“Books remain stubbornly, thrillingly relevant”: the enduring value of book design

Now in its 96th year, the annual 50 Books | 50 Covers competition aims to reward the best in book design — inside and out.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has been judging books by their covers for nearly 100 years. Since 1923 to be exact — but it’s also what’s inside that counts. The annual competition was originally known as Fifty Books of the Year, and jurors focused on the “construction of the book and the printed page”, its current organiser Heather Strelecki tells Design Week.

As book production expanded, so did the AIGA’s outlook. In the 1960s, it started to evaluate covers distinct from the books inside. This was in a response to the “often shoddy text pages of mass-market paperbacks with brilliant covers”, as an AIGA newsletter from April 1960 explained. In 1995, the start of 50 Books | 50 Covers — co-chaired by designers William Drenttel and Paul Davis — was the organisation’s attempt to “recognize excellence in both areas of design”.

Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems, a 2007 winner. Art director: Rodrigo Corral, illustrator: Marian Bantjes. Courtesy of the AIGA Design Archives.

“Today, we ask the jurors to look at the book as a whole,” Strelecki says. That includes the front matter, the numbering of pages, as well as image and text arrangement. She adds: “And we then to try to separate the content of the book from the design. Is it beautifully done? Are they compelled to turn the page?”

The jurors must make a selection of 50 books and 50 covers from a selection of hundreds; any book published in the past year is eligible for submission. As a way to advance the final decision-making process, Strelecki says the jurors often ask each other: “Why now? Why this year?”

And while there might not be one rule to good book design — Strelecki calls it a “process” between designers and clients — the jurors bring together a wealth of experience. This year’s jury is chaired by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, director of design at the Whitney Museum of American Art Hillary Greenbaum, executive director of the National Book Foundation Lisa Lucas and a professor at Otis College of Art and Design Silas Munro. Together and through that selection process, they might reveal answers to the secret of good book design Strelecki says.


“Books remain stubbornly, thrillingly relevant”

“Today’s digital world is ever more ephemeral, and our attention spans and capacity for in-depth engagement seem to decrease in inverse proportion,” Michael Bierut tells Design Week about the competition. “But books, physical books, remain stubbornly, thrillingly relevant.”

Describing book covers as a combination of “consumer packaging” and “intellectual concision of a good poster”, Bierut clearly sees value of good book design in 2020. Designers, he says, have responded to modern demands with “passion and integrity, devising new ways for these objects to assert their claims on our attention and their presence in our lives”. “A well-designed book makes the ultimate case for sustainability”, Bierut adds.

The Visual History of Type, a 2017 winner. Designer: Paul McNeil. Courtesy of the AIGA Design Archives.

While the function of book design has remained fairly steady, requirements do change: the rise of audiobooks, commercial demands (the ever-controversial film-to-book cover), and the evolution of printing technology (there was a not-too-distant past where a book cover might not have featured photography, for example). In this way, book covers can provide an incisive insight into a time period.

“A beloved book is a talisman, inevitably associated with its cover,” Bierut says. “They are markers in time and signposts in our evolving shared culture.”

The submissions for 50 Books|50 Covers runs December 2019 — February 2020. Below is a selection of past winners, with a design description or juror’s comment. All images are sourced from the AIGA Design Archives.


The Bountiful Cow, by Helen Czaja (1944). Designed and illustrated by Michael Czaja, published by Henry Holt and Company. Format: Book

The individuality of a manuscript, with its sensitively adjusted spaces between words and between words and pictures, has been preserved in the reproduction of pictures, typesetting, and page lay-outs. The book has an air of spontaneity. Its oblong format and double-page spreads give a strong movement to carry the eye along. Although there is only black ink on white paper, there is enough sparkle to suggest color. The cloth binding is good and solid.

Peter Beilenson, Paul McPharlin, Ernst Reichl (jurors)

Many Strong and Beautiful Voices, by Quinn Eli (1997). Designed and published by Running Press Book Publishers, illustrated by Charlene Potts. Format: Book cover

This collection of quotes celebrates Africans throughout the world, from America and the Caribbean to Europe and Africa. Because of the diversity of people represented, we didn’t want to limit the audience by making the faces on the cover too specific. We felt the cover should be as rich and warm as the text inside. The hand-lettered type and color palette hint at heritage, and the African-inspired pattern on the case cover provides a nice surprise.

(Design description)


Remote, by David Shields (1995). Designed by Chip Kidd, published by Alfred A. Knopf Publishing Inc. Format: Book cover

The color bars on this Jacket might be seen as merely abstract without the title, but together they make a test pattern. David Shields is obsessed with the cult of celebrity and the TV is his temple. This jacket harkens to falling asleep in front of the tube and waking up at around four in the morning, wondering what that ringing sound is…

(Design description)


43 Literacy Posters (1997). Designed by John Bielenberg of Bielenberg Design, published by AIGA/Colorado. Format: Book cover

In 1997 the AIGA/Colorado board of directors invited designers from across the United States to produce one-of-a-kind poster to promote literacy. This book documents forty-three of those posters. I was perversely interested in the idea of promoting the concept of literacy without actually using any words. The idea for the cover photo came from my two-year-old daughter (shown on the cover) who loves books but shows absolutely no interest in television or any screen-based images. I was trying to illustrate the competition between paper-based books and television for the attention of our children.

(Design description)


Salutations 1995, by Walter Hamady and John Wilde (2001). Designed by Walter Hamady, illustrated by John Wilde, published by The Perishable Press Limited. Format: Book

Every book poses the special question of how to convert the integrity of meaning from idea to physical artifact with the guiding gnomon of appropriateness. The solution has to do with egolessness in listening, love and respect of text, and a crafting that allows for the dignity of risk. The audience is fellow-subversives who absolutely love to read books and who are addicted sensualists devoted to the extension of text.

(Design description)


Love Poems, by Pablo Neruda (2007). Designed by Rodrigo Corral, illustrated by Marian Bantjes, published by New Directions Publishing. Format: Book cover

Graceful, elegant, inventive, lyrical and appropriate to content. The sans serif and ornament are integrated perfectly, as are the unexpected pink and copper foil.

(Jurors’ note)


The Healing of America, by T.R. Reid (2009). Designed by Jamie Keenan, published by The Penguin Press. Format: Book cover

The choice to put the type on the cap of the aspirin bottle instead of the more obvious solution of putting it on the label is appreciated and allows for the subtle reference to the globe with the twist-off arrows.

(Jurors’ note)


Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years, by Ilan Stavans (2010). Designed by St. Martin’s Press, jacket designed by Jason Ramirez, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Format: Book, book cover

Project brief: Book-jacket art for a comprehensive biography that charts the remarkable years of Gabriel García Márquez’s life leading up to the publication of his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude. The project brief called for the jacket art to convey the mood and spirit of magical realism, the literary genre for which the subject is best known.

Approach: The ultimate concept entailed an image-driven approach that did not depend upon an image of García Márquez. Printed on uncoated paper stock, the jacket marries the fantastic and literary components of the subject and the genre.

Effectiveness: The marriage of image and production value helped create a unique and relevant package for a biography without using the ordinary recipe of an image of the subject.

(Design description)

The photograph has a wonderful lushness and depth complemented by the understated typography.

(Jurors’ note)


Listen to This, by Alex Ross (2010). Designed by Charlotte Strick, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Format: Book, book cover

Project brief: A book of essays about music published during the span of the author’s 12-year career at The New Yorker magazine. Format: Book, book cover

Approach: I designed the jacket for the author’s previous book, The Rest Is Noise. The bold red I used for both jackets has become known around the office as “Alex Ross Red.” It was decided very early in the process that this new book should also have an all-type design. The vibrating type is intentional and is intended to represent sound.

Effectiveness: Some people have complained to me that the design hurts their eyes. In this case, I take that as a great compliment! Getting the colors just right to produce the effect was the trick, and the printer did a great job.

(Design description)


Some Rain Must Fall and other stories, by Michel Faber (2016). Jacket design by Rafaela Romaya, illustrated by Yehrin Tong, published by Canongate Books. Format: Book, book cover

While on the one hand making the author’s name and title appear to be raining not a surprise, the design was handled so well that I can only marvel at its finesse.

(Michael Carabetta, juror)


Irma Boom: Biography in Books (2010). Designed by Irma Boom Office. Format: Book, book cover

A statement as gutsy as it is whimsical, this tiny exhibition catalogue from one of the world’s great book designers proves that it can be possible that less is all.

(Jurors’ note)


The Visual History of Type, by Paul McNeil (2017). Designed by MuirMcNeil, published by Laurence King. Format: Book

The Visual History of Type is a definitive survey of the major typefaces produced since the advent of printing with movable type in the mid-fifteenth century to the present day. More than 320 typefaces are faithfully reproduced in the form of their original type specimens or earliest printings, located chronologically rather than by classification, and contextualized through a combination of editorial consistency and restrained typography whose structure is intended to foreground powerful content rather than to intrude.

The publication sets out to communicate the stages of the development of type from a broad perspective in relation to cultural and technological narratives. Its design integrates textual, visual, typographic and historical facets in a unique body of work, emphasizing the representation of key typefaces presented in their historical specimens in a readable, versatile and unobtrusive format. All of the typefaces selected are reproduced as close to actual size throughout in spreads that are arranged systematically, supported by succinct summaries of the development, appearance and application of each design, and by tabular information locating them firmly within their context. The traditional form of the book is the perfect medium for The Visual History of Type because it provides a natural connection between its form and its content: much of the book’s subject matter relates directly to the art of printing and its historical development. This book could not exist without its publisher’s investment in it, a commitment currently for which there is no equivalent in digital and online environments.

(Design description)

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