Unsung winners

Booker Prize-winning authors are catapulted to fame, but what about the cover designer who creates the first impression of a novel’s content? Anna Richardson tracks the history of classic jackets and takes the pulse of present design trends

Next week the literary world will crown the best of literary fiction at the annual Man Booker Prize. The results will be beamed live across the country, the author can add the prestigious ‘Booker Prize winner’ label to their name, and the book will see a boost in sales. However, one hero of the process invariably remains unsung: the cover designer. Many a designer’s name has disappeared into a publishing black hole – tracing the designers of all previous 41 covers is almost impossible.

Despite the anonymity, some of the designs are memorable. Donna Payne, art director at Faber and Faber, remembers Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, published in 1993, the year she graduated. ‘It really inspired me to specialise in book cover design,’ she says. ‘At the time it looked incredibly brave and graphic compared to everything else. It looks a little dated now – it hasn’t stood the test of time compared with something like Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – but it’s certainly a cover design classic.’

William Webb, who was art director at Bloomsbury for ten years and now runs his own studio, Will Webb Design, sees a distinct watershed in the late 1980s. ‘The covers before that look very dated – there were a lot of these strange pencil drawings, such as Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils – whereas those from 1989 onwards look far more contemporary,’ he says. ‘I don’t think publishers took book covers that seriously [before 1989] – they hadn’t realised that there was this thing called “design” that could help you sell books.’

It is difficult to pinpoint trends over the decades, as tastes in typography, illustration and photography change cyclically. But Stephen Parker, acting creative director of Random House’s CCV, which includes Jonathan Cape, says that the previous Booker winners ‘clearly show the change from traditional hand-produced artworking to computer-based production’.

‘Up to the mid-1980s designers were still reliant on combining phototypesetting with existing imagery or commissioned illustration, instructing printers to complete the designs,’ he explains. ‘As the availability and quality of desktop publishing technology developed through the 1990s, you can see how the typography becomes a bit more playful and the imagery much more graphic and less literal.’ Seen together, the Booker covers also reflect times past, says David Caines, creative director of Hoop Associates, which has designed the promotional material for the Booker Prize since 2003 and masterminded the recent rebrand. ‘I love old book jackets – they’re a wonderful echo of graphic design over the years,’ he explains. ‘Regardless of whether they’re good or bad, they are an important reflection of cultural times and history.’

Back in the present, designers are noting a period of change. ‘That “get every detail of the story on the cover” photographic montage that was everywhere five years ago has given way to clean, understated, almost naked photography,’ says Payne. ‘And there’s an increasing trend among graduates towards hand-crafted typography.’

Nathan Burton, who designed this year’s much-admired A Fraction of a Whole, appreciates a return to illustration. Designers are also using computers to recreate screen-printing and linocuts, he says, and traditional crafts, such as woodcutting, are making a comeback. But ‘before long the pendulum will swing back towards photography again’, predicts influential book-jacket designer Jon Gray, whose recent work includes the much-lauded cover for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

In addition to design considerations, the job of the cover designer is becoming increasingly dictated by sales and marketing teams. Parker says, ‘There is a much stronger move towards a mass-market appeal for literary publishing. In design terms this can sometimes seem like dumbing down, but I think it is just another challenge for designers to produce work of integrity whatever your target audience.’

With such demands of designers, it remains a mystery why they are not more appreciated. The anonymity might stem from the fact that many work in-house, but Gray’s explanation is also plausible. ‘We’re all very shy and bookish,’ he says. ‘I think it’s an area that isn’t overtly fashionable and often gets overlooked. Apart from once a year, when the Booker Prize comes along.’

The Man Booker Prize winner is announced on 14 October. The Booker 40 display at the Victoria & Albert Museum runs until 17 May 2009

This year’s shortlisted six are distinctive, from the illustrated Sea of Poppies to the simple and arresting A Fraction of the Whole, which features a hole-punch cover to reveal glimpses of a hot pink jacket. ‘Design-wise, the shortlist is one of the best I’ve seen in a few years,’ says Random House’s Stephen Parker. Below the shortlist designers describe their inspiration.

The White Tiger Designed by Jon Gray, Gray318
‘The White Tiger is a novel set in India about a man from a very poor background who manages to get a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman. The publisher wanted something bold and typographic. I came up with the car-with-tiger-stripe idea and then decided to cut the whole thing out of paper to give it a hand-made quality.’

Sea of Poppies Designed by Stephen Johnston, Phantom Research Foundation
‘With such a beautiful subject matter, illustrating Sea of Poppies was a real joy. Finding visual influences from that period [northern India in 1838] and splicing them together was good fun – a dream job for anyone. When an illustrator or designer enjoys working on a piece some of that excitement and passion really does show in the final work, making it a little bit more special.’

The Northern Clemency Designed by Julian Humphries, art directed by HarperPress
‘The cover was born out of wanting to create the bleak look of that particular moment in time, without being a pastiche of the 1970s. The flowers are about getting a glimpse of suburbia. It uses Railroad Gothic type, which was popularised by a Penguin series of books in the 1970s. It is not too characterful, but has enough personality.’

A Fraction of the Whole Designed by Nathan Burton, Freelance designer
‘A Fraction of the Whole is such a massive book that to focus on one specific detail is impossible, so I ended up going round in circles. The cover came from the title – I wanted to remove something from the cover. From there it was a natural progression, and I used the sepia photograph of an incredibly dull Australian landscape, with this vibrant jacket behind.’

The Secret Scripture Designed by Gavin Morris, Faber
Faber art director Donna Payne says, ‘We wanted to depict Roseanne’s vulnerability and passion at the same time as evoking rural Ireland in the 1930s. We considered a solitary figure in the landscape to evoke these themes, but instead we decided that we needed something much more intimate and raw to reflect the writing.’

The Clothes on Their Backs Designed by Jennifer Richards, Deputy head of design, Little, Brown
‘The design was quite straightforward: rather than getting lost trying to depict the right characters, we concentrated on the clothing, hence the wardrobe with various key pieces of clothing from the story. We got [photographer] Martin Scott-Jupp, and once we had the shot we just combined a simple typeface and let the title and the image complement each other.’

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