Front matters

Does the book Front Cover: Great Book Jacket & Cover Design live up to its title’s aspirations? asks Angus Hyland, partner at Pentagram

Alan Powers’ Front Cover is a long overdue survey that considers the evolution of book cover design during the 20th century. It charts the rise of an increasingly competitive marketplace and discusses the methods employed by publishers and designers in order to remain relevant, innovative and commercially successful.

As a historical survey of its subject matter, Front Cover succeeds on many levels, benefiting as it does from a clear, ordered structure and a good balance of text and illustration. Powers opens with an edifying introduction, followed by four main chapters, each of which offers a range of interesting perspectives. It certainly contains some wonderful examples of book cover design, but, in a rather unbiased manner, Powers also considers other less appealing examples, in order to maintain a sense of historical context.

Although it is by no means a comprehensive review of the subject, there are several intriguing pockets of information. There are a number of case studies that take into account specific authors and literary genres such as The British Crime Novel, Bond Novels and Cold War Paranoia. A range of noteworthy publishers are examined including Faber, Bloomsbury and Penguin.

The designers are the real stars, and rightfully so, with some striking examples of work by Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar in particular.

One case study, Discreetly Scandalous, considers the changing covers of Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita. The initial idea is essentially a very good one, taking into account changing markets, trends, attitudes and design values. Unfortunately, all the case studies have been limited to only one spread, leaving very little scope for detail or expansion. Powers could possibly have examined how the cover was translated for US or European markets.

However, there are no specific comparisons of design values for different countries or cultures which, as a consequence, lends the book a distinctly English tone. Notably, there are virtually no covers from the past ten years from influential American publishers (such as Knopf) or designers (Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wilde, for example).

The use of Gill Sans throughout the book confirms this Anglo-centric t

one and adds further substance to the impression that Powers is actually selling nostalgia, rather than design. This impression is, unfortunately, reflected by the book’s flawed design, the use of repetitive layouts, a poor balance of fiction and non-fiction and imperfect copy editing. The covers are reproduced in a variety of sizes, with no indication whatsoever as to scale. In his introduction, Powers refers to the seductive qualities of good book cover design. Ironically, this notion (which should be central to the very substance of his survey) appears to have been ignored by its designer, Blu Inc Graphics.

As an unprecedented survey and a general introduction of the subject to a wide audience, Front Cover will be very useful. It is a retrospective view of book covers in general, rather than Great Book Jacket and Cover Design. The fact that it rarely rises beyond the potential of the subtitle, would seem to suggest that there is plenty of scope for further books on the subject.

Front Cover by Alan Powers is published by Mitchell Beazley on 18 October, priced £20.

Latest articles