‘Not in Plain Covers’ by Ken Baynes

KBcoverB2I suppose book covers are considered a minor area of design and illustration. Minor but memorable. The first I remember was wrapped round The Wonder Book of Railways. It showed the driver’s view along the boiler of a Southern Railway locomotive. Memorable because at ten years old that was exactly where I wanted to be! Other childhood favourites were Biggles complete with his flying helmet and William Brown complete with his battered school cap. These were all rather competent watercolours, as realistic as possible.

In 1969, R B Kitaj the American Jewish artist who moved to live in Britain in the late 1950s, produced a remarkable series of large prints called ‘In Our Time’. With the sub-title ‘Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part’ it consists of huge reproductions of book covers that reflect Kitaj’s major obsessions and, incidentally, the culture of the period. Many people of a certain age will find the prints personally evocative as well as historically interesting. Penguin are there of course (Margaret Mead: ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’) and, a blue grey Penguin Modern Painters (‘Edward Hopper’). I used to wait impatiently for new painters to appear: they were part of my aesthetic education. But Kitaj roams widely through the ephemeral as well as the mainstream. For example, ‘The Wording of Police Charges’ and ‘Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls’. These covers tell a story of place, time, anxiety, activism and art.

Industrial Design & the Community book coverAs an author who is also a designer (or perhaps the other way round) I have been lucky in that my publishers have always asked me to design or at least contribute to the covers of my books. Take ‘Industrial Design and the Community’ for example. Published by Lund Humphries in 1967 its cover set out to represent some of the different fields of design activity. Ten years later, the Design Council published ‘About Design’. Here the message was quite different. Working with graphic designer, Gill Streater the idea was to show the chaotic urban environment as a side effect of many thousands of individual personal and corporate design decisions. The illustrator who captured the idea brilliantly was Glynn Boyd Harte.

Today few publishers have a recognisable house style on the Penguin model. The aim now is much more to signal the genre to which the book belongs. So gentle watercolours of lakes, houses or countryside for Romantic fiction, film stills with recognizable stars for ‘best-selling books on which  major motion pictures are based’, a big photo of me – serious, happy, sad or off the wall for autobiographies.

About Design book coverAs a publisher in the design field, what was LDP to do? We decided early on that, against the trend, we would have a recognisable house style based on our logo or favicon. But we also wanted excitement and variety rather than Penguin sobriety. We decided that we would invite our authors to make an ‘intervention’, representing their book but also incorporating our logo. ‘Incorporating’ was intended to be interpreted very widely – incorporating could mean cutting up, scribbling over, collaging out, digitally distorting or largely obscuring. However, each title would have its own colour and, surprise surprise, the publisher would have the last word.

All this was happening while we were preparing ‘Design: models of change’ for the press. It seemed like a good idea to try out the mangled favicon idea and I produced a series of roughs that might inspire other authors and, incidentally, come up with a usable design. I decided to mainly use collage and I thought some of the results were striking and fun. None, however, seemed to capture the content of the book. My wife, Krysia and I decided that collage just wasn’t right and a wholly typographic solution might be better. In an exhausting two-day session we got off the computer screen and used scissors and paste to try out various types full size. This process resulted in a decision not only to change the title of the book but also to use the word DESIGN as the key element in the design. The breakthrough came with the decision to use bold stencil letters: after that everything else fell into place.Graphicacy and Culture: Refocusing on visual learning

Would other authors take up the challenge ?  Xenia Danos certainly has.  Xenia discussed ideas for her cover with Pete Simcoe of Simcoemedia who created the final design. The solution has been to use exciting graphic images, which taken together make a statement about the variety and importance of visual culture and the concept of graphicacy.

It remains to be seen what future authors will do. It is a stimulating but slightly daunting prospect to give them their heads! Will we ever have to use the publisher’s veto ? I hope not.


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