Case Study 77

Title: The Inhabitants

Author: Kevin Flanders

Designer: Kevin Flanders

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is the first book in a trio. The covers are identical, except for minor alterations. Different windows are lit, different silhouettes appear, the exterior of the house has Christmas decorations and icicles on the cover of the second volume and blood and icicles on the cover of the third. The color scheme changes slightly, but on each cover the house is seen at night, with the moon giving background light.

This is an inexpensive way to produce three covers at not much more than the cost of one. The savings must have been minimal, though, since this is an author-designed production, and the image of the house probably was obtained at little or no cost. The only real cost was the time used in manipulating the illustration.

The three stories concern a haunted house in which mass deaths occurred years ago. The house later was turned into apartments, and the stories are about how renters deal with one another and with malign forces surrounding them. Apparently not a few of the renters are malign themselves.

From one volume to the next the inhabitants change (perhaps the ghosts recur from story to story), and the three covers signify that by showing lights and silhouettes in different windows. The first volume’s cover shows two silhouettes at windows on the ground floor. The men seem to be peering out the windows The third volume shows only the upper parts of two silhouettes on the top floor. Those people seem to be trying to claw their way out. Below them, blood streams down the exterior wall.

All in all, this is a simple but effective arrangement, but it has limitations. The third volume, with the blood, clearly marks itself out as horror. This first volume doesn’t. There is nothing horrific on this cover, but there is a sense of spookiness, given the silhouettes and the darkness. This cover might belong to a thriller or a suspense story as easily as to a horror story.

Typography: There are but two textual elements, the title and the author name. They are in the same font and the same blue.

The font is not inappropriate for the genre. It has a reverse glow, with the interior of the letters being brighter than their outlines. Oddly, in the title the letter I is smaller than any of the other letters, but in the author name that letter is the same size as the others. This is especially disconcerting in that the first letter of the main word of the title is an I. If this was done purposefully by the designer, he should undo it. It serves no purpose.

That is a small problem. A bigger problem is the color used. Blue is exquisitely wrong here because it fails to stand out. The entire cover has a blue cast to it, so the text makes blue on blue. This would have been the place for a distinctive color, such as yellow for the title. (I would use white for the author name.)

The title consists of two words, the short “The” and the long “Inhabitants.” It’s not easy to put them on one line. That would be adding four units, counting the space, and “Inhabitants” already looks cramped. One could resolve this by changing to a more compressed font, but an easier solution is to change the title.

Why not simply “Inhabitants”? Dropping the definite article gives more focus, and a slightly different sense, to the chief word, and it would have the happy effect of removing the ill-fitting article. Even with that change, along with the change in color, the lone remaining word would need attention. It’s too wide and needs to be compressed slightly, so that there would be about half again as much space on either side.

The author name should be where it is (though slightly raised) but in a sans serif font. The title’s font is so distinctive that it shouldn’t be used elsewhere on the cover. Once is enough.

The cover needs one more textual element, either a subtitle or a tagline. Using the house’s address, the subtitle might read “Horror at 99 Deepwoods Drive.” That tells the genre, and it indicates that the house itself is important to the story. A tagline could be something like “A Tale of Residential Horror” or “Renters Check in But They Don’t Check Out”—something to make clear what sort of book this is.

Overall: The illustration is simple but effective, but it is more effective in the second and third volumes of the trio than in this first volume. It needs assistance in the form of a subtitle or tagline that specifies the genre, and it needs text that more readily stands out from the image.

Case Study 72

Title: Garden of Fiends

Editor: Mark Matthews

Designer: Zach McCain

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is a collection of eight fictional stories about addiction to drugs and drink. The book’s purpose is to warn of the dangers of addiction and to show hope for recovery.

The genre is horror. How well does the cover suggest the genre? Pretty well, I’d say, since it sports an image not unlike those painted by Hieronymus Bosch. We see a disembodied head that has mouth agape and eyes aflame (in the worst sense of eyes being aflame).

When seen at small size, portions of the image are hard to make out. Are those swords piercing the neck? On closer inspection, they’re seen to be hypodermic needles. And what’s in the mouth—or coming out of the mouth? Some items are hard to identify. It turns out that some are medicinal capsules.

The background to the image is a sickly green, an appropriate color under the circumstances. The background is lighter at the top, darker at the bottom, and it’s splotchy. That gives it interest—far better than having just one, solid color—but it means that small items at the bottom, which are dark themselves, don’t stand out well.

One of the hallmarks of Bosch’s paintings was their precision and clarity. That fifteenth-century artist succeeded in making even the smallest objects in his paintings comprehensible in their appearance, if not in their meaning. This image doesn’t pull that off, the small objects at the bottom looking like an undifferentiated jumble.

Still, the overall effect works. This is a “horrible” image (particularly the eyes) because the book’s subject is horrible: the horror of mind and body being destroyed by addiction.

Typography: There are three typographical components: title, subtitle, and list of authors. Given the prominence of the head, the title seems too small by comparison. It doesn’t stand out enough. A more compressed font, with thicker lines, would have been better.

The distressed effect given to the present font (and to all the text) is a good one, but it does make each letter harder to read than it otherwise would be. How to compensate?

The title is in green. While the font for the title ought to be changed, a font change alone may not be enough to make the title stand out sufficiently from the background. We now see green on yellow-green. To give the title the attention it deserves, it may be necessary to change the revised text to black. The distressed effect could be kept, its negatives being canceled out by the black of the lettering.

The names of the eight contributors are in deep red. Despite being so much smaller than the title, the names stand out better, but they do suffer from a busy background.

The names appear on four lines, with the spacing between the lines being irregular: there is less space between the second and third lines than between the other pairs. The spacings should be made equal, and they should be made smaller, about half the size they now are.

That would move the names a little further from the busiest part of the image, but they still would be competing against the background. It might be prudent to return to the image and lighten its upper half, making a more pronounced gradient beginning just above the skull. This would have the happy effect of helping the title too.

Lastly, the ornament that separates the top line of names from the subtitle should be removed. It serves no purpose. Blank space works just as well.

The subtitle is the least legible text. It is in red, like the author names, but, unlike them, it’s not bolded, perhaps to distinguish it from them. That could be achieved as well, and the subtitle could be made easier to read, if it, like the title, were put in black.

Note that all the text has been squared up, left and right, except for the subtitle, which is indented on both sides. This helps mark off the subtitle from the names beneath it. Also helping is the wide kerning of the subtitle. (Speaking of kerning, some of the names have problems with letter pairs.)

Overall: The cover’s feel is one of off-putting-ness, and that’s appropriate. It’s an ugly cover, in a good sense: the stories deal with ugly realities expressed fictionally, and the cover indicates what the reader will find inside.

The lower part of the image is indistinct; it could use Boschian attention. The text can be made more prominent and easier to read. The changes needed would be minimal.

Case Study 57

Title: Sparks

Authors: Matthew Cash and E. M. Dehaney

Designer: Matt Hill

Genre: Horror

Graphics: This is an anthology of fifteen stories, each having something to do with electricity and most of them being in the horror genre, though others qualify as science fiction or fantasy.

The illustration makes it doubly clear that this book involves things electrical. Not only are there high-tension electrical transmission towers, but the towers are being stuck by bolts of lightning. It’s a double whammy.

On closer inspection it becomes evident that, while the towers may have been taken from an actual photograph, the lightning bolts have been drawn in—not, one suspects, because the designer couldn’t find images of towers being struck by lightning (those are easily found) but because he wanted the lightning to illuminate not just the towers but the title.

This works effectively: we see a shaft of lightning sizzling down the right side of the A, and the only true sparks on the cover fall not so much from a struck tower as from the struck letter.

The cover image is well balanced, with bright lightning in the upper-left quadrant and a near-black tower in the upper- and lower-right quadrants. There is enough dark landscape at the bottom for the author names and a tagline, though there isn’t as useful a spot for the subtitle. Despite that inconvenience, the visuals are effective.

Typography: The textual treatment is quite fine. The lone title word, “Sparks,” stands out well, even though its color isn’t bright. The letters have been given a mottled appearance that makes them more interesting than they would have been if shown plain. It’s as though they have been pitted by repeated lightning strikes. The most concentrated mottling is on the right arm of the A, now under electrical attack.

The subtitle is not as legible as the title. It picks up its color from the background sky, and in some spots it is hard to read against the clouds. Perhaps the words’ color could have been more saturated.

However that may be, the subtitle gives a sense of what the book is about, and such a sense needs to be given because the one-word title, standing on its own, could work on a multiplicity of genres. A book titled Sparks could be, as here, a horror story, or it could be a romance, or the story of a dog named Sparks, or a biography of Alessandro Volta.

But does “An Electric Anthology” say enough? The one thing it says clearly is that this book is an anthology. The ambiguous “Electric” leads one to suspect that the anthology consists of works of fiction rather than non-fiction, as in “I Sing the Body Electric” (title of a short story collection by Ray Bradbury and, before that, of a poem by Walt Whitman).

But “Electric” isn’t enough to convey to us the book’s genre. That could be done by adding a tagline at the top of the cover or, in the same place, a short blurb from a well-known writer of horror stories. Imagine something like “‘Shocking horror stories.’ —Stephen King” (though probably a lesser-known author would have to suffice).

The names of the co-authors and co-editors stand out sufficiently from the dark backdrop. The line above their names, “Compiled and Edited by,” may be necessary to head off the mistaken idea that this is an anthology of works written only by them. If so, this becomes an exception to the rule of not using “by” when referring to an author.

In almost all cases it’s obvious that a name on a cover is the name of the author. Prefixing “by” does nothing but tell the reader that the author is an amateur (the designer likewise). On this cover, though, the use of “by” is justified and even helpful, as part of a phrase that explains who’s who.

Overall: This cover has many strengths and almost no weaknesses. I would give it an A-.

Case Study 21

Title: The Dark Sacrifice

Author: Jay Bower

Designer: MibleArt Design

Genre: Horror

Graphics: There is an element of spookiness in the photo, a function of the camera angle, the distortion of the trees, and the black-and-white palette. But does the photo suggest “horror”? Apparently not in the mind of the author, who added a tagline that says “A Horror Novel.” Such a tagline wouldn’t be needed if the cover image clearly indicated the genre.

The book opens with this line: “Ten-year-old Todd lay motionless on the bloodstained sacred altar.” Immediately the reader connects the title to the story. Why wasn’t the cover image chosen to match? An image of a bloody altar—say, a rustic one made of massive rocks—not only would have matched the title but would have made clear the genre. There would have been no need for the tagline, as least not as written.

Typography: Step back from the monitor and look at this cover. Which text stands out the most? Right: the author name. It’s white against dark gray, and so the contrast is strong. It can be seen from a distance.

Now look at the title and subtitle. The chief reason they don’t stand out as much isn’t the choice of font or even the text size. It’s the color. This is another example of red text against a dark background. Usually the offending background is dark blue, but gray can be as poor a choice, as here. I presume the designer chose red for the title and subtitle because this is a horror story, and horror implies blood, right? But symbolism shouldn’t outweigh legibility.

Now consider the title. How many words does it have? At first glance it appears to have two: Dark Sacrifice. But look carefully to find the tiny The that is only as tall as the strokes of the other letters are thick. Why this great disparity in size? It would have been better to make The the same size as the other letters. There is plenty of room for it on the first line.

Better yet, though, would be dropping The entirely. It isn’t needed. It adds nothing. When titling a book, as when writing its text, one should strive to eliminate words that aren’t doing productive work, and in this title the article adds nothing.

Now let’s look at how the title lettering is used. The letters are maneuvered behind and in front of the trees’ branches and trunks. Any particular branch passes behind some letters and in front of others, almost suggesting an attempt to mimic an M. C. Escher illustration. The result is that the letters look blotchy and so are somewhat difficult to read at thumbnail size.

Overall: It would not have taken much to make this a strong cover: a different color for the title and subtitle text, the elimination of a word, and the use of an image that doesn’t settle for “spooky” but says “horror.”