What is good book design?

Last Wednesday 24 March I had the pleasure of joining a panel discussing book design as part of Geelong Design Week. The panel, chaired by Pooja Desai, consisted of book designer Vaughan Mossop (founder of the innovative micropublisher Somekind Press), designer, writer and typographer Stephen Banham (founder of Letterbox), and me.

(l-r) Pooja Desai, me, Stephen Banham, Vaughan Mossop.
Stephen Banham and I

I have known Stephen for years and we have collaborated on many projects in various ways. The two of us were in Geelong to talk mainly about Death of a Typographer, my mystery novel about typography. Stephen’s involvement in this book was much greater than is usually permitted by the relationship between designer and author. For a start, the novel originated in conversations about type between Stephen and me stretching back over almost 20 years. From those discussions of glyphs, swashes, ligatures and type crime the idea for a mystery novel emerged, which I subsequently developed into Death of a Typographer.

Once the novel was accepted for publication, there was clearly only one person who could give the book the perfect design. Stephen came up with a striking, witty cover, evoking the classic Penguin books of the 1960s.

Stephen’s involvement in the design extended to the internal pages, particularly the chapter divider pages. Each chapter – there are 26 – is introduced by a page with the chapter title in a different font. The font chosen represents the content of the chapter in some way – a chapter set in London uses the font Underground Book; one set in a French bar uses the mid-century French font Peignot; the horrific chapter in which the arch-villain appears uses the ghastly Graveblade. The examples below are Gothic Outline Title D (22) Austin Light (21) and Compstyle. (For font nerds, all the fonts are listed in the appendix.)

The discussion turned to the question: what is good book design? Obviously, from the point of view of most publishers, a good design is one that will persuade customers to buy the book. That can lead to a certain homogeneity, as the covers of new books aspiring to commercial success imitate the the proven formula of those that are already bestsellers. It sometimes seems as if every new Australian crime novel has a cover based on Jane Harper’s bestseller The Dry, for example, with its big brooding skies and scary farm buildings .

There is a reasonable basis for this approach – if you are a fan of The Dry, then you will probably be drawn to covers that suggest another book is similar. From this perspective, designs that are original and bold are a commercial risk. But from an author’s point of view, I want the design of my books to reflect their contents in ways that go beyond marketing appeal.

Of course, authors rarely get much, if any, say over the design of their books. In my case, I was fortunate that my publisher agreed to my choice of designer, and that Stephen agreed to take on the job (for which there was little financial remuneration, book design being one of the lowest paid forms of graphic design).

In the case of Stephen’s design for Death of a Typographer, the cover suggested the nature of the book without a literal representation of its contents. In doing so, it stepped away from current book design cliches, and Stephen deservedly received the Designers’ Choice Book of the Year Award at the 2020 ABDA Awards.

You can view a video of the conversation here.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Nick. Really enjoyed your information on how book covers are usually chosen and how much you value the work by your friend Stephen Banham. I look forward to reading your book.

    Marian Ciaravolo



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