Case Study 100

Title: The Perpetual Paycheck

Author: Lori B. Rassas

Designer: Littera Designs

Genre: Business

Graphics: The symbolism of the hundred-dollar bills needs no explanation, but it has to be said that this is a dull graphical treatment.

It’s not so much that we’re seeing currency rather than paychecks (which would go better with the title). It’s that the bills aren’t interesting in themselves, individually or as a group.

An online search for “stack of falling currency” yields many images that not only look more motion-filled than the one used here but that would occupy the upper portion of the cover more fully.

These seven bills show the motion of falling leaves, not the motion of a heap of money falling into a worker’s hands. The bills are too spread apart to give the sense of a continual, strong income, which is what the author seems to be holding out to readers as a live possibility.

Typography: This is one of those rare covers on which red text works. The key is that the red letters are set against a light background, in this case yellow. None of that red-on-blue stuff that one can find too many examples of in certain genres, at least in fiction. The misuse of red is rare on non-fiction covers.

The title is easy on the eyes: a simple sans serif font for text enlarged as far as it will go without intruding on the cover’s edges.

The author name is in the same font as the title and is even easier to read, since it’s black. The letters have been kerned widely, to stretch the name to match the length of the longest word in the title, “Perpetual.” This works well. Fortunately, the author name is kept sufficiently far from the lower edge, keeping it from looking cramped.

The text that has a problem is the lengthy subtitle. If something seems awry, it’s because something is. The second and third lines have letters that are kerned more widely than those of the first line. Was this done so those lines wouldn’t look short in comparison to the first line? If so, then it was a needless worry.

When the lines are set with varying letter-spacing, the eye stumbles as it reads along. It’s important to keep each unit of the cover—title, author name, and subtitle—internally consistent.

Step back from the monitor and look at the cover. The three blocks of text look bottom-heavy. They seem pushed together. It would have been better to leave more space between each element, adding about the height of each subtitle line both above and below the subtitle. That would push the title up to about the top of the lower-left hundred-dollar bill, but that would be fine. The graphic easily enough can be adjusted to accommodate the text—which shouldn’t overlay any of the bills because that only makes the red letters harder to read.

Overall: The cover leaves no doubt about the book’s genre or its promises. The subtitle in particular includes key words that people looking for new jobs likely would use in search engines. All that is to the good.

The text needs adjustment, though not much; the graphic needs replacement. Fortunately, there is much similar stock art to choose from.

Case Study 86

Title: Leadership Is Mental

Author: Dayo Sowunmi II

Designer: Sara Garcia

Genre: Business

Graphics: This is another floating cover. When viewed here or at Amazon, the cover seems to have no border. That’s a problem with white against white. Of course, that would not be a problem for the paperback edition, when seen in real life—or when seen at Amazon, where that edition is bounded by a thin rule. It’s the ebook edition that seems to float.

What about the graphics otherwise? On this cover, the image is less important and less prominent than the text. That’s fine. What isn’t so fine is that the image doesn’t make sense without an explanation, and even the explanation, as given by the author, isn’t quite enough.

He has mentioned that the penguins are in a padded room as found in an asylum: there is a connection to the title word “Mental.” Maybe, but it seems to be an undesired connection.

The “Mental” of the title, taken on its own, implies that leadership is something one has to think about or has to keep in mind. (It’s like the Yogi Berra quotation: “Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical.”) But “mental” as in “mental institution,” where padded rooms are found, implies a disordering of one’s reasoning faculties. I don’t think the author wants to imply that his book is for crazy people.

Thus the padded room seems inappropriate for the cover—not just irrelevant but counter-productive. It sends a message, but it’s a message that shouldn’t be sent.

And what about the penguins? Penguins aren’t noted for playing follow the leader. Some other species do that, such as cattle and sheep. In the popular imagination, penguins merely stand around on snow or swim playfully in icy water, each going his own way. It might be a fact that penguins form leadership hierarchies, but, if so, that is a fact known to a few biologists and not to the public at large.

But let’s say penguins do play follow the leader. Does this image express that? Not to me. The four penguins, though mostly facing the same way, don’t seem to be going anywhere. They couldn’t. The walls of the padded room prevent that. Thus whatever symbolism is provided by the penguins seems to fail. (Similarly with the padded room, the symbolism of which more than fails.)

Typography: One thing this cover shows is the proper way to use red text. Notice how the word “Mental” stands out. That’s because the red is atop white. Red needs a strong contrast to work. If this cover had a dark background, or a background in any shade of gray or blue, red would fail.

Keep this as a reminder: when it comes to using red, think “Civil War colors,” the colors of the Confederacy and the Union, gray and blue, and avoid red if those colors form the backdrop.

The title is fine, for a non-fiction book. Such a plain font, set so large in the third word, would be out of place on a novel’s cover, but it’s just the kind one expects to find on a book about how to improve at business.

Even if it were in black, “Mental” would stand out, given its size. “Leadership” is in the same font but not bolded, yet it’s quite legible. Even the small “Is” can be read easily, in part because the two rules at its sides seem to be pointing at it.

The title, then, has no problems, but the subtitle has one.

It’s easy enough to understand what the designer was attempting to do, trying to place emphasis on “project leader,” but that wasn’t necessary, given how short the subtitle is. The subtitle begins as many subtitles do, with “how to,” making this a how-to book. How to what? How to be a successful project leader. Anyone reading “how to” will make it to “project leader” and will know what he will learn.

There is no reason to highlight the last two words. When highlighted in red, they throw off the legibility of the subtitle, and they give the entire cover a rightward tilt. If the two words were kept in black, the black subtitle, along with the black “Leadership Is,” would bracket the red “Mental.”

Overall: This cover’s typography is strong, its graphics weak. The typography is so strong that the cover likely will do what it needs to do, though at a cost.

Some viewers may wonder what the penguins are for; a few even may wonder whether these penguins have been institutionalized. Most viewers will focus on the text. It’s too bad that the graphics weren’t done in a way as to enhance the text.

Case Study 39

Title: The 3D Printing Handbook

Authors: Ben Redwood, Filemon Schöffer, Brian Garret

Designer: Multitude

Genre: Business

Graphics: The first thing to note about this cover is that the words and images float, anchorless, because the background is white and the cover has no border. At Amazon a light rule and drop shadow have been added, but here the elements seem unbounded. Imagine what a difference changing the background to, say, yellow would make in visualizing the cover’s boundaries.

The graphics consist of twelve basic engineering shapes. Each has a highlighted red part and a caption. The second item in the second row, for example, is captioned “pin diameter,” and the part in red is the pin.

To convey that bit of information to you I had to go to Amazon, click on the cover, expand it to its greatest size, and squint, because even then the captions are hardly legible. Some of them I still can’t make out. Perhaps they can be read on the paperback version of the book, but on the ebook cover the words are hopelessly small.

Even the engineering shapes are difficult to make out. Their lines are thin, and the red parts don’t pop. Instead of using twelve such shapes, it would have been better to use as few as three, each being several time larger than what we see and perhaps each without red and without text. Better yet would have been an actual photo of something produced by 3-D printing.

The graphic that most catches the eye isn’t any of the twelve shapes but a thirteenth shape in the lower righthand corner: the logo for the publisher. That should be relegated to the spine of the paperback and to the title page or credits page of the ebook and paperback.

Typography: The title could be in a sprightlier font. The article, “The,” doesn’t add information, and it sits awkwardly above the other words.

The subtitle, “Technologies, design and application,” is fine in terms of information but weak in terms of layout. Each word of the title is capitalized; each word of the subtitle, other than “and,” also should be capitalized.

Missing is an Oxford comma, which should follow “Design.” With the Oxford comma, it appears that three independent things are listed. Without it, it appears that the second and third things recapitulate the first—that is, that “design” and “applications” are subsumed under “technologies.”

Many people don’t appreciate the utility of the Oxford comma. As a reminder to themselves, they may want to memorize these sentences: “Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma.” Something as small as a comma can change the whole sense of an expression.

The only text appearing in color is the notice of the foreword. Its writer may be well known to the people for whom this book was written, but the use of red draws the eye to a secondary element. I would have placed the foreword notice in black at the bottom of the cover, where there would be plenty of space for it in a larger size, so long as the logo were removed and the author names moved to the top.

As for the author names, here they are the smallest text of all, outside of the graphic. The names should be moved to the top and put on one line, in a condensed and bolded version of the font. That would make them legible. Usually the author name is the second-largest text on a cover, and that convention should be kept here. Granted, these three authors may not be widely known, even to people in the industry, but they ought to be given proper credit.

Overall: Technical books by their nature are written for small audiences. No matter how fine its cover or how winsome its writing, a book such as this never will appear on a bestsellers list. Its purpose isn’t to delight but to instruct—and to instruct a few rather than many. Such books commonly end up with uninspiring covers, perhaps on the rationale that those who might be interested in the topic will purchase the book no matter how it looks.

For some that no doubt is true, but other buyers may take a pass on a book the cover of which appears slapdash, thinking that the content also will be slapdash. Such buyers will hunt around for an alternative book or, if none exists, for compensating information online.

There is no good reason not to make even a technical book—or any book for which the anticipated audience is expected to be small—look nice. Often it takes little effort to transform a cover such as this one into a cover that pleases even if it doesn’t delight.

Self-publishers and small publishers can make use of pre-made covers that have attractive graphics and placeholding text. While perhaps not as good as bespoke covers, where every element can work toward a desired effect, these pre-made covers provide books an aura of professionalism that covers such as the one critiqued here just don’t have.

Case Study 37

Title: Digitize or Die

Author: Nicolas Windpassinger

Designer: Maxime Zoffoli

Genre: Business

Graphics: This book is about the Internet of Things and aims to help businesses deal with the “digital evolution [sic]” before they get left behind by the competition. Is that what the graphics on this cover suggest? Not that I can see.

There is a slight sense of motion in the five upper red bars as they transform into separated squares, but what are we to understand that to mean? If the title were omitted, would the graphic elements in any way convey the genre of the book, other than that it is a work of non-fiction? To me the red elements seem little more than clutter, conveying almost nothing.

One might expect that the graphics would play off the first word of the title, in some way invoking numbers or a change from doing things in an analogue way to doing them in a digital way, but there is no hint of that. I wonder if the cover would be more effective if these graphics were removed entirely.

Typography: If the failure to digitize results in death, whose death will it be—that of a business or that of the reader? If read the second way, the title is off-putting, if not actually threatening. In part this is a consequence of the lack of a visual connection between the title and the graphics.

Logically, which is the more important word of the title, “Digitize” or “Die”? Certainly the first, but the word that stands out, because it stands up, is “Die.” It is the only three-dimensional text on the cover, and its face is in the darkest color, so it attracts the eye, but in the wrong way. The title is a little hard to read since the final word is set at an angle from the others. It’s almost as if “Digitize or” doesn’t go with “Die.”

As for the author name, it takes a little hunting to find it, and at thumbnail size it is illegible, in part because its thin letters, which seem to be not quite black, are placed over a gray bar.

The tagline that identifies the genre, “Internet of Things,” stands out more because its letters are bold and black and set against white. (I call this a tagline, though at the Amazon sales page for the book it seems to be the actual title, given as Internet of Things: Digitize or Die. I presume that’s a mistake in layout.)

What might be taken as the subtitle consists of three hard-to-read lines (they aren’t readable until one maximizes the size of the cover at Amazon): “Transform your organization. Embrace the digital evolution. Rise above the competition.” What good do these words do if they can’t be read?

Lastly, there is the note about the foreword, which begins with unnecessary punctuation: the colon after “by” should be eliminated. Is the writer of the foreword someone widely known to the prospective audience? Maybe, since he heads a foreign multinational, but then maybe not, since the target audience seems to be American businessmen.

Overall: This cover fails at all levels, sad to say. The graphics fail to suggest the genre and hardly look professional. Most of the text is illegible, and the title arrangement puts the emphasis on the wrong word.