Case Study 89

Title: The Time Eater

Author: N. J. Thalmayer

Designer: N. J. Thalmayer

Genre: Fantasy

Graphics: Step back from your monitor a few paces and look at this cover. What do you see? I see text that is legible (the author name), text that is barely legible (the title), two spots of red above the title, and otherwise a blob of red and blue hues.

Now come close. Seated before my monitor I now can make out the title, though still with a little difficulty, I can make out a bit of the series tagline, and I can see that the red spots are eyes that appear to be set in the sort of mask worn at a masquerade. The red in the background now resolves itself into blocks that may be buildings, and the gray-blue area behind and above the author name looks like the rear of a statue.

This is a dark cover—not dark in the sense of looking forbidding but dark in the sense of poor illumination. None of the graphical elements stand out well. The proof is that at a distance one hardly can tell what things are, and close up things aren’t much clearer. One thing that is noticeable close up is that the graphics have a pasted-on look.

The statue isn’t a statue. It’s the back side of the protagonist. She isn’t part of the red background. She wasn’t drawn as an integral part of that image. She was pasted on. You can tell by the thin, wavy line of white around her and by the fact that her features are distinct while the features of the background are slightly blurred.

The description of the book at Amazon begins this way: “Her hands were born to hold a sword.” Let’s set aside the inapt phrasing (hands aren’t “born”) and turn to the cover. It shows a sword on the woman’s back. It’s not being held in either hand. Her left hand is seen free to the left, her right hand apparently is extended in front of her.

The sword is on her back but with no visible means of support. There is no scabbard, no thong, no strap. It just floats. That suggests that just as she was pasted on the red background, the sword was pasted on her back.

Perhaps fortunately for the designer, this faux pas is hard to see, given how dark the cover is. You have to look at an enlarged version to realize that the sword belies the opening line of the description. If the cover had been drawn brightly, the pasted-on-ness of the sword and the woman would have been obvious.

What about the red eyes in the mask? I suppose it’s not supposed to be a mask, but what is the face that the eyes belong to? It’s hard to tell, and it’s hard to tell where in space we’re to understand the face to be. It isn’t an integral part of the background. It doesn’t seem to be either above the buildings or in front of them.

If it were above, you’d expect it to partly obscured by the towering structures, but it’s not. If it were in front of the buildings, you’d expect it to obscure parts of them, but it doesn’t. It seems unrelated to its setting and so seems gratuitous. The eyes are meant to be frightening, but you don’t get the sense that they frighten the woman.

Typography: Not surprisingly, the poor graphics are paired with poor typography. If the font choices (there are two fonts here) do anything well, they tell the viewer what the book is not. It’s not non-fiction, it’s not romance, it’s not a police procedural or a historical novel. It’s either fantasy (which it is) or science fiction or post-apocalyptic dystopian. Of those three, the fonts most closely fit the first category, given their runic design.

Consider first the title. Three things are wrong with the font: its color, its kerning, and the font itself.

Here we have another example of the violation of a cardinal rule: don’t use red text against a dark background. The designer must have sensed that something was amiss, because he used thin off-white lines around the letters so they would stand out against the black background. The trouble is that they don’t stand out enough. Bright white would have been better than red, as would yellow or the blue of the author name.

Most of the letters of the title abut one another, for no clear gain. When a font is peculiar in design, as here, it’s important to let each letter breathe, for maximum comprehension. Pushing letters against one another works against that.

Wider kerning would not have overcome an innate problem with this font: some of its letters are clumsily drawn. The M is the best example. The crossing middle strokes make it look like an X rather than an M. The E isn’t much better, since it can be mistaken at first glance for an F. It’s one thing to use a font that may evoke a genre; it’s something else to use one that works against legibility.

The same font is used for the subtitle, but without a surrounding rule. It works better here because the blue color pops against the near-black background and because the letters don’t touch one another. That said, the letters could be kerned better (look at the L-E combination), and the subtitle is too small.

The title and subtitle should be rearranged with both being set in a different, less cluttered font but one that still implies the genre. The title should be in a single line where its first line now is, and the subtitle should be placed in a single line under it. Assuming the title will be in upper- and lowercase, the subtitle should be in small caps, for contrast. The two elements should be distinguished further by color, perhaps white or yellow for the title and the blue of the author name for the subtitle.

The author name certainly is large enough. In fact, it’s too large, its large caps being larger than the letters of the title. It should be reset as uniform small caps (not large and small caps) and on one line. It still would be easily readable, if left in light blue. Its present font is fine for the genre, and, unlike the font used in the title and subtitle, it’s legible.

Overall: This cover fails on multiple fronts. The graphics have an amateurish, pasted-on look. Too many elements are too dark and too vague. The typography isn’t much better, aside from the author name. The title is in the wrong font and the wrong color, adding to the general murkiness of the cover, and the subtitle is misplaced and too small to read.

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