Case Study 63

Title: Twelve Feet Down

Author: John Penteros

Designer: Christian Fuenfhausen

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: I admit I’m not sure of this book’s genre. Its protagonist is a thirteen-year-old who lost his leg and his father in a car accident. The author’s niece wrote a review of the book and said she liked the story, so perhaps young adult is the correct categorization.

However that may be, the illustration shows key elements of the story.

Even though it isn’t the most prominent thing on the cover, the prosthetic leg is what captures one’s attention first. The backhoe’s bucket is full of dirt. It pulled up a scraggly root. Did it just unearth this prosthesis too? Does the leg remain attached to a body hidden in the dirt, thus implying that this is a murder mystery or a thriller? Or was the replacement leg somehow lost or buried by the protagonist, who now has it dug up?

There is a scary look to the image—but also a humorous look. Which gives the right sense to the story? It’s hard to say. We can’t tell from the image alone what the book’s genre is, and that’s a failing. Even after reading the book’s description I can’t tell for sure.

That said, the image nevertheless is arresting. We see only the business end of the backhoe, which has been painted in camouflage. The descending root and crumbling dirt slightly obscure parts of the title. There is a sense of motion. The backhoe is rendered almost photographically; its shadow raises it out from the surface of the cover.

These are effective if subtle elements. Even though the graphics fail to identify genre, they do proclaim cleverness and even whimsy.

Typography: The text forms a square that occupies slightly less than half the cover. Well, not quite a square. While the three lines of the title are the same length, the author name is slightly wider. I would have moved its end inward a little, to line up with the text above. Then I would have moved the whole block of text a little leftward. As it stands, it’s off center, the left-hand margin being one-and-a-third times as wide as the right-hand margin.

The author name seems too close to the bottom. How to fix that?

If the whole block of text were raised, “Twelve” would be largely hidden by the backhoe’s bucket. If the backhoe were raised to accommodate the text block, part of the backhoe’s arm would be lost. One solution would be to compress the three title lines vertically by about a tenth. The words would remain as legible as they are now, but the author name would be given as much space below it as it would have to its sides.

The distressed look of the words works well with the backhoe. To me the white text looks like old, worn lettering on an asphalt street. The dirt-brown of the author name, though, seems less prominent than it ought to be. I’d have chosen a greenish hue from the arm of the backhoe, thus putting that tone toward the top and at the bottom of the cover, for balance. But one couldn’t say the present coloration is wrong.

Perhaps the designer left off a genre indicator because there isn’t any obvious place to put it. It can’t go at the top without overlaying the backhoe. One wants to see it beneath the title, but that would make three textual elements—title, tagline, author name—stacked atop one another, and that would look heavy, and it might be difficult to move from one to the next smoothly.

I can propose no good solution for the placement of such a tagline (tiny text in one of the upper corners would look terrible), so perhaps all one can do is hope the intriguing image induces people to go to the book’s description page to learn what it’s about.

Overall: This is a good cover, despite a few limitations. The more I look at it, the more I think that, even though the illustration is eye-catching, what catches my eye yet more insistently is the bold title. Those three words balance off the mechanical top half of the cover and make a prospective buyer wonder what might be found in a hole a dozen feet deep.