The Academy of British Cover Design hosted its third annual awards at the beginning of March, championing the best in British book livery. Co-founders Jamie Keenan and Jon Gray tell Danny Arter how ABCD came to be and why its awards evening is unique.
"We don’t pretend to know what we’re doing,” Jamie Keenan laughs. “We are making this up as we go along.” He is talking of ABCD, the Academy of British Cover Design, which he co-founded with fellow designer Jon Gray, ahead of the group’s third annual awards, which were held on Thursday 3rd March in Hoxton, east London.
“Even calling it the ‘Academy of British Cover Design’, that was a complete joke,” Keenan adds, “and yet people have taken it very seriously. It is just something we dreamt up in a pub one night—it’s not meant to mean anything.” Gray interjects: “It’s just an excuse for a piss-up in a bar, basically...with some slides.”
Appropriately, we meet in a pub near the pair’s Dalston studio, from which they freelance for a breadth of clients, ranging from international behemoths to independent authors. The pair decided to birth ABCD after becoming disillusioned with other design awards’ insularity. “Design competitions are usually expensive to enter; you send your stuff in and you’re not part of the process. Ours is the opposite of that: it’s free, everyone takes part, everyone has a vote,” Keenan says. Last week’s awards covered the calendar year 2015, with everyone in attendance on the night able to vote (anonymously) for their favourite cover design in 10 categories. Ten judges (five male, five female) compiled the 10 shortlists (of six designs, or 12 in the case of Non-Fiction, which has “ballooned”, Gray says) from almost 1,000 entries. The judging panel comprised art directors and designers, many of whom work for some of the country’s most esteemed publishers; and on the night, cover designer and Central St Martins lecturer Clare Skeats rallied a team of student volunteers to perform the vital vote-counting.
(From left) Jamie Keenan and Jon Gray, co-founders of the Academy of British Cover Design.
The awards’ submissions policy is open - very open. E-books are permitted, self-published books are allowed and anyone can enter, and this, Gray says, underpins ABCD’s philosophy: “We want it to be a way of bringing book designers together, and what better way to do that than to say, let’s talk about our favourite work from the year and give pats on the back to people who maybe don’t get the recognition they should get.”
“Inclusivity is the key, really,” Keenan says. “We feel there is no point winning unless you feel like everyone has taken part. It’s a bit like winning the Champions League when you were the only team in it that year - it’s a bit meaningless.”
Considering the number (which has grown in each of its three years) and calibre of entrants, the simile is not far from the mark. Gray says: “Originally we thought certain publishers might be snooty about it and not want to get involved, but it’s been the opposite. They have all embraced it, really.”
Judging design by committee
Keenan and Gray are, in many respects, the ideal arbiters of such awards: both are enormously respected within the trade for their expressive, offbeat and inventive cover art; and neither are exclusively affiliated to a single publisher. But the pair are keen to play down their involvement, or more accurately, their influence. “I think people often assume that somehow me and Jamie are involved in the voting,” Gray says, “when actually we do nothing apart from punt out a folder of jpegs to 10 judges. From the outset, we didn’t want anything to do with the judging, we just wanted to set this thing up, basically as a reaction to the fact that we felt like the work that was done in our industry didn’t really get any sort of acknowledgement. The majority of publishing is obsessed with words rather than pictures, so we don’t really feel part of that. We don’t have the kind of events and awards that [other areas of publishing do].”
If inclusivity is the key, I wonder, do Keenan and Gray enter their own designs - or each other’s? Gray replies: “For the last two years certainly, we have thought about not entering our work...but it sort of flies in the face of what the whole thing was set up for.”
“I think we have to enter, really,” Keenan says, “because we feel like it should be everyone.” Gray continues: “It should be a fair representation of that year. A lot of your work people don’t like, and if you make it onto a shortlist, everyone there on the night has the choice to say: ‘No, this is shit.’”
The full package
ABCD tends to recognise and reward brave, striking and fresh approaches, rather than more “conventional” cover aesthetics. I ask the pair whether they feel designers have more freedom these days; whether, as books become imbibed with more longevity and are seen as less disposable, publishers are more amenable to the idea of cover art as art, rather than as a marketing tool. They are reticent; Keenan responds: “It’s strange, because when you do see a weirdo cover - for a reason, not just for the sake of it - quite often they are really successful. If you think of a book as an actual package and compare that to other forms of packaging, its really old-fashioned in a lot of ways.
“Imagine a poster for, say, the next iPhone, and it has a quote on it like you’d see on a book cover - ‘this is the best phone I have ever had!’ - you just think, this is so old-fashioned, that kind of endorsement idea. On a book cover it’s the norm. A lot of advertising you see, you aren’t really sure what it’s for but it draws you in, whereas a lot of book covers are really overt - they tell you exactly what the book is about. We’re supposedly becoming more and more visually literate, but book covers are still, in some ways, quite naïve.”
Gray concurs: “It feels like a real nervous habit, the quote on the front. Is that really helping a book to be sold? Can [shoppers] not just read that on the back and get the same idea...on the front, is it really making someone think: ‘aha!’?”
“The greatest and the worst thing about book cover design is that no one really knows if it’s incredibly powerful or a complete waste of time,” Keenan says. “Quite often when you get a brief, you’ll be sent other covers that the [client] likes and some of them will look absolutely terrible...but it was a bestselling book! So that automatically becomes, in their eyes, a sort of ‘good cover’.”
“There’s no science to it,” Gray agrees. But having cast their eyes over a barrage of entries for three consecutive years, the duo must see trends emerging, patterns forming? “We do feel that everything is becoming a bit Young Adult, don’t we?” Keenan prompts; “I think that there is a definite change towards simple colours and the like,” Gray responds, “everything is sort of mulching towards the middle a bit, as if no one wants to completely define what the book is.”
“Even on the most horrific-sounding book - a history of torture implements used by the Nazis - the cover will be jingly-jangly hand-drawn type,” Keenan quips.
With that in mind, I ask which of the awards’ categories throws up the most entertaining entries? “There are so many different rules of genre that sort of dictate why people design things as they are. An academic book, the criteria for designing it is totally different to designing a cookery book, or a historical book,” Gray says. “My favourite section is always classics and reissues,” Keenan answers. “I think that’s the strongest. You can do things on a cover that, if you were to do on a first-time novel, people would say, ‘Why has it got this?’, or ‘What does that mean?’ You don’t just have the book to play with, you have the whole history around the book, you have the fact that it’s a well-loved book. You have total freedom, in a way.”
“David Pearson’s 1984, for instance, is an amazing cover, isn’t it?” Gray says. “You couldn’t get away with that on a new book...could you?”