When Penguin Random House revealed in May that it would issue an abridged Young Adult version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, many commentators questioned the logic, insinuating that teens need not be patronised by a simplified edition.
Not an ideal situation, then, for the design team briefed with creating a suitable livery. What constitutes a successful “Young Adult” cover? It is arguably a fairly nebulous genre to pin a certain aesthetic to; crossover bestsellers such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series have little visual overlap, yet one would expect most YA cover-design briefs aim for the aesthetic alchemy of appealing equally to young, old and even older.
Jacqui McDonough, art director at Puffin Fiction, was tasked with overseeing the Brown reboot, yet when we talk about the challenges of designing for the YA audience, it is in the context of a new 17-strong series, The Originals, released on 4th August (all £7.99 paperbacks).
Being billed as classics of the genre—many of which were written long before even the infancy of the YA label—added another dimension to McDonough’s task, of which she says: “It was quite an interesting brief, because we knew that we had a really wide cross-section of readers that we were trying to appeal to, which is quite unusual. If we got the design right, it would appeal to teenagers who don’t know anything about these books; young adults who are happy to read what are supposedly “crossover” books; and to adults, with a sort of slightly nostalgic appeal to people who read the books in school or know them through films.
“It was an interesting challenge in terms of design,” she adds, “but the approach we decided to take was to keep it clean and simple, and not be too narrative or figurative, because then you start to pin things down too much. If you just get across a concept, an idea, a clue as to what the content is, rather than trying to spell it all out, then it has much more universal appeal. And that simplicity really helps with the idea of them as ‘classics’.”
However, the covers’ design was a team effort—“all the designers in the team worked on [the series] and they really enjoyed it—it was a really nice project for everybody”—with some additional help: the cover for S E Hinton’s The Outsiders was the winning entry in the 2014 Penguin Design Award, created by Craig Cox. McDonough describes its selection as “one of those marvellous cases of serendipity”; the visual aligned with the direction the series was taking, rather than being its protagonist.
Cox believes the manner in which he arrived at his final piece was not without a splash of serendipity, too. “The style I chose to use, in all honesty, was a last-minute choice that instantly felt like the right way to convey the overarching themes of the book,” he says. “I had spent about a week on a design which was more of an elaborate illustration, but upon finishing it I felt it didn’t fit in with the tone of the book. So the night before the deadline I stripped the design back to its bare bones, using only key objects and signifiers and limiting the colour palette to project a more clear, concise message. Sometimes less is more when working within the space constraints of a book cover.”
The young designer says his placement at Penguin “cemented my desire to enter the [design] industry after graduating” and equipped him with a more market-driven mindset, moving from an output that was premised “more on self expression than how [work] would be received by an audience”, he says, adding: “It was a challenge to start thinking about how a design would work in situ, how it would look on the shelves of a book- shop and even how it would look slotted into a pile of books on a family’s coffee table.”
McDonough says Cox’s cover was “a perfect fit with the overall series direction”, and one “that we have always really liked and remembered . . . and with the editor it was sort of at the back of her mind that she would love to use it one day”. Indeed it aligns visually with a number of the designs, many of which feature an “outsider” element, one that differs and is alienated from a repeating motif: Postcards from No Man’s Land, The Pearl, The Red Pony and Z is for Zachariah all exhibit such traits.
Perhaps this visual is a trait of the YA aesthetic—as McDonough notes, “you need to be more of an individual when you read these, I think”, which was also the reason that the series does not have too many recurring elements across titles. “We thought it shouldn’t be very heavily series-branded. If you want to read them as a set and collect them then you can do, but we wanted them to stand alone as well as in a series because they are such strong, individual titles.”
Such instances that do tie the titles—an orange rectangle on the spine that encases the Penguin branding is the most obvious example—are used “only with a very light touch”. Use of a limited colour palette, shadows, silhouettes and generous negative space are also a recurring feature of the designs, with McDonough stating that such an approach should ensure they “don’t develop a dated feel” to belie their classic status. “Kind of understated is what we wanted,” she says, “and that kind of appeal across the board . . . you don’t want to go flashy, it’s not appropriate for these as they are modern classics.”
The minimal approach extends to production, too, with McDonough adding: “We proofed [the covers] on three different boards to make a decision on what kind of finish we wanted to have, and we chose to go with a board called True Card in the end, which has a texture to it, so there is a real tactile quality to them”. An apposite choice, perhaps, as many of the covers feature quite prominent visual texture—be it in terms of a rough, brick-effect background or an uneven, woodblock-style type treatment.
In terms of added flourishes, they are “very minimal: there’s the textured stock, with some clear varnish to pick up on the title on the front cover . . . but it’s very subtle, the [books] aren’t very finish-heavy”.
The full list of The Originals:
Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard
After the First Death by Robert Cormier
Buddy by Nigel Hinton
Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty
Heroes by Robert Cormier
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
No Turning Back by Beverley Naidoo
Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers
Stone Cold by Robert Swindells
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
The Outsiders by S E Hinton
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
The Twelfth Day of July by Joan Lingard
The Wave by Morton Rhue
Z for Zachariah by Richard C O’Brien