Case Study 87

Title: Glimpses of Light

Editors: Jeanette O’Hagan and Nola L. Passmore

Designer: Jeanette O’Hagan

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: This is a collection of 26 disparate stories and poems. They don’t seem to have a common theme (the subtitle’s “imagination and hope” don’t constitute a theme), so it must have been hard to come up with a cover design that indicates what this book is about—so hard that it wasn’t done at all.

What we have instead is a cliché ocean scene. According to the book’s credits page, the photo was taken near Scawfell Island, which is off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Not that the location matters much, since the photo is indistinguishable from a thousand other photos of calm seas, distant ships, and pretty sunsets.

Perhaps the image was chosen to link to the last word in the title, “Light,” but the symbolism doesn’t work. This is a book about hope, and hope is a forward-looking thing. Hope is concerned with tomorrow, not with yesterday. You might expect a photo of a glorious sunrise, but this photo shows a sunset, which means the light soon will go out, and that’s the opposite of hope.

Whatever the motive for choosing the photo, the selection was made unimaginatively. Surely there must be other images that evoke hope without evoking instead countless similar covers.

When a designer ends up with graphics like these, stock needs to be taken. Something has gone wrong. Usually the problem is that the designer is an amateur trying to make a cover on the cheap, but sometimes professional designers let down their guard and produce something along these lines.

Even collections of unrelated items deserve covers that don’t look like they have come off an assembly line. It’s difficult to design a cover that fairly represents each of several separate contributions. That might be doable if there are only three or four items, but 26? At that point the designer has to go a different way.

Instead of trying to convey an abstract notion such as hope (which, if present in each of 26 contributions, must manifest itself in bewilderingly different ways), the designer should aim for a cover that intrigues, mystifies, or provokes—things placid waters can’t do. This may mean that the cover shouldn’t sport a nature photo at all.

Typography: The title, subtitle, and editors’ names all need revision. Let’s assume that the photo is retained. What can be done with the text?

The present title font is one of those fonts commonly thought to suggest a literary or artsy temperament. The thin lines and flourishes are thought to imply sensitivity or compassion or fineness of mind, and they may imply any or all of those things—or none of them.

Some people think that collections of short stories or poems are obligated to be titled in letters that bring to mind the Art Deco era or the Renaissance or some other time of imagined High Art, but that’s not true. Even collections ought to have titling that is clear and bold, even if also whimsical and delightful.

This cover would have been served better by a font with thicker letters and fewer curlicues. That isn’t to say that Helvetica would have been best. It wouldn’t have been; it would have failed at the other extreme. But the font used here looks weak, and it doesn’t stand out well from the uniformly-colored background. It might work as a chapter-title font on the interior of a book, but it doesn’t work well on a cover.

However the title is fixed, the fix won’t be complete until the letters’ color is changed. Even if the title were in thick letters, white letters won’t stand out well against the yellow background. They should be black.

The subtitle has two problems. Its capitalization is irregular, at least for its purpose. If it were a sentence, it would be fine, being capitalized only in the first word, but a title or subtitle needs either capitalization of every word other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions or it needs to be set in all caps, which probably would have been the best solution here, to distinguish the subtitle from the title.

The subtitle is so long that it stretches too far across the cover, coming too close to the edges. To bring it in would require reducing the point size, but that would make the words less visible. That’s not the way to go.

One solution would be to use a new font or the same font in a condensed version. That still may not allow the letters’ size to be increased enough. The best choice might be to set the subtitle in two centered lines: “Stories and Poems/ of Imagination and Hope”. That would allow the present font to be maintained, even when made several points larger.

Like the title, the subtitle needs to be in a different color, since white doesn’t contrast sufficiently with this background. Black again would be the best choice, since the image has no other color, such as dark blue, to draw from.

The editors’ names have been placed on top of the mottled sea. This makes for difficulty in reading. The names are in yellow, which contrasts well with some parts of the water but not with other parts, since the water is reflecting a yellow sun. This is where white would have been a better choice.

Why are the editors’ names shifted to the left margin? Perhaps it was done to move the text away from the glint of the setting sun. Okay, but doing so throws the cover off balance, so there’s a negative in maintaining this placement. It’s a negative that may not be avoidable, given the choice of photo.

Using “Edited by” is necessary to indicate that these are editors, not authors, but those two words ought to be in all caps (to match the preferred revision of the subtitle), leaving only the editors’ names in upper- and lowercase.

Overall: A poor choice of photo leads to a poor choice of typography. The photo may be attractive in itself, but it has no obvious connection to the book’s contents. It seems to have been used because nothing better came to mind—a good reason to employ a professional designer.

This book includes more than twenty contributors. It would have been a tip of the hat to them to have arranged for a cover that doesn’t look so bland.

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