Case Study 88

Title: Lost Coast Rocket

Author: Joel Horn

Designer: Joel Horn

Genre: Young adult

Graphics: This cover is a lesson in bad design. Maybe something can be learned from it.

Let’s begin by noting the cover has anywhere from three to five distinct elements, starting with the background photo. The story takes place along California’s Lost Coast, an area not far below the Oregon border. The Usal Creek area in Mendocino County seems to be depicted.

On top of that landscape are plopped two to four other images. The most obvious one is of a girl, pointing northward with her right hand and scratching her head with her left. The scratching seems justified, because she too probably is wondering what she’s seeing.

She isn’t integrated into the photo. She isn’t on-site. Her image has been pasted in—and somewhat clumsily. You can see pixelated irregularities around the edges.

The remainder of the scene is formed from what seem to be three elements. It’s a little hard to say. There may be fewer, but I think the smoke, exhaust, and rocket are separate items. The multi-colored smoke might well be taken from a photo of a missile launch. The rocket certainly is a drawing; when the cover is seen at full size, there’s no doubt about that. The exhaust may be from the same drawing as the rocket, or it may be from an independent drawing.

Whatever the provenance of the several parts, the overall effect is one of hokeyness. A viewer instantly recognizes that this cover pretends to be something it isn’t and that the pretending isn’t the least bit sophisticated.

Typography: The title slants upward, perhaps to suggest a rocket launch, but then rockets are launched straight up, not at an acute angle. In partial compensation the text is placed in italics so that the words remain readable without having to cock one’s head.

Why wasn’t the same done with the subtitle? It too slants upward, but its text remains in roman and so not only is difficult to read but is out of sync with the title. The title font is unobjectionable, but the subtitle font is so ineffective that the designer seems to have added black outlines to the letters.

It would have been better to use the title font and to put the words of the subtitle in small caps, except that changing to the title’s font would have forced the subtitle to be even smaller, if it were to fit in the space provided. The only solution would be a compressed sans serif font.

All that presumes keeping the title as is, but it shouldn’t be kept as it. It should be brought down to Earth, so to speak, by removing the slant and removing the italics. Then the subtitle could be placed under it, in a single line if its new font is chosen prudently.

But what about that troublesome rocket? It’s larger than necessary. If reduced by a third, it wouldn’t intrude in the title and subtitle areas, as it does now. A smaller rocket would make more sense anyway, since the present size makes it look too close to the girl.

The author name is fine as is, except it is off-center and should be shifted leftward. The author name is in the same font as the title now is and as the subtitle should be, but, unlike the subtitle, it can remain in upper- and lowercase.

Mare Tranquillitatis translates as Sea of Tranquility. The rocket doesn’t suggest tranquility, and the beach far below doesn’t seem particularly tranquil either, so what kind of book is this? The cover would be helped by an indication of genre.

Overall: The graphics look cobbled together because in fact they were cobbled together. The designer may have delighted in producing a cover quickly, but, when later wearing his author hat, he likely wondered why he didn’t the sales he had thought he would see.

It’s almost a certainty that the cover hindered rather than helped sales. A look at other books in the genre would have alerted him to what buyers had come to expect in covers of these sorts of books.

Case Study 74

Title: Shanghaied

Author: Carey Fessler

Designer: Carey Fessler

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: The story is about two twelve-year-olds trapped on a submarine the crew members of which were turned into mutants through a “radioactive incident.” Do the cover graphics suggest that? Only in part, I’d say.

The main image, in the central box, shows the boy and girl. She is looking through the periscope. He seems to be startled by something he learned from the instrumentation. Thus tension is shown, but there is no hint of anyone else being aboard the submarine, let alone mutants, and there is no indication that the kids have been shanghaied.

Nevertheless, the illustration is well done: her face is larger, being closer to the viewer, but his face is more brightly lit; they end up with equal prominence. The scene is highly detailed, down to the radar screen and the other monitors. By comparison, the image of the exterior of the submarine suffers.

First of all, is this the submarine they’re on, or is it an enemy’s submarine? Its contours are strangely bulbous, and what’s that coming out of it? No doubt it’s a torpedo, but, when the cover is seen at small size, it looks like a green pencil with a dark brown eraser. Even when enlarged, it hardly seems shaped like a regular torpedo.

The images compete against one another—and not successfully. The better image shows the protagonists. It should have been the sole image, though redrawn to occupy all of the cover. If that were done, there would be room to insert a menacing presence in a shadowy area toward the rear of where the kids are standing: a mere hint of a mutant would do.

Imagine if the boxed illustration were removed and all that remained were the torpedo-shooting submarine on a background of blue. That would make for a dull cover and not one likely to catch a child’s eye. Then imagine the boxed illustration taking up the whole space. What ten-year-old could resist?

As it stands, the cover indicates the genre well enough. This isn’t a history of World War II submarine warfare. It’s a pre-teen thriller. The boxed illustration looks the part; the submarine, not so much.

Typography: The title is fine. The same word has been used as the title of lots of books. Its presentation here is at once easy to read yet not dull. The characters in this font sit at different positions relative to the base line, and that works well for the kind of book this is.

If the graphics were reconfigured as proposed, with a revision of the boxed illustration taking up all the cover, the illustrator would need to include an un-busy area at the top where the title could reside without conflicting with fine detail.

That same area should hold the subtitle. Now, the subtitle is placed indiscriminately atop the illustration and in letters that are partially transparent. The words “from the” are far too small. Perhaps the designer thought that making them the size of the other words would make the subtitle too long for the interior of the box. Maybe so, but that should have been a clue that something was amiss with the original placement.

Even in the current scheme the subtitle should be moved to beneath the title. The submarine could be shrunk (it doesn’t have to be as large as it is), and the title could be compressed vertically. Those adjustment would provide uncramped room for the subtitle, which should be set in one line with all characters the same height, except that the font shouldn’t be the one used for the title. It should be the one used for the author name. That way, the subtitle would be maximally distinct from the title.

As for the author name, it’s fine as it is, though it should be in white, like the rest of the text. If the boxed illustration is enlarged to cover the whole cover, it may be necessary to change the color of the author name—and perhaps the color of the title and subtitle. That would be determined mainly by the new background color.

If several alternate colors would seem to work, the designer should choose one that picks up a color in the illustration, such as yellow or gold from the girl’s hair—but not pink from the back side of the boy’s pants. (And why are his pants that color anyway?)

Overall: I suspect this cover’s main weakness, the attempt to use two illustrations at once, arose from the designer’s desire to convey as much of the story as possible. That is a temptation that usually must be resisted.

Designers often acquiesce to authors’ request for covers to include multiple items that represent multiple parts of the story. Often, those things have meaning only to the authors; they can’t mean anything to the readers until the readers have read the books.

At other times, such as here, designers want to include things that will make sense to prospective readers (in this case, the submarine), but those things aren’t necessary to convey the sense of the book. They just end up cluttering the cover.

Case Study 48

Title: James and the Rainy Day

Author: Philip Blows

Designer: Gareth Lucas

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: It’s hard to find fault with this delightful image. Although one might expect rain to suggest disappointment or sadness, it’s clear that the weather is unable to ruin this boy’s bright spirits—or even those of the two birds, who seem to be smiling also.

Of course, the boy is wildly out of proportion to his ship. In real life he hardly would stand above its railing, and the sail would be above his head. No matter. This is a children’s book, and verisimilitude isn’t expected. What is expected is an attractive image that invokes wonder, and that’s what this image does.

If there is an incongruity that might be caught by a young reader, it might be that on this rainy day the rain seems far in the background. None of it is hitting the boy or the ship. Perhaps that’s part of the storyline, but I wonder if the “Rainy” part of the title might be more effective if splatters covered the whole scene.

Typography: The title and author name seem to be hand drawn. If so, this is a cover on which hand-drawn lettering works. The title is on a billowing sail. I wish the letters had been shaped more to indicate the billowing, being worked more into the bulging shape of the sail.

The only problematic part of the title is the coloration. The lettering, here and on the author name, is the only dull thing on the cover. Perhaps red, taken from the boy’s bandana, might have worked for the title. It certainly would stand out better. Even solid black would be an improvement. The gray just seems too subdued.

A similar comment can be made regarding the coloration of the author name. Instead of red, perhaps it could be in a blue taken from the boy’s pants.

The “O” in “Blows” is filled in. There is no doughnut hole. This parallels the treatment of “A” in the title, but the solid “O,” being hand-drawn, might be taken to be an error in drawing, as though the artist’s pen leaked.

What about “by” before the author name? Almost always this is a mistake and a mark of an amateur effort. (You never see “by” in books from the Big 5 publishers.) In this case, though, I’d give “by” a pass because the young reader might misread the author name otherwise.

He might read “Philip Blows” not as a first name and surname but as part of a sentence, as in “Philip blows up the balloon.” If he takes the surname as a verb, even momentarily, that is an indication that the cover needs adjustment, and the usually improper “by” may be just the trick.

Overall: If this cover were made before the plot of the book even were thought out, on its own it could inspire a storyline. It’s that attractive. The suggested changes are minor. The cover works as it is, even if it could work a little better with a tweak here and a tweak there.

Case Study 13

Title: Through the Barricades

Author: Denise Deegan

Designer: Lawston Design

Genre: Children’s fiction

Graphics: The story is set during World War I, so the background of the image is appropriate, though it’s difficult to make out at thumbnail size or even at the size used here. Only at full size can one tell that the young woman stands in front of a front-line trench and that soldiers are at the top of it. Apparently she is a nurse: she wears an apron with a red cross on it, but the haziness of that part of the image and the overlay of text make it a bit hard to see that she in fact is wearing an apron.

I understand why authors like to put “seals of approval” on their covers, but often, like here, it’s hard to make those work with the rest of the graphics. Certainly I’d include a seal testifying that a book won the Newberry Medal or even one of that award’s three honorable mentions, but most seals, as with the Spark Award, don’t have remotely the same cachet, and I wonder whether using them compensates enough for the intrusion they make on the cover.

Typography: Start with the author name. Here is a good use of red text. As I have said in earlier case studies, and as I no doubt will say in future ones, red text demands a light background, from white through beige to tones of yellow, as here. Too many author-designers, and even some professional designers, place red text against a dark background (often blue), but in such a case the red doesn’t pop. Here it does.

The title font is less interesting than the author-name font. Its greatest problem is that its thin lines don’t stand out enough against parts of the image, particularly the dark area with the pendant. The author name works fine with thin letters because there is nothing behind it. Here thicker letters were needed.

The blurb from author Hazel Gaynor is weak tea: “a thoroughly compelling book.” Those words carry almost no meaning. Surely they could have come up with something that either gives a sense of what the book is about or somehow singles it out from the author’s other books. Since this blurb adds nothing, it should have been left out.

Overall: The strength of this cover is in the young woman’s face: determined, perhaps already knowing too much, perhaps soon to find the war too much for herself. It’s the face that carries the day, but the rest of the cover is fairly good too.