AIGA names the best book covers of the year


While the phrase “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” is helpful in some situations, it’s not so helpful when choosing books to read and explore. Designing book covers is a unique skill and craft meant to convey a message. Book covers can pique our interest more than a blurb or even the author’s name. That’s why the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has set out for the past 99 years to draw attention to and annually celebrate what it considers to be the best of the best in cover design in its annual report 50 Books | Contest of 50 covers.

Nobody Talks About It by Patricia Lockwood.  Image: Riverhead Books.
(Riverhead Books)

The 50 winners are drawn from more than 600 submissions (in 2021) around the world. They range from children’s picture books and adult fiction to non-fiction titles that include cookbooks, musician collectibles, and academic books. Even in fiction there are new titles like nobody talks about it by Patricia Lockwood and cover redesigns like O Retrato de Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray) by Oscar Wilde now designed by Casa Rex and Gilgamesh newly translated by Sophus Helle (designed by Yale University Press.)

AIGA’s four jurors include esteemed designers Silas Munro, Laura Coobs, Brian Johnson and Kimberly Varella. Competition Council Chairman Munro said in a press release,

In this year’s competition, innovative book designs on topics ranging from conception and motherhood to African surf culture, stories of resistance, visual histories of Detroit, traditions of black kitchen, etc., give our jury life, hope and visible windows to new possible worlds. . The covers and books we reviewed had a diverse visual language and took aesthetic risks.

The Judging Process

The winning books will enter the AIGA Collection at Columbia University’s Butler Library Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The full title is 50 Books | 50 covers because they watch every inch of the nominees. The cover, edges, flaps, images, cases, etc. are considered alongside the context of the novel and what is happening in the world. On the Monocle Weekly podcast, Jessica Helfand (a 2019 juror) talked about the physicality of the books and how they make them judged in person. “The experience of looking inside the book is quite different from that of [just] looking at the covers.

There Plant Eyes by M. Leona Godin: A Cultural and Personal History of Blindnes.  Image: Books of the Pantheon.
(Books of the Pantheon)

As I browsed through this year’s winners, I was able to learn a lot more by seeing images taken from different angles or magnified. For example, looking closely at the portrait of M. Leona Godin There Plant Eyes: A Cultural and Personal History of Blindness you can see the braille which, if you hold the book in person, is readable. The use of ultra-violet colors (like those in the electromagnetic spectrum) makes the title difficult to read even if you have 20/20 vision. This difficulty of the spectator refers to the subject of the novel.

Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl.  Image: back.

Jurors reward serious creations as well as silly creations that spark joy and our imagination. The key is that they do something special and stay within the theme of the novel. Some of them include titles like Have you ever seen a flower? by Shawn Harris and Black Food: stories, art and recipes from across the African Diaspora by Bryant Terry. Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl is covered in thorns.

What are some of your favorites among the winners of the 2021 edition of 50 books | 50 blankets? What’s the latest book design that blew your mind?

(image: Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and Pitzer College Art Galleries, Whitney Museum of American Art and Microcosm Publishing.)

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