Case Study 94

Title: The Circle of Fifths

Author: Philip Jackson

Designer: Philip Jackson

Genre: Self-help

Graphics: Online I found half a dozen books written to teach musicians the meaning and use of the circle of fifths. Not one of those books has an attractive cover, so this book fits right in.

In fact, its poor graphics are better than those of several of the other books, which may demonstrate that expertise in one area (playing music) doesn’t necessarily correlate to expertise in another area (designing book covers).

Here we have an especially simple drawing of the circle of fifths. Most of the other books make the circle look like a pie, with slices in various colors, or they try to give the circle a three-dimensional air, trying to raise it off the page a little. Each of those attempts makes for clutter. Often simplicity is best, but this drawing is so simple that it’s dull.

It’s also missing some of the notes because the title and subtitle have been laid over the circle. This makes it appear as though the circle consists of only eight notes, three at the top of the circle and five at the bottom, when in fact is consists of twelve, at least in its simplest form. Someone unfamiliar with musical terminology might imagine that the circle of fifths is a circle with two separate areas, with three notes gathered in one and five in the other.

The circle and its labels (indicating natural notes and flats) are in dark blue and are set against a gradient that goes from a fairly dark blue at the top of the cover to light blue above the author name, where the gradient inexplicably changes from blue to gray.

Thus the circle is blue on blue, which the eye interprets as moving the circle into the background. What is left in the foreground? Nothing at all, since the circle is the whole of the illustration.

Typography: As ineffective as the drawing is, the typography is even worse.

The only bright spot is, well, the only bright spot: the title is legible because it’s yellow and stands out well against the blue. Alas, the title’s font lacks all charm, and the title is set with the nouns in all caps and the other words in upper- and lowercase (and with the article set several points smaller than everything else).

The author name is set in gray against gray, precisely what shouldn’t be done. In that it mimics the circle, which is set in blue against blue. At least the author name is legible. That’s more than can be said for the rest of the text.

The subtitle almost contains a joke. It reads “visual tools for musicians,” but its red letters make it almost the opposite of visual. When two colors clash, as red and blue do, it’s nearly impossible for the eye to focus on the two at once. One is in focus only if the other is kept out of focus.

Things are even worse with the tagline at the bottom. There, the red against light gray isn’t as bad as the red against medium blue above, but the letters are so small that they can be discerned only if the cover is expanded to its maximum size at Amazon.

The tagline has three errors. Its first word ought to be capitalized because the tagline reads not like a headline or title but like a long sentence. The ampersand should be swapped out for “and”; there is plenty of room for the additional two characters. There should be a comma after “modes.”

Better yet, the sentence should end with “modes”—which then would need “and” in front of it—and the phrase “and much more” should be dropped, since it tells the reader nothing. If the “much more” included anything important, that thing should be listed along with the other items.

Overall: For some reason, a few things in life never get the artistic attention they deserve. The circle of fifths is one of them. Someday a designer will come along to give the circle its just desserts. In the meantime, there are ineffectual covers such as this one.

For most musicians, mastering the circle of fifths is no easy task. It isn’t made any easier by books with covers that imply that the labor will be dull and unrewarding.