Case Study 87

Title: Glimpses of Light

Editors: Jeanette O’Hagan and Nola L. Passmore

Designer: Jeanette O’Hagan

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: This is a collection of 26 disparate stories and poems. They don’t seem to have a common theme (the subtitle’s “imagination and hope” don’t constitute a theme), so it must have been hard to come up with a cover design that indicates what this book is about—so hard that it wasn’t done at all.

What we have instead is a cliché ocean scene. According to the book’s credits page, the photo was taken near Scawfell Island, which is off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Not that the location matters much, since the photo is indistinguishable from a thousand other photos of calm seas, distant ships, and pretty sunsets.

Perhaps the image was chosen to link to the last word in the title, “Light,” but the symbolism doesn’t work. This is a book about hope, and hope is a forward-looking thing. Hope is concerned with tomorrow, not with yesterday. You might expect a photo of a glorious sunrise, but this photo shows a sunset, which means the light soon will go out, and that’s the opposite of hope.

Whatever the motive for choosing the photo, the selection was made unimaginatively. Surely there must be other images that evoke hope without evoking instead countless similar covers.

When a designer ends up with graphics like these, stock needs to be taken. Something has gone wrong. Usually the problem is that the designer is an amateur trying to make a cover on the cheap, but sometimes professional designers let down their guard and produce something along these lines.

Even collections of unrelated items deserve covers that don’t look like they have come off an assembly line. It’s difficult to design a cover that fairly represents each of several separate contributions. That might be doable if there are only three or four items, but 26? At that point the designer has to go a different way.

Instead of trying to convey an abstract notion such as hope (which, if present in each of 26 contributions, must manifest itself in bewilderingly different ways), the designer should aim for a cover that intrigues, mystifies, or provokes—things placid waters can’t do. This may mean that the cover shouldn’t sport a nature photo at all.

Typography: The title, subtitle, and editors’ names all need revision. Let’s assume that the photo is retained. What can be done with the text?

The present title font is one of those fonts commonly thought to suggest a literary or artsy temperament. The thin lines and flourishes are thought to imply sensitivity or compassion or fineness of mind, and they may imply any or all of those things—or none of them.

Some people think that collections of short stories or poems are obligated to be titled in letters that bring to mind the Art Deco era or the Renaissance or some other time of imagined High Art, but that’s not true. Even collections ought to have titling that is clear and bold, even if also whimsical and delightful.

This cover would have been served better by a font with thicker letters and fewer curlicues. That isn’t to say that Helvetica would have been best. It wouldn’t have been; it would have failed at the other extreme. But the font used here looks weak, and it doesn’t stand out well from the uniformly-colored background. It might work as a chapter-title font on the interior of a book, but it doesn’t work well on a cover.

However the title is fixed, the fix won’t be complete until the letters’ color is changed. Even if the title were in thick letters, white letters won’t stand out well against the yellow background. They should be black.

The subtitle has two problems. Its capitalization is irregular, at least for its purpose. If it were a sentence, it would be fine, being capitalized only in the first word, but a title or subtitle needs either capitalization of every word other than articles, conjunctions, and prepositions or it needs to be set in all caps, which probably would have been the best solution here, to distinguish the subtitle from the title.

The subtitle is so long that it stretches too far across the cover, coming too close to the edges. To bring it in would require reducing the point size, but that would make the words less visible. That’s not the way to go.

One solution would be to use a new font or the same font in a condensed version. That still may not allow the letters’ size to be increased enough. The best choice might be to set the subtitle in two centered lines: “Stories and Poems/ of Imagination and Hope”. That would allow the present font to be maintained, even when made several points larger.

Like the title, the subtitle needs to be in a different color, since white doesn’t contrast sufficiently with this background. Black again would be the best choice, since the image has no other color, such as dark blue, to draw from.

The editors’ names have been placed on top of the mottled sea. This makes for difficulty in reading. The names are in yellow, which contrasts well with some parts of the water but not with other parts, since the water is reflecting a yellow sun. This is where white would have been a better choice.

Why are the editors’ names shifted to the left margin? Perhaps it was done to move the text away from the glint of the setting sun. Okay, but doing so throws the cover off balance, so there’s a negative in maintaining this placement. It’s a negative that may not be avoidable, given the choice of photo.

Using “Edited by” is necessary to indicate that these are editors, not authors, but those two words ought to be in all caps (to match the preferred revision of the subtitle), leaving only the editors’ names in upper- and lowercase.

Overall: A poor choice of photo leads to a poor choice of typography. The photo may be attractive in itself, but it has no obvious connection to the book’s contents. It seems to have been used because nothing better came to mind—a good reason to employ a professional designer.

This book includes more than twenty contributors. It would have been a tip of the hat to them to have arranged for a cover that doesn’t look so bland.

Case Study 14

Title: Sacred River

Author: Debu Majumdar

Designer: Evolution Design

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: This novel tells the story of a journey along the Ganges, so it is natural that a photo of the river would be the main graphical element, but this photo fails. If you remove the text from the cover, it’s not clear whether the water is a river, part of the ocean, or perhaps even a lake. In any case, nothing about it says “Ganges.” It would have been better to use no river image than this one.

Typography: Except for “A Novel,” all of the white text has a drop shadow behind it—and with reason. White text against white or light blue is difficult to read, and the drop shadows don’t resolve the problem. Solid black would have been better, assuming this photo was retained.

There seem to be three different fonts: one for the title, one for “A Novel” (why does the least important text get a font of its own?), and one for the subtitle, tagline, and author name. As a rule, a cover should use one or two fonts, and there is no clear need to break that rule with this cover.

The tagline wastes an opportunity. It ought to say something about the hero’s adventure, but it tries to speak to the reader directly: “An adventure through India that will touch your soul.” Then it adds, “Compelling and powerful”—which adds nothing. Such fog words don’t clarify; they obscure, and they ought to be omitted.

The tagline is the place where a book—particularly a novel—should demonstrate intrigue. It should make the prospective buyer wonder what the book is about while inducing him to lay down money for it. It should say something about the protagonist, but this tagline only hints that there is a protagonist.

Overall: The opening paragraphs of the book give the reader a murder, the quick, accidental death of the murderer, and an unbroken numerical code. That’s a promising opening, but you never would suspect this book to have such action at the get-go, at least not from the cover.

The designer seems to be someone whose work chiefly is with designing websites. This would have been a good instance to be strict with oneself and to have used a designer experienced in designing book covers.

Case Study 3

Title: The Last Homecoming

Author: Dan Chabot

Designer: The Book Design House

Genre: General fiction

Graphics: In the prologue the author says, “This is Norman Rockwell’s America, the America of everyday lives and all of their joys and sorrows.” The novel is about one-time residents of a doomed house who return to say good-bye to it on Christmas Eve. The illustration thus is quite appropriate: a house that looks tired, even with a covering of snow; the snow itself, blanketing the whole scene; Christmas lights.

I don’t know why the designer made certain elements, such as the lights, fuzzy, and perhaps what look to me like camera lens artifacts in the foreground are meant to be out-of-focus snowflakes. Hard to tell. The Norman Rockwell effect would have been stronger had the illustration been more in his style, with sharper lines—more a sense of Vermeer than Renoir. Still, it’s a good picture.

Typography: This cover’s problems are mainly with the text. The entire illustration has a bluish tint, and that causes trouble with the subtitle, which is red, thus violating a cardinal (no pun intended) rule that red shouldn’t overlay blue because (1) the red won’t stand out well and (2) the text might look as though it’s buzzing, which doesn’t help legibility.

The designer could have chosen a yellow tone from the windows (or even a brighter yellow), though that color probably would have been used best on the title. In that case, the subtitle and author name could have been in black. As it is, the title and author name are in two tones of gray, which makes them stand out insufficiently. Whatever text ends up in black should be at 100 percent, like the shutters on the windows.

Then there are the fonts. The subtitle and title are in one font, the author name in another. The first two are in all uppercase, the third in all lowercase. I would have put all three elements in the same font, with the subtitle and author name in all caps but the title in upper- and lowercase. The first two words of the title should go on one line. “Homecoming” should be kerned more tightly so that its length matches the combined length of the other two. The present title font’s lines are too thin to stand out well against the corrugated landscape. A different font should be used, one with thicker lines and shorter serifs.

Last, I’d get rid of the two ornamented rules (lines). They serve no purpose. If done in the right fonts and in the right colors, the title, subtitle, and author name will distinguish themselves from one another. Rarely are rules needed. If they seem to be, usually that’s an indication that there is something wrong with the typography.

Overall: The top half of this cover earns at least a solid B, while the bottom half struggles to earn a C–. It wouldn’t have taken much to make this an outstanding cover: some tweaking of the illustration and easy reconfiguring of the text.