Leaf through a copy of Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design and you’ll see the evolution of almost 80 years of book covers. From the stark formalism of Edward Young’s horizontal orange bands (admittedly offset by his cheeky logo), through German typographer Jan Tschichold’s even starker redesign of the late 1940s, to Germano Facetti and Romek Marber’s 1960s grids, and a host of visual experiments in the Pelican, Penguin Specials and Classics ranges, Penguin’s covers stood for many things besides the brand itself: for quality in literature; for a range of genres; for mood, atmosphere and style. And while Penguin’s succession of superstar art directors may have been masters of the form, the cover has remained of central importance in publishing and bookselling for all involved, not least authors, up to the present day – but not, perhaps, for much longer.
Covers increasingly exist not as foot-high billboards and paintings on shelves, but as blurred, compressed little icons in lists on websites and devices, inscrutable jumbles of pixels that tell us little about the work. When read on an e-reader, books open to the first page of the text; the traditional cover increasingly seems irrelevant.
So will a new method for displaying books emerge? One possible path is offered by music platform Soundcloud, where songs are represented in the form of soundwaves. Could a book’s text give form to its cover in a similar fashion, becoming its own representation? It’s not so far-fetched. The work of a designer like Stefanie Posavec, whose Literary Organism visualises Kerouac’s On the Road as a branching flower of sentence structures and themes, is more like a book as we understand it in our era of increasing information literacy than any photograph or drawing.
“Never judge a book by its cover”, runs the adage. But if text and cover become inseparable, then it might be possible to do so.
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