In September, 10 titles launch the Bloomsbury Modern Classics series, the culmination of an 18-month brand evaluation that resulted in deputy art director Greg Heinimann delving back rather further into the publisher’s archive in order to give its new list a modern yet venerable look.
Heinimann dug three decades deep to excavate the original designs for the Bloomsbury logo, but says “we were obviously quite limited with that... so the logical step was to try and create a company font, and create logos and base the brand project around it”. It’s used not only on the Classics list, but also on crime imprint Raven Books and Bloomsbury Publishing titles, too.
There were two (immediate) issues: the logo was created in a pre-digital era, meaning a scanned version was the primary reference material; and the lettering was confined to the eight capital letters that formed the publisher’s original colophon. “This meant having to redraw each letter, and the rest of the alphabet, from scratch,” Heinimann explains. “Roman and italic fonts were created from the ground up, using the characteristics of the original logo.”
The style of the letterforms, he adds, lends a “unique character” to the publisher, being “a bit eccentric, and charming - like Bloomsbury”. They owe a debt to two typefaces: the transitional serif Baskerville and the more calligraphic Fairbank. Both have a stroke contrast that balances elegance and readability, attributes that have osmosed into the publisher’s brand. But, Heinimann explains, the original lettering “also has some odd quirks that I wanted to keep... oddities like the heavily rounded serifs and very sharp tapering you can see throughout, and a capital ‘M’ that was actually a ‘W’ that had been spun 180 degrees.” The typesetting is loyal to the source too, with “ultra-wide tracking [that] adds an elegance to a literary fiction publisher”.
If the creation of two alphabets’ worth of characters wasn’t enough effort to have gone to, there were other, perhaps more immediate visual challenges to designing the new list. The 10 titles come in a clean series design - one that had to be “really confident and unifying”, Heinimann suggests, “as the titles are so different” - which rather contradicts the usual cover-design brief for classics. Ordinarily such titles rely on the title or author name as the primary sales-driver, and thus principal graphic element. The Bloomsbury Modern Classics take a different approach.
“The authors in the series are quite big names, so it was kind of perverse to reduce their names and titles to a smallish point size,” Heinimann admits. “But for me, as a punter and designer, sometimes it can be a bit tiresome being shouted at in a bookshop, so to speak. If these are known names, and they are beloved books, do we need to be so heavy-handed? Exposing them without any of the usual typographical bombast or baggage of an author’s work might feel more attractive and inviting to a new reader.”
Instead the visual draw comes from commissioned drawings, with a different draughtsman briefed to conjure a “widescreen, cinematic” image for each of the titles, based upon a central scene within them. It helps that each novel “has been adapted for the screen in one way or another over the years”, and the designer felt that “if we commissioned art that focused on key scenes from each book, and framed them in a screen-like way, with pared-back typography, it might be something fresh, but true to the nature of each title”.
Key to enabling the images to take centre stage is the grid in which they are situated, the essential underlying glue of any successful series design. Heinimann sought “a kind of confident restraint” in the layouts, and felt “a long, slim spine device, lots of white space, minimal but strong typography, and large, thinly-weighted back cover quotes would complement the illustrations”.
Central to their strength, collectively and individually, is the composition: while the grid introduces white space to the fronts, the illustrations also have a generous helping of negative space - areas that are coloured but do not contain other “active” graphic elements. The briefs had “a focus on landscape”, and their execution plays to the widescreen sensibility: on Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, for instance, the human figures and boat (respectively) occupy a fraction of the “screen”. Such a technique means that despite the artwork inhabiting a good deal of page real-estate, the effect is not overwhelming; the negative space effectively activates livelier areas of the image, adding a keen sense of drama.
Other distinguishing features of the designs - in addition to the redrawn logo and the restrained author and title typography, both set in Futura capital letters - are the ability to facilitate a double-deck title (which protrudes north into the illustration); a soft, stippling edge to the artwork, as opposed to a clean and harsh line (the effect is reminiscent of the crackly, serenely imperfect output of analogue film projections); and bold spine typography, with definite articles set perpendicular to the title and the authors’ first names elided.
Heinimann says the spine design was “tricky”, as the titles’ breadth varies from 20mm up to almost 60mm. His solution alludes to the original, three-decades-old logo. A tapered, coloured vertical strip (echoing the tapered letterforms of the logotype) “meant I could lock the title and author together while giving a nod [to the logo]”; furthermore, “reducing the author to surname only gives the spines further weight and confidence. The sideways ‘the’,” he adds, “was a way to break up the title and author and make the eye work a little more”.
It was arguably another antithetical move to commission different illustrators for each jacket. Granted, each book (and indeed author) is distinct, but the need to unify the publications as an identifiable collective would more often than not see one aesthetic (i.e., one illustrator) used throughout. Yet there is a unity to the images, which look distinct yet affiliated: testament to both the skill of commissioner and the quality of brief. In fact, Heinimann says, “people have thought the series was drawn by one single illustrator, which is brilliant”.
Each was assigned a principal colour (used on the title type, too) to use in their composition, and the 10 hues are easy bedfellows, giving the titles a kinship. “Unifying them with a dominant colour and having fine linework as a constant, framed in the grid, pulled them all together,” says Heinimann, who says all 10 illustrators “knocked it out of the park... receiving the final artwork was a great experience. Trying to imagine the finished article from the rough [draft] can be a leap of faith.”
He also credits his fellow art-desk occupants Emma Ewbank and Holly Ovenden, who oversaw two titles each (respectively, Fugitive Pieces and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, and Snow Falling on Cedars and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner). “We each came up with a shortlist of four illustrators for our titles, and then settled on those with that cinematic quality, those whose style best suited the work. We had a mix of illustrators, some at the very top of their game, some relative unknowns. I think that makes for a good balance.”
And his favourite among the collection? “My favourite, hands down, is [Donna Tartt’s] The Little Friend. I had been a huge fan of [illustrator] Tim McDonagh’s work, and felt he’d be perfect for bringing the water tower at the centre of the novel to life, with a hint of menace and that hot heat of the Deep South. It’s a wonderful cover, so striking and with so much atmosphere”.