David Pearson: Treasure Island (illustration by Stanley Donwood)

Work / Opinion

Do you have to have read a book in order to design its cover?

Last week an interesting Twitter debate sprang up after a comment by graphic designer Andy Pressman who admitted that on a recent series he worked on it wasn’t always possible to read the books before designing the covers. So we decided to speak to a few other book cover designers and find out where they stand on this apparently quite divisive design issue; as ever you can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

Andy Pressman, Rumors – Fiction yes, non-fiction no

It’s important here to distinguish between designing covers for fiction, and designing covers for non-fiction. The best fiction covers are interpretations of the reading experience, not of the plot, so whenever possible these books want to be read in full prior to the design process. Sometimes material constraints like time or a non-existent manuscript make this impossible, and the designer must resort to another approach. But fiction wants to be read in full. Non-fiction isn’t as slippery, nor requires as nuanced an approach. Most non-fiction titles are arguments of one sort or another — it’s not always necessary to read the book in full to understand the argument or tackle it in the design.


Rumors: Verso Books

David Pearson – If possible

Ideally you would read the book – key themes and ideas present themselves so readily that way – but it’s important to remember that the book isn’t always written by the time a designer is summoned. Often, we receive only the vague promise of a book, with design work regularly taking place before a title is even settled on (one of the disadvantages of the cover having to be produced so far in advance of the publishing date). In this instance, it is up to the designer to speak to the book’s editor or, better still, the author to build a sense of the book’s tone and temperature.


David Pearson: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Coralie Bickford-Smith – Yes

I am most certainly in the reading the book camp; the cover is there to serve the content, so the content has to be taken into account. I design a lot of classics so the text is always available, but for other types of books this not always the case so I always devour whatever is available to read. Otherwise where do the ideas come from? Personally I cannot work without immersing myself in the text. My design is built on layers of meaning and relevance to the writing. I get a sense of purpose and enjoyment from this process that would otherwise be devoid of passion. 


Coralie Bickford-Smith: A Room Of One’s Own

Christoph Niemann – In theory yes

My answer is a resounding “However, but, yet."

In theory I would say yes, one should read the book. But only in theory. As opposed to an editorial illustration, a book cover is not supposed to necessarily reflect the story or even the main idea (at least when it comes to novels). In the best of worlds it’s like a self-sustaining piece of art that accentuates the personality of the book. In my experience, having read the book actually makes this more difficult (even worse when I really like the book). Then I’m tempted to do justice to everything that happened to the book and (even worse), try to be smart about the overall gist of the book. This usually isn’t helpful for creating a strong cover.

Having a great art director and a (visually literate!) editor is crucial. They should know the book inside out and then find a designer/illustrator that they can convey the essence of the book to and whom they trust to create something that’s not intimidated by the book, but more like a visual spouse.


Christoph Niemann: Abstract City

Jamie Keenan – It depends

I think the idea of having to read a book before you design its cover is exaggerated a little bit. Some kinds of books – especially ideas books – have one central concept that you need to somehow get across and reading 300 pages of a manuscript won’t really help and if you’re working on a real classic, you generally know what the book involves without ever having to read it. But when it comes to most fiction, reading is almost always the only way to find out not only the references in the book you’ll need to work with, but the general tone of the book and who it should be aimed at. Reading books is all about creating images in your head, so it makes sense that cover designers would use that as a starting point.


Jamie Keenan: Bleeding London

Linda Huang – Yes (Most of the time)

For me, reading the book serves three functions:

1. Pragmatic: To know what to convey on the cover and how to execute it.
2. Psychological: To feel more confident about my design choices.
3. Philosophical: To show the author some respect by (at least) getting acquainted with their work, to approach each book uniquely, and to contribute to literature in my own small way.

Generally, I think the designer should read as much of the book as they can, given time is the biggest constraint. The direct experience of reading generates ideas that are impossible to gather from a secondary source (i.e. the editor, the tip sheet, or a review). There might be a particularly gravid scene, detail, object, or metaphor that becomes the seed for the cover. The more of the book the designer reads, the richer the tools they have to play with.

I feel better about my design choices if I understand the book, and to understand the book I have to read it. But it’s not as black and white as that. There are certain books that designers do not have to diligently read before designing the cover: most non-fiction; classic, philosophical, and political tomes that may be beyond the designer’s understanding; mass-market and genre books.

Reading the book does not automatically lead to a good design, but it’s the best you can do in preparation for it. It only becomes a hindrance when you attempt to excessively analyse books whose covers do not warrant it, thereby failing to distill the message into a visual moment. Book covers are meant to suggest their content and pique a reader’s interest, not regurgitate or over-complicate.


Linda Huang: Facing The Wave