Communicating Genre with Typography: A Case Study on Cover Design
What makes one book cover attract more readers over another? Let’s be honest, people really do judge books by their covers, so how do designers ensure that the covers they create will get picked up, and ultimately taken to the till? In the risky and competitive business of trade book publishing, designers and publishers alike are working to uncover the hidden secrets of what makes a bestselling cover. No matter how exciting and well written a book may be, without a compelling cover to match, it’s going to be difficult to sell it. Covers need to “speak” to potential readers amongst hundreds of other titles on a bookshelf or one-inch tall thumbnails on a screen. There are many elements that come together to achieve this goal including the format of the book (hardcover or trade paperback with flaps etc.), the photography or illustrations chosen, as well as the finish (matte or linen etc.) and special details such as spot gloss and debossing. The combination of all of these factors contributes to how a book is perceived, but for the purposes of this essay just one such factor will be considered: typography.
The typography chosen for a cover is an incredibly important decision that plays a large role in the mood and genre that is communicated. This article will look at the role that typography has on the effectiveness of communicating genre to readers. A review of what good typography means when it comes to cover design will provide the context for an analysis of typography across three vastly different trade book genres including literary fiction, business books and thrillers. Current trends in typography in each genre will be analyzed while discussing how the typography helps express certain aspects of the genre. A list of typeface choices will also be provided along with a mock-up that summarizes the findings for each genre. It is also important to note that typography trends change year after year, and a large part of what helps readers identify genre is simply through comparison. They can pick out one genre over another, simply because it doesn’t share any of the characteristics that are familiar to a different genre, and therefore it is not part of that category. There are a number of factors that layer on top of this discussion of typography and book covers.
The language of typography
Typography is a visual language that can be used to manipulate the emotions of the reader and add another layer of meaning to the text itself. “…typographic treatment works alongside verbal language to create, enhance and alter meaning. While the aesthetic value of design is always important, the significance of type in influencing meaning should not be underestimated.” Just as graphic designers work with their clients to understand the target audience for a new package design or a social media advertisement, book designers must also consider the audience that a book is intended for since the typographic choices made will be used to speak to that particular audience. As cover designer David Pearson states, “…get into the habit of asking yourself whether letters have the right tone or temper rather than just the correct optical balance.” General typography rules of good graphic design practice such as legibility, hierarchy and the use of white space, also play a role in cover design and are used to effectively communicate with the reader. Typography, may be even more important now than ever due to e-reading and the small size at which covers are seen at, necessitating larger text on covers. This idea also alludes to why type-only book covers have been trending in the past few years and continue to be popular. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at how typography is used in three book genres.
Paul Buckley, the Vice President of Penguin Group USA knows the importance of communicating emotion in fiction, “A good fiction book jacket, [Buckley] says, sets a tone that matches the author's voice. It should evoke a time and place, a certain sort of menace or edge, or perhaps a sense of playfulness or longing, omitting just enough to make the reader curious to pick it up.” Literary fiction is the broadest of the three genres that this essay will review since the subject matter within the genre is incredibly diverse and therefore the typography within the genre is used to create hundreds of different emotions, moods and feelings.
Simple and elegant typography or a traditional serious serif may do the trick to communicate to the reader what the book is about, however that is a very broad statement that is difficult to pinpoint down to a few typefaces. Hand drawn lettering has become a trend over the years that seems to be quite specific to literary fiction, although it can be found in other categories like self-help on occasion as well. Within hand lettering, there are a multitude of variations from letters that look like pencil markings to charcoal, chalk and paint in both script styles or block letters and so forth. Another strong trend in 2018 was the usage of bold serifs with high contrast between thick and thin lines, often in italic, creating a playful look that can appear retro in certain usages as well. After scouring the world wide web, aside from these few notes, it is very difficult to find a defining typographic feature of the genre. There are general typography practices at play and as with all covers, the text needs to be evocative to suggest the content of the book, but there is no clear safe bet in terms of typographic choice that will ensure readers know that a particular book falls under literary fiction. Therefore, it is even more imperative that the book designer reads the whole manuscript to get the complete picture of the book and uncover hidden themes and meanings that can be brought to life in the typography on the cover. Perhaps one can conclude that what communicates the genre of literary fiction to readers is the fact that it doesn’t fall prey to the clichés of other categories. The lack of consistency, may be its defining feature. This finding may also reveal that literary fiction cannot be communicated by type alone, and other factors like colour and imagery need to be utilized in order to make the genre apparent.
Typography will play a part in how credible an author appears and what authority they may have on a subject. This is both important for how the type it set within a books pages but also for the cover. The cover must tell the reader that the author is an authority on the subject matter, so the reader can trust the business wisdom that is dispelled within the book. This can be a tricky line to walk since pushing a more creative design may hinder credibility, while mimicking long-standing and traditional authoritative elements may make the design appear too stuffy and out of date.
The genre of business books is much different than literary fiction. Business titles need to be clear and straight forward, communicating the content of the book right away without any guessing, otherwise potential readers will put the book down in search of another title. The typographic trends that work in this category are quite clear. Brian Halley of Book Creatives, put together a list of his favourite business book covers and just by glancing at the list, it is easy to see that strong bold sans serif fonts dominate. The type is often set in uppercase for the title and they make good use of white space around the typography, further adding to the meaning of the text. The Forbes list of top ten business books of 2017 according to Shep Hyken follow similar trends even though he was analyzing these books for content rather than design acumen. Many of the titles are also sans serif and in a condensed version of the typeface, giving off a sense of strength, authority and leadership. These type choices are easy to spot on any list of business books.
A book’s title is often the focus of thriller covers because in many cases the title itself already hints at the mood and emotion of the book and the designer can capitalize on this. Type can be used to create confusion, a sense of worry, excitement, mystery or danger. These feelings can be created through subtle alterations of the text including stretching, fading, multiplying, utilizing contrast or offsetting words. Adding effects to the text is very popular in this category as well such as making parts of the text appear as though they are disappearing, melting away, or perhaps hidden partially by water or fog. The idea is to create a sense of tension and font choices to effectively achieve this are often sharply angled and harsh sans serif fonts. On first glance, a review of the best thrillers on Amazon will show that uppercase sans serif fonts also dominate with thrillers much like the business category, but upon a slightly closer look, there is often some additional effect added as mentioned above. The text may have some texture like a cracking or even an element as simple as a drop shadow or gradient. These are elements that readers have come to expect from this genre over the years and utilizing these trends as a designer will help signal to the reader the type of book that they are picking up.
A successful cover evokes some kind of emotion that ties to the inner content of the book, giving the reader clues into the books genre. Typography is one of many factors within the realm of book design that communicates the genre of any given book to the reader. Designers must look to current and emerging trends within each genre to make sure they are aware of reader expectations and what covers sell well, however, there will always be anomalies to the rules. Within the trends and commonalities in each genre, there are also infinite ways to get creative with the text and blur lines between genres, making something entirely new. As Picasso famously said, learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
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