht Weekend Hop!

  3. Please note that I'm following you from my other Google profile because blogger won't let me follow anymore from this one. It says I'm following too many.

  4. I completely and strongly agree. I just don't see what's so great about having e-books than a physical book copy. You don't get touch it. Don't get to flip the pages. Don't get the smell of the pages. I don't like it.
    Especially when the reading devices start acting up and I lose my page. Horrible.
    Even though I love my environment, I can't help but thank the trees for their precious paper for the books.I love my books, the physical copy. I love waking up and going to sleep after seeing the book cover in front of me. (:


Always lovely to hear your comments xx

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