Typographic Book Covers

Roberto Bolano, "The Savage Detectives," cover by Rodrigo Corral

In a recent post about the timing of cover design in the publication process, I mentioned a colleague’s comment that typographic covers have the potential to wow just as much as those that feature a photograph or other illustrative art. To learn more, I put some questions to some design and marketing professionals.

When is a book cover given the typographic treatment? Is it a second-class choice?

“Definitely not, from a marketing point of view,” says Levi Stahl, promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. “Sometimes a typographic cover is simply the best way to present the book: If you’ve got a great title that clearly conveys the book’s subject, sometimes it’s better not to distract from that with an image. Or if the book’s subject is complicated but its title is clear, an image can be difficult to settle on and can be distracting.”

Even when the title lacks pizazz, typography can deliver it. Andrea F. Bucsi, a freelance book designer in Chicago, points out that “covers which are not designed well create a reputation for typographic covers as boring and uninteresting.” In her experience authors and editors sometimes even request a typographic cover. Not that it’s the easy way out: Although she loves to do them, Ms. Bucsi notes that they are especially challenging. “Every nuance counts—the right typeface and size, the layout. There are no images to do the work.”

Although images are typically thought to be the most powerful way to convey even abstract ideas, Matt Avery, principal designer at the University of Chicago Press, explains that “some subjects are so abstract or esoteric—commonly the case with scholarly titles—that they don’t have a ready real-world or visual analog. Foisting imagery on subjects like that can seem awkward and forced, causing the cover to stumble. It can be better to let language do the work in such cases.” He adds that typography, while meant to be read, is itself an image: “So a strong typographic cover invites the viewer to not only read the words but to look at them.”

Can you give an example of a typographic cover you admire? What’s so good about it?

Ms. Bucsi: “The Typographic Manual of Giambattista Bodoni, although it is not a cover,  is my great inspiration. I never get tired looking at it. It’s a  two-volume work, published in the early 1800′s, and it contains an amazing array of roman alphabets, with corresponding italics, numerous script and exotic typefaces, and a beautiful collection of flowers and ornaments.


Giambattista Bodoni, "Il manuale tipographico"


“I also like the Eastern European typographic covers from the sixties and seventies—they were beautiful and stark.  From contemporary book design I like very much Isaac Tobin’s cover for The War on Words, by Michael T. Gilmore. It is very strong but also refined and immediately signals the content area by the type treatment.”


Michael T. Gilmore's "The War on Words," cover by Isaac Tobin


Mr. Stahl: “Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.” Designed by Rodrigo Corral  and lettered by Jennifer Van Dalsan, this fiction title would seem to have endless possibilities for illustration, yet type won out over other choices of art. “I love this cover,” said Mr. Stahl. “The type is doing so much work: It’s fractured and stressed and swirling, and it’s suggestive of a mood and a tone and an energy that’s very much in keeping with the novel itself.”

Mr. Stahl believes that fiction lends itself especially well to the typographic treatment: “It leaves more to the imagination, which is the whole point. It draws you in, but then it puts you back on your own resources.”

Mr. Avery points to the covers of the Great Ideas Series from Penguin:


Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"; cover by David Pearson


“Quotes from the actual text were brought out onto many of the covers. That this conceit could be stretched across so many books so successfully with each title still standing on its own is a testament to the possibilities of the purely typographic treatment. I especially like the Emerson and Proust covers by David Pearson and the Plutarch cover by David Pearson and Catherine Dixon.”


Marcel Proust, "Days of Reading"; cover by David Pearson


Plutarch, "In Consolation to His Wife"; cover by David Pearson and Catherine Dixon


As for me, I have no idea what sells, but one that makes me smile is the basically typographical cover Shaun Allshouse designed for my colleague Joseph G. Peterson’s latest novel, Wanted: Elevator Man. I like the way it conveys the tone of the writing itself: dark but playful.


Joseph G. Peterson's "Wanted: Elevator Man"; cover by Shaun Allshouse


All this might lead you to wonder what considerations come into play when a title is issued in e-book format, and the cover designer no longer has control over the size, color, or resolution of the end product. But rather than task my colleagues, I’ll point you to a provocative essay by the independent designer Craig Mod, “Hack the Cover!” in which he considers whether e-books need covers at all.


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