The pressure to conform

Supermarket buying power and an obsession with bestsellers are having a negative effect on creativity in book-jacket design

Books have for many years offered designers a highly creative outlet. Given the opportunity to experiment with illustration, art and photography to visually translate the concept of a book, designers have often responded with dramatic and inspiring ideas.

The Royal College of Art/ Oberon Books Illustration Awards 2007, which were announced last week, highlight that book-based design is still going strong. Students created a minimum of eight illustrations each, for titles ranging from novels such as Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis to Don Paterson’s poetry work Orpheus. Oberon proprietor James Hogan, who was on the judging panel, describes this year’s winning entry by Anne Harild as ‘outstanding, one of the best I’ve seen’. But despite this accolade, it’s doubtful the work will see the light of day in any commercial sense.

Book sales are in a state of flux in the UK. Supermarkets are becoming more powerful and Internet selling is increasing market share over mainstream retailers. HMV announced in March that it was planning to close up to 30 of its Waterstone’s book stores, give more space to higher margin items and reduce the number of high-brow titles. Faber, once considered one of the best-designed imprints, has brought design in-house, changed the packaging of its books for the first time in 20 years and moved into fast-selling general non-fiction and children’s stories. And, while the industry has yet to face serious competition from e-books, one look at the music sector, or other print businesses such as newspapers, has shown savvy publishers and retailers that this will probably happen soon.

As a result, the sector has been consolidating and the impact for designers has been a contraction of creativity. ‘The overall quality of book-cover design has been dipping since the 1980s,’ says graphic artist and RCA professor Andrzej Klimowski. ‘Books all look very similar to each other. Publishers get cold feet; they don’t want to take risks so they copy one successful formula. Biographies look a certain way; romantic fiction another. Fear and lack of courage is leading to mediocre covers.’

Many publishers agree. Several point to a growing corporatisation of the sector, where centralised buying means only certain styles of books, with covers that represent those styles, make the shelves. Hogan says books have become a ‘market-led product’ and in a market where retailers have clout and publishers are struggling for successes, risk-taking in jacket design or investment in illustration is unlikely. ‘Repetition of a successful formula or aping “what’s in at the moment” is seen as a safe bet,’ he says.

Klimowski sees the issue as a conflict between the marketing and profit-driven elements of modern publishing, and the cultural and artistic side that was traditionally associated with the sector. ‘Jackets are not just about decoration,’ he says. ‘A good design seriously understands the essence of a book; it translates fragments and movements from deep within the story to a visual symbol or metaphor.’

It’s a belief that Harild echoes. Her work ‘is a visual version of the poems’, she says. ‘I read the poems and tried to find what they meant to me, to visualise what they felt like,’ she says.

Some publishers still see the benefit of this approach. Penguin art director Jim Stoddart says publishers need to be braver. Homogeneity means ‘genres get tired quite quickly’, he says, and the solution is investing in design.

‘If you are brave it usually pays off. If you employ good design the public will come with you. It’s just a mater of tuning into the fact that people like fresh things. Publishers need to stand up and be different,’ he says.

Stoddart points to Freakonomics, published by Penguin in paperback late last year, as an example of how breaking the formula can raise interest in a title and increase its sales.

‘Rather than go for the safe option and adapt the hardback cover, or design an even more formulaic cover along the lines of The Tipping Point, which has become the ‘industry standard’ cover style for this kind of non-fiction book, we really hoped to broaden the book’s appeal beyond the business category,’ says Stoddart.

The final version, by Root Design, ‘breaks many self-imposed publishing industry rules, is very eye-catching on bookshop shelves and has become a bigger bestseller than we hoped for’, he says.

Hogan, too, believes design can reap rewards. ‘The public is saturated with images, so freshness is vital,’ he says. ‘You can never have too many new ideas, the more you evolve and change, the better.’

The challenge for designers working in the sector lies in translating this message to the mass-market commercial enterprises that dominate the sector and seem to be more consumed with aping previous bestsellers than distinguishing their offer.

The competition was open to all students in the college, though all, bar one, of the winners (third-prize winner Maria Luisa Silva, who is an architecture student) came from the Communication Art and Design course
• £1500 first prize went to Anne Harild for her work on Orpheus, by Don Paterson
• £500 second prizes went to Katherine Hardy and Robert Griffin
• £350 third prizes went to Catrin Morgan, Maria Luisa Silva and Meng-Chia Lai

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