In depth: cover design

In depth: cover design

At an event entitled “Do You Judge a Book By Its Cover?” at the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier this month, Claire Ward, creative director at Transworld, showed the audience six potential cover designs the publisher considered for Jo Baker’s début novel Longbourn.

Out in August, the book gives the downstairs perspective on the upstairs goings-on in Pride & Prejudice. With the aid of small keypads pressed into their hands on arrival, audience members were asked to vote for their favourite.

The cover designs above [pictured l/r] emerged as the clear favourites, with 22% and 23% of the vote respectively. And which cover design had Transworld actually chosen? Number two.  

Later, I asked Ward—a highly experienced designer, responsible for such distinctive covers as Dan Brown’s Inferno, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep—why she thought the audience had particularly favoured those two treatments. “With number two, I think they were reacting to the pink colour. And number three probably appealed to those who like to have a character on the cover.”

The appeal of pink

Why might they like pink? What is it about seeing a human face on a cover which seems to trigger a positive reaction? The ability to tap into these sort of psychological responses could be increasingly useful—both for publishers and for those pesky retailers who also like to have a say in what a book looks like.

Bookshops are, as Waterstones m.d. James Daunt—who also spoke at the Cheltenham event—acknowledged, increasingly reliant on the sort of impulsive, visually influenced purchases customers do not make online. Daunt showed slides to demonstrate the precise attention that Waterstones is now giving to the eye candy appeal of face-out display stands and tables, even down to curating an enticing mix of colours. But what if we applied some science to the art?

“It’s clear that our instant reaction to a book cover can be the difference between picking a book up and not picking it up,” says neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian, the third member of the Cheltenham panel and professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at Cambridge University. Her primary research field is the neural basis of cognitive, emotional and behavioural dysfunction, with the aim of developing better treatments for such conditions as Alzheimer’s, depression, Obessive Compulsive Disorder and substance addiction.

The neural basis of our decision-making is central to Sahakian’s work, and in her recently published book Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong and the Ethics of Smart Drugs (OUP), Sahakian and her co-author Jamie Nicole Labuzetta introduce the concept of “hot” and “cold” decision making.

To summarise, cold cognitive decisions are rational ones: those which do not have an emotional component and do not involve conflicts between rewards and punishment. In the context of books, says Sahakian, this could play out in the choice between two guides to Italy, or two manuals designed to get you through your driving test.

Hot cognitive decisions are those which involve an emotional response, one that can entail a conflict between reward and punishment, or some form of risky behaviour. “In terms of books, it means choosing much more on the basis of appearance,” says Sahakian. “It’s a risk because the reward may be great but so might the punishment. But once we have had an emotional response to a book jacket, it can be hard to resist.”

The science bit

I was interested to learn that these hot and cold decisions are made in different parts of the brain. Cold cognitive responses, Sahakian says, take place in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, that is, more towards the top of the head (giving the lie to the expression “off the top of my head”), while hot cognitive decisions are made in the orbital frontal cortex. Its position, right behind the orbit of the eyes, emphasises the visual basis of many such decisions.

“The orbital frontal cortex has very close links to the amygdala, the most emotional and primitive part of the brain,” Sahakian adds. “A disturbing or arresting image such as a human face can trigger a powerful fight/flight response in the amygdala.” I think immediately of Ward’s striking—and now serially aped—cover design for Before I Go Sleep. Barbara Sahakian loves the cover of her own book, Bad Moves. “I’ve been told that images of pills are intuitively interesting, and always draw people’s attention.”

But if our amygdala senses danger when our eyes home in on a book jacket, why would we go then go ahead and buy the book? “Because it’s controlled excitement. Why do we watch horror films or read thrillers? Books can give our brains risk-free excitement”.

Sahakian is a keen reader of crime and thrillers herself, “but as a parent I can’t cope with child murder. I prefer to have adults murdered. Otherwise my amygdala gets too active”. She is, she says as susceptible to book covers as anyone. “When I go into bookshops, I’m not thinking about my brain’s neurological responses. I’m relaxing.”

Head versus heart

A hot cognitive response to a book cover will only sometimes be enough to secure a purchase on its own, but if a cover design gets a customer to pick a book up, then, as Ward puts it, “my job is done”. According to Sahakian, at this point “cognitive dissonance” kicks in, where you need to get rid of any ambiguity in your decision to buy a book. I take this to mean that the blurb, and perhaps the opening pages, need to confirm the initial “hot” response to the cover.

Sahakian quotes online research carried out by website The Book Smugglers which found that of 616 readers questioned, 79% thought that the cover of a book played a decisive role in their decision to purchase, and when asked if they would buy a book they knew nothing about if it caught their eye, 78% said “yes” or “maybe”.

Ward is sceptical. “The point is surely that different individuals respond in different ways. We’ve started using consumer insight which shows this is the case. I’m not a massive fan of it but it gives me a starting point. Some people respond better to an ‘emotive’ cover, and others to what we’d call a ‘persuasive’ cover, one that might tap into their love of a certain genre. You have to decide who you’re going to try to sell a book to. I don’t think that is a science—and even if it is, it’s never going to be an exact science.”

Despite the increasing importance of cover aesthetics, Ward is also reluctant to subject them to too much analysis. “It can cause more trouble than it’s worth and can stifle the design process. It might sound a bit cheesy but I think designers should largely be left alone to design from the heart. Ultimately, as long as we have great designers, we don’t really need answers.”

So understanding the precise psychological effect a book cover has on a potential buyer may not be as useful as it first appears. In any case, it is very difficult to deconstruct, even with the input of eminent neuro-scientists. But the very phrase, “design from the heart” reveals there is something instinctive about the process. Get a cover right, and there is no doubt that the emotional response of the orbital frontal cortex runs deep.

How S J Watson went worldwide

Given the cultural and marketing differences throughout the world, very rarely do book jackets which are iconic in one territory go global. Think of the various Harry Potters that have graced covers throughout the globe; some wildly different even in markets which one would think had similar sensibilities. For example, illustrator Thomas Taylor’s original cover for Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had a rather worried-looking Harry in front of the Hogwarts Express, while Mary GrandPré, the illustrator for Scholastic’s US version, had a more confident-looking Harry zooming through columns on a broom while catching the Quidditch snitch.   

A rare recent example of all-territory conquering jackets was E L James’ Fifty Shades series, where the James-designed livery was used in almost every market. Even German publisher Goldmann, which decided to produce its own jackets with red flower imagery bowed to the power of the Fifty Shades brand by inserting images of the English-language original jacket on the covers.

Transworld creative director Claire Ward’s treatment for S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, while not matching the Fifty Shades global ubiquity, has been aped in a huge number of territories, some directly, some with slight moderations such as  Italy’s Piemme  and Poland’s Sonia Draga. Indeed, so effective is the eye image that Ambo Anthos in the Netherlands took the bold step of removing all text from the cover.

Some of the other treatments, while presumably working in their home markets, do not seem as effective. HarperCollins’ US jacket is quite frankly a bit of a cluttered mess, but not as sloppy as the Greek cover by Psichogios Press, which renames the title Amnesia. Random House Mondadori, which uses the same image as the US, also changes the title to Trust No One. Germany’s Scherz goes for a more abstract route, using a moth (a symbol of sleep), while Turkey’s Dogan’s cover is just plain disturbing.     

Tom Tivnan