Cover design round-up: the best of 2017

Cover design round-up: the best of 2017

To the book covers of 2017, as a whole. It felt paltry to do a round-up of December’s publications, because there are so few. Instead we decided to do a year-end selection of some of the highlights of jacket design throughout the year.

First, one ought to mention the methodology and ideology behind such a list. It makes no claims to be authoritative, exhaustive, or definitive: “good” design is subjective and, though in this list our seven judges have coalesced around 25 book covers, another seven people may very well pick an entirely different 25. You could make the case that the “best” jacket design of the year is for Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients, the book that has earned the most money through the tills in 2017. It is the most objective argument you could make for the (literal) value of jacket design, but the discipline wriggles free from attempts at objective analyses; were it a science, our bookshops, and lives, would be a far duller place.

The method for the jackets for our monthly previews are outlined here; for this review, we wanted to broaden the process, so we roped in some experts to help. We are much obliged to the following people for their time, patience and expertise in making their selections and expressing the reasons for their choices so artfully. Please do take a second to familiarise yourself with them and their work, engage with it, and engage in conversation with them: it’s been a pleasure for us to have done so. A heartfelt PerfectBound thank you to:

Dan Wagstaff, a.k.a. book design blogger The Casual Optimist

Holly Catford, designer at Esterton Associates and art-editor of Eye magazine

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author

Mark Campbell, president, Australian Book Designers Association

Na Kim, US-based designer

Sandina Miller, typographic designer and consultant, and founding comms lead for Type Thursday

The aim was to bring together people from different areas of publishing and design, so as to have a breadth of perspectives. We also sought people who were not directly involved in the UK book-design industry—not that we believed it would be particularly open to bias if we did; designers are an altruistic breed. We asked the six people (The Bookseller’s creative editor, Danny Arter, was a seventh judge) to pick their 25 favourite covers from a folder sent to them: in the folder was every jacket (all 344 of them) featured in the monthly round-ups this year.

The brief? There was no brief. They were instructed to “judge in whatever way you like... obviously it’s quite difficult to compare, say, luxury cookbook and mass-market paperback, they are entirely different beasts. That’s the reason we’re not picking a ‘best’, but more a ‘best of’.” Each judge was also asked to highlight five of their favourite picks within their 25. These choices were effectively double-weighted when the tallying-up stage arrived, and some of those that made the list are displayed with reasons for their selection.

There are a couple of notable points from the list and its construction. Interestingly, no cover was selected by everyone; one was picked by five of the seven, another by four of the seven, two of whom selected it as a personal favourite. That jacket was the only one to be picked by more than one judge as a favourite, while eight “favourite” covers were not selected by any of the other six in their top 25. In short, while there was a general consensus, there was also a great deal of disagreement as to what constitutes a good book cover.

But would we really want it any other way?

So, without further ado...



The two joint-most popular picks among the judges were gray.318’s cover design for Jonathan Lethem’s The Blot for Cape, and Luke Bird’s design for Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar. Both titles were picked as favourites by Sandina Miller, who calls The Blot “a striking cover with brush lettering and a splash of white – this packs a punch with a limited two-colour palette. One of my immediate favourites from the set. The repetition of the author’s name to create the background is literally blotted out by the title ‘The Blot’ (within a splash of liquid which also draws the eye). The idea and the execution of this are top-notch.” She says of Ghachar Ghochar: “I was attracted to the vibrancy of this deceptively simple cover, and the confidence of the choice to make it purely typographic. The angled pink block and its slanted cap sans serif, juxtaposed with the static solid sans of the author’s name across the top create a sense of energy and discord. The link to the content of the book may be a subtle one but I do like the impact of this cover.”



The two next most popular picks: Jo Waker’s cover for Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone, designed for Granta Books, was selected by four of the judges, with an extra nod from Dan Wagstaffe; and Two-Dimensional Man by Paul Sahre received the same number of picks, with Holly Catford praising “a very clever use of the space, [which] perfectly sums up the title to me”.



John Hamilton art-directed the cover for Will Self’s Phone, which was published by Viking. Four of the judges included the jacket among their choices. Nick May’s design for Simon Ings’ The Smoke, which uses illustration by James Nunn, was selected by three of the panel, with Sandina Miller selecting it as a particular favourite, stating: “This is one of my favourite illustration-dominant covers from the set. There’s a tactile quality to the charcoal-like illustration. The whole thing looks like a soot-covered sheet that has white and yellow etched out of it to create shapes and silhouettes. The single line of text is quirky enough to hold its own as part of the cover: the type’s lobbed off terminals and subtly broken strokes work despite the odd word spacing. This cover drew me in and I kept going back to it.



The above duo were also picked by three of the judges, and flagged up by one judge: Na Kim. She said of Oliver Munday’s cover for Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia, “you would not imagine that a cover featuring a Stuart Little-esque cat would work, but here it is in all its charming glory. It's so charming and brilliant.” Of Tom Etherington’s design for Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina, art directed by Jim Stoddart, Kim says: “The mask is an iconic image that represents the Pussy Riot movement, and the immediacy that it carries is so impactful to the point where the title is not even necessary.”



These two jackets were, once again, picked by three of the judges, and flagged up by one in particular: Dan Wagstaffe. They are gray318’s design for Alexander Starritt’s The Beast, published by Apollo, and Jamie Keenan’s cover for English Uprising, written by Paul Stocker for Melville House.



Another title on par with the above duo - three votes, one favourite - was the jacket for Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden, which was illustrated by Katie Scott and art directed by Chris Bentham. Mark Campbell says of it: “Creating a cover that is both beautiful, elegant and balanced is a hard thing, but this does the trick. I’m always a sucker for botanical illustrations too (as are most designers) but the plant colours really pop against the black background. Stunning.” Next to it, three votes were cast for KidEthic’s design for Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, which was art directed by Sean Garrehy for Abacus.



Three votes were also cast for Stephen Parker’s cover for Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy (Hogarth), and for a cover art directed by Eleanor Crow, and using illustration by Bill Bragg, for Faber. The book is Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos. Dan Wagstaffe pointed out that the paperback, also using Bragg’s illustration, would be an equally suitable inclusion alongside the hardback.



The above titles and the following nine were tied in the voting stakes, with each being a particular favourite of one of the judges. The first is Ana Teodoro’s design for How to Love Brutalism, to be published by Batsford. “What can I say: it’s minimal, it’s concrete, it’s brutal. I’d pick this up in an instant,” said Mark Campbell. It’s next to Brian Moore’s cover for Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (S&S), hailed by Holly Catford because “THERE ARE NO WORDS ON THIS COVER”. (Emphasis Catford’s.)



Two designs flagged up by Kiran Millwood Hargrave were Dan Mogford’s design for Andres Barba’s Such Small Hands, using photography by Max Porter and published by Portobello (“Bold and faintly disturbing… Loved the classic green cloth-print clash with the doll”), and Yeti Lambregts’ cover for Tinder Press publication I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell ("A beautiful image and striking colour combination – wanted to pick it up and read").



Two children’s titles, next: Sinem Erkas’ jacket for The Memory Book by Lara Avery was singled out by Mark Campbell, who says “I’ve seen this cover doing the rounds - so clever and such great use of colour. I’m already a fan of Sinem Erkas’ work, but this cover achieves that perfect balance of smart, funny and well designed. Fills the real estate perfectly.” It’s next to Rachel Vale’s art-directed cover for Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows (Macmillan Children’s), which uses illustration by Aitch. Millwood Hargrave said of it: “An intricate, intriguing cover. A celebration of book-as-object – something to be cherished.”



Suzanne Dean art-directed the cover of Ross Raisin’s A Natural, using illustrator Vladimir Zimakov, for Vintage. That and Sonia Shannon’s cover for Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, using imagery by friend of the consonants Mstyslav Chernov, were both highlighted by Danny Arter.



So too were the following duo: Verso art desk’s cover for Pang Laikwan’s The Art of Cloning, and Charlotte Heal’s Livery for Lisboa (Bloomsbury), authored by Nuno Mendes.


The final cover to make the cut is Tom Darracott at More and More’s creation for Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions (Granta), extended across some of the author’s other titles too.

Do let us know what you make of the list by tweeting at us and, finally, we would like to extend another big PerfectBound thank-you to each and every designer, art director, publicist, marketer, and so on who has helped us source jackets or credit designers throughout the year, or who has been so generous and forthcoming with their time as to help further our knowledge of the market and those in it. We are in your debt.

Until 2018...