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Books by design

By Maggie Belnap


Despite the old saying, a book’s cover is perhaps the strongest factor in why we pick up a book off the shelf or pause during our online web shopping. Of course, we all like to think that we are above such a judgmental mentality, but the truth is that a cover design can make — or break — a book’s fortunes.

Brady McNamara, Senior Art Director at Oxford University Press, admitted that designing book covers isn’t as easy as one might think.

“To create a book jacket,” McNamara explained, “You have to first understand book’s concept. I have about 75 books at a time to design jackets for. That’s just too much. To help, I have about 10-12 really great freelance designers who really know what OUP is all about.” He continued, “I also always try one or two new freelancers each go around. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. That’s kind of what happened to Dog Whistle Politics.”

Ian Haney Lopez’s book, examining how politicians use veiled racial appeals to persuade white voters to support policies that favor the rich and threaten the middle class, is a difficult concept to capture. “It was a particularly tough cover to design: the subject just doesn’t lend itself to one concrete image,” McNamara agreed. He and his freelancer toiled over numerous cover drafts.

Dog Whistle Politics Design 1:

McNamara: “This is the initial sketches shown by our freelancer, I really liked [the] 1950’s clip art man. It had a kitchiness and style typical to ‘the conservative establishment.’ However, the cover review panel (editor and marketing manager) thought the starburst frame seemed out of place, like vintage advertising.”

First desing - Dog Whistle politics

Dog Whistle Politics Design 2:

McNamara: “In another sketch, the designer used a black background and surrounded our clip art guy with symbols of the economy and arrows illustrating its downfall. It was arbitrary and yet too obvious; just didn’t feel right.”

Design two - Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle Politics Design 3:

McNamara: “[The] editor suggested that an actual image of a dog could work. The sketch was submitted but not shown. I made a personal call that it was too gimmicky and distractingly odd. It was weird, and a not funny weird.”

Design three - Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle Politics Design 4:

“I finally took the design on myself,” says McNamara, laughing slightly as he remembers the process. “I had a pretty good idea of what we needed by now. It really wasn’t the freelancer’s fault, again, it’s just one of those books that is tough to design for. I tried an image of a bull dog and after the author mentioned a dog whistle, I incorporated that into the title. Nothing more literal I guess. The bulldog turned out to be too cute.”

Design Four - Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle Politics Design 5:

McNamara: “I tried a more menacing Doberman in black and white—ears pricked up as if hearing the whistle. I also brought a serious tone back to the design by using just red, gray, and black type. This was finally approved. Not the most esoteric design, but it stands out on the shelf – if only for those pointy ears.”

Final Design - Dog Whistle Politics

While McNamara struggled with the concept for Dog Whistle Politics, design is a collaborative process.

James Cook, an Oxford University Press editor, discussed the pressing dilemmas of the design process: “I know the book best and worked with it the longest, so I understand the themes and perhaps have some ideas about how they can be illustrated.” He serves as a translator to the designer from the book itself and the author. “I talk with the author and try to relay his or her wishes to the designer, while also making sure the book and title are being represented. A cover needs to align, interpret, and reflect the books themes accurately, while also being attractive to a buyer.”

One of his titles, Coming Up Short, a book that sheds light on what it really means to be a working class young adult with all its economic insecurity and deepening inequality, also went through a number of cover jackets before finding the right fit.

Coming Up Short Design 1:

“One of the first designs was a girl in a skirt, sitting on a swing in the park,” remembers Cook. “It certainly portrayed what we wanted, but also had a sexual predator vibe as well.”

“I didn’t have a good feeling about the first cover I saw,” the author Jennifer Silva confessed. “I thought it had a kind of Lolita vibe when mixed with the title of the book. I expressed my concern, and it turned out that others at Oxford agreed.”

Swing design - Coming Up Short

“Jen was great to work with,” Cook acknowledged. “Sometimes it becomes difficult going back and forth trying to satisfy everyone’s wishes while also finding a good portrayal of the book. Sometimes authors just don’t want certain colors or schemes in the cover, and it’s my job to make sure they are heard.”

Coming Up Short Design 2:

After several other drafts, everyone agreed on a jacket: saturated yellow with multiple ladders.

“I love it,” raved Silva. “It feels young, modern, and hip. It’s not too literal, and also looks great on a bookshelf.” When asked about if the experience of jacket designing was frustrating or stressful, Jen waves the issue away saying, “No, it was fun to go back and forth!”

Final Design - Coming Up Short

Not all books are as design-intensive as Dog Whistle Politics and Coming Up Short. Cook says, “Some academic books are easy because you can follow a certain style that is well known and easily recognized as being a textbook.”

However, there are always a few books along the way that keep designers and editors nimble.

Maggie Belnap is a Social Media Intern at Oxford University Press. She attends Amherst College.

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