I used to be embarrassed to often buy books based on their cover, but I’m not anymore: book covers are a labor of love, filled with art and design.
This is the driving force behind the annual 50 pounds | 50 Covers list, which has just been published by the AIGA, a professional association of the design industry. The competition, which began in 1923, offers a glimpse into that particular moment in time, where there is growing diversity in design as well as a fixation on typography.
This year’s 50 books, which span fiction and non-fiction for children and adults, were selected by a jury of four designers from various disciplines. Silas Munro, president of the jury this year, is a partner in the design agency Polymode, which specializes in books, among other things. As the jury selected the 605 book entries from 29 countries, Munro says it soon became clear what makes a good book cover. “I chose a jury in which we all have different approaches and aesthetics,” he says. “But we agreed that good coverage is unexpected and stops you visually.”
A notable example of this is black food by Bryant Terry, which is a cookbook. But in an unusual move, there’s no food photography on the cover, instead there’s bold, fun, multi-colored typography. “He uses type to create something that sounded appetizing, but also speaks to black culture,” Munro says. “He embodies the chef who wrote him, and there’s just a vitality there that you don’t forget.”
A good book cover prepares the reader for what’s in the book, says Munro. It should create a mood that sets the groundwork for the story or information in it. “Design is an emotional act,” he says. “There’s a lot of intuition that goes into creating a cover.”
afrosurf, by surfer Selema Masekela, for example, talks about surfing culture on the African continent and features a photo of a black surfer looking directly at the reader, surrounded by green, yellow and red graphics reminiscent of African visual culture. It mirrors the content of the book, which is about a hobby that brings joy, but it also engages in current conversations about systemic oppression by discussing how black surfers are redefining a sport that has been historically white. “It’s about who’s visible, who’s included,” says Munro.
But the books chosen also reflect current design trends. Going through the list as a whole, many books feature nothing but bold and colorful typography. Others have no words at all, but present striking and dramatic images. It’s quite different from the trend of books a decade ago, says Munro, which typically featured both an image and the title. “We’re in the golden age of type design,” says Munro. “There are more diverse character designers out there, including people of color and women. Type design, even more than graphic design, has historically been reserved for white males. These diverse designers have developed new aesthetics, playing with proportions and colors in fonts that stand out.
As they sifted through the many books to come up with this list, Munro says an underlying question was what is the value of a book in our world. He argues that in our tumultuous times, full of political polarization, climate disasters and pandemics, books play an important role as they help people escape. “Books can transport you elsewhere and open up new worlds,” he says. “Having a beautiful book that resonates is a real treasure: it is the expression of knowledge or a story that can give us hope.”