Case Study 66

Title: What’s Really Eating You?

Author: Renée Jones

Designer: Cathi Stevenson

Genre: Self-help

Graphics: To say this cover’s graphics are minimalistic is almost to understate the case. We can spot just three elements: a broken spoon, an easy-to-miss butterfly, and the background itself.

If the spoon were whole, it wouldn’t so much imply restraint from eating as digging in. A little thing like a break changes the symbolism entirely. It sends the exactly opposite message. Since spoons don’t break spontaneously (it’s not easy to break a spoon, even if you try), we know that the break was deliberate: the breaking of the spoon stands for the breaking of a bad habit.

Oddly, this spoon is deeply tarnished. It’s not obvious why. Tarnish suggests that the spoon hasn’t been used much; it’s what we expect to find on authentically silver silverware that has lain in a drawer for a long time.

Granted, the tarnish does add “character” to the spoon, and it tells us that this is (or once was) a piece of a handsome place setting. Still, I’d have opted for a well-polished spoon, an image that implied constant use (or overuse).

The spoon is set too far right. This book was published not just as an ebook but as a hardback and a paperback. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at least in the case of the paperback, errant trimming made the break in the spoon touch the edge of the cover—or even extend beyond it.

This potential problem could have been avoided by rotating the two parts of the spoon inward, so the break is aimed not at the edge of the cover but toward the bottom of the G in “Eating,” though perhaps it would be necessary for the bowl of the spoon to be placed vertically while the handle was placed at more of an angle.

So much for the spoon. What about the butterfly?

“What butterfly?” you might ask. Fair enough. I missed it the first couple of times I looked at the cover. I mean the butterfly silhouette at the top right. I suppose the designer meant the butterfly to symbolism liberation from the habit of overeating. The placement perhaps was meant to imply that the butterfly somehow freed itself from the bowl of the spoon, but that’s a conceit that’s a little too precious.

If a butterfly were to be used, I think it would be better if it were especially colorful. (The “question mark butterfly”—yes, that’s its common name—would be appropriate: its wings are orange, brown, and black, and it would “pop” from this cover’s background well.) That would heighten the liberation symbolism. The vague, monochrome silhouette presently on the cover can be taken to be a shadow, implying something that was but no longer is rather than a new birth, thus sending a confused message.

The third element of the cover is the aquamarine background pattern. It isn’t entirely flat; it has a slight texture. The color is subdued enough that the spoon and text aren’t lost in it. I might have considered a background that looks more like a wooden table on which the broken spoon could rest, but such a table would have to have subtle grain so as not to interfere with the imagery or text.

Typography: This cover has three textual elements: title, subtitle, and author name. The first and last are in a serif font, the subtitle in a sans serif font. I would have reserved the serif font for the title alone, since it’s the most important part of the wording.

The present font is adequate, but the kerning needs work. There is too much space between the apostrophe and the S and too much between two A-T pairs, but most people won’t notice those small deficiencies.

The chief problem with the title is its coloration. It’s in navy blue, sitting atop aquamarine. There is insufficient contrast between the two colors, resulting in a title that doesn’t catch the eye as it should. Odd as it may seem, the title would stand out better if it were in black. I say that may seem odd, because many people assume black to be the least prepossessing color, but actually black and white are the colors that usually are most noticeable when place against colored backgrounds, as here.

As an alternative to black, a yellow or gold tone could be considered. Whereas black text would be more noticeable than navy blue text, it wouldn’t be so noticeable as to draw attention away from the spoon, which is where the eye tends to go first. If the title were in yellow or gold, it likely would take precedence over the spoon—not necessarily a bad thing, but one a designer would want to weigh.

The subtitle is too subtle. It needs to be in bolded text. The font itself is fine, but its lines are thin, and so the words don’t stand out sufficiently from the background. This is an easy fix.

Similarly for the author name, which, as I said, should be in the same sans serif font as the subtitle. If set several points larger than the subtitle, the author name could remain unbolded. That would provide a nice contrast with the subtitle. The contrast would be more marked if the letters of the author name were kerned widely, a common technique nowadays for author names.

Overall: This simple cover has much going for it, but it could stand a little perkiness.

The spoon, on its own, isn’t enough to make the cover look upbeat, and that presumably is what the author would want. She is providing what she believes is a solution to a widespread problem, so the cover of her book should emit a can-do attitude. A colorful butterfly and more prominent lettering could achieve that.