The utopia of good cover design

April 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

To say that great cover design is an art is anodyne, but it’s also much easier to pay lip service to than to pull off. Lack of attention to good design is one reason so many digital and self-published works are so immediately off-putting, but that’s an argument for another day. Great cover design is not only aesthetically pleasing, it can actually make a person buy a book he or she would otherwise have no interest in.

Case in point: the chances of my picking up a book on the banalities and contradictory attractions and repulsions of bureaucracy are slim at best. Unless the publisher is Melville House, and they are clever enough to package it like this:


That this jacket – by designer Christopher King – is conceptually clever is obvious (especially the box in the bottom right corner, with the heading “THIS SECTION FOR OFFICE USE ONLY” preceding biblio metadata). But it also elegantly solves numerous nagging issues that keep designers awake at night. The subtitle is unwieldy, there is a mandated reminder of the author’s previous book (see below), and a blurb that needs room.

The fake bureaucratic form is a perfect – and perfectly appropriate – solution to these challenges. Only the pinkish shade is questionable, but even that gives the book a kind of faux-officious note, like some throwback to the days of carbon paper documents that were filled out in triplicate, each copy a different colour depending upon what entity was retaining it.

This cover takes a book about what might be considered a boring subject and entices a reader to pick it up and investigate. And that, more often than not, is what helps turn browsers into buyers.

Then again, maybe Graeber’s books simply lend themselves to this kind of treatment. One of my favourite covers of the last five years was for the author’s previous book, on the history of debt (once again, not a subject that easily lends itself to the phrase “runaway bestseller”).

The earlier book, designed by Carol Hayes, employs many of the same principles as the design for The Utopia of Rules, and pulls off quite a feat in an elegant, simple, and ingenious manner:

Debt mechanical 2.indd

Two other thoughts about these covers. It helps that both of them display, in addition to their other evident qualities, a cheeky sense of humour. And it appears that Rebecca Solnit is a big fan of Graeber’s work.