Before the Law

The first of a couple of speaking events in NYC this winter:

The Design of Crime: One Man's Journey Through a Graphic Life of Murder and Justice.

What does crime look like? How do we visually represent justice? From Dostoevsky to P.D. James; from Justice Rehnquist to Stieg Larsson; from Franz Kafka to Guantanamo—a designer’s ten-year attempt to capture the changing face of criminality and the law.

January 19th:

Admission is free but seats are limited.

Details are here


Design Matters

I remember, years ago, one fall evening, driving back from Vermont on i95 south, my wife in the passenger seat strobed by the oncoming traffic, my two children, still young enough to be in kid carseats in the back, sleeping with their heads lolled over in opposite directions, their mouths wide open. I was passing the time by listening to my ipod, which I had loaded up with episodes of Design Matters in an effort to learn something or other about design; my fledgling career. Debbie Millman was interviewing someone (Carin Goldberg, I think, first, though the memory is hazy and I wouldn't swear on it—and then, I imagine, Michael Bierut) and I was concentrating hard enough on the interviews that the long stretch between Brattleboro VT. and Hartford Conn. had gone by without my noticing.

When you practice a profession that you weren't explicitly trained to do, you become not only an autodidact, but a particular kind of neurotic—fretful about what you don't know; panicky of being called out for some bit of ignorance which, unbeknownst to you, turned out to have been critical. Being just such a neurotic, I was in the habit of sleuthing out every way, oblique or otherwise, to fill in the gaps in my design knowledge. Hence the podcasts.

I thought to myself later that night, as we crossed the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge into Manhattan, after having now listened to a dozen or so of these interviews, that I had learned more on that car trip than I had through any and all of the Intro-to-Design books I'm embarrassed to say I bought in those early years of my design career.
About a month or two ago, without preamble, and with no discernible reason for doing so, Debbie asked me to come on the show. Below: the upshot. I'm not sure if any of the subjects that Debbie and I covered will be as helpful or informative as the podcasts I listened to on that drive years ago—I assume they are not, and in any case I'm not trying to build up that particular parallel. I just remember that night drive with such clarity, the feeling of renewal that comes from having young children and a new job, and it seemed, now is an appropriate moment for me to stop and look at the ground I've covered since that fall night. The trip, as it were, has gone by without my really noticing.

So if you are interested, you can listen on the Design Observer site, or download the podcast on itunes. I hope you enjoy it.

Some brief notes to accompany your experience:
The organ at Columbia University's St. Paul's Chapel is an Aeolian Skinner.
Louise Fili's gorgeous jacket for The Lover looks like so:

Editing: Though I am reading submissions from agents to edit, and working behind the scenes on some projects, I am still searching for that perfect project to sign.

John Gall deserves, frankly, the lion's share of the thanks for hiring me at Vintage. Carol Carson for bringing me to Knopf.

Chip Kidd does, actually, sometimes, "suffer fools gladly." He "suffers" me in particular. Except for the "gladly" part.

The fact that books are, among other things, souvenirs, came to me one night while I was writing. This felt like an important realization. In the subsequent months I have learned that many have come up with this same metaphor independently; among others, the great James Bridle, who writes, and speaks beautifully on the topic of the various kinds of work a book does.

And, Fictions III, you ask? It is coming. I promise. not sure when. As soon as i can.

Any other questions, you know where to reach me.



Fictions. Part II

The first section of this article can be found:


I apologize for the delay in posting this second part—I really have no free time at all.


This is part two of what is, even after being dramatically cut for web consumption, a very long piece indeed. If I can stand it I'll post the whole thing ( in multiple installments) though I reiterate that I reserve the right to stop in the middle—even mid-sentence—if I so desire. Editing the thing down and formatting it takes more time than I thought it would.

But enough with the dithering—onward.

Thanks again for reading,





 "Everything is a cipher..." —Vladimir Nabokov, Signs and Symbols

"Symbols have one characteristic in common with signs;
they point beyond themselves to something else. " —Paul Tillich


If you'll recall—last week I began to examine the jackets for Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita, and, for the most part, found them wanting. 1

Though many of these covers are formally satisfying—

and though many are successful in representing some facets of the text—

few of them, I thought, addressed the true critical (or ethical) difficulties the book confronts readers with.

More importantly, none of these jackets seemed, upon desultory glance, to tackle what I called the book's "underlying significance;" it's tacit agenda. This led me to ask whether we designers are, or should be, in the business of representing 2 the underlying themes put forward by the works of fiction that we are charged with making jackets for.
" it our job, in the case of Lolita, to represent "the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man;" or are we being asked to delve deeper?"

In order to answer this question properly, it's necessary that we understand the role of the jacket in the marketplace, in the home, and in the culture at large. It is further required that we delve into the mechanics through which novels and stories themselves convey meaning, such that we may observe how jackets mimic and map this process. 3

A daunting assignment...

So l will begin here at the narrow end of the discussion: the construction of the jacket itself—as that is my particular area of expertise. 4 I will work my way, slowly, laboriously, back towards the broader questions (the larger role of the jacket; the semantics of fiction), and at the end of the day, I hope that through this process we will have come closer to understanding whether "delving deeper" into the thematic significance of novels and stories is indeed part of our purview as jacket designers. 


When setting out to design a book jacket for a work of fiction, whether we are aware of it or not, we designers are picking our subject matter from a limited set of bins. Though the choices we can make as designers are unlimited, the categories that define most of the choices we make when we pluck these ideas from their native fictions, are, on the face of it, quite easy to list.

To wit, some broad categories for fiction jacketing subject matter: 5

1. “Character”

Put a person on the cover. Frequently a winning design tactic, though also tricky— as we designers don’t want to rob readers of their satisfying acts of imagination. One should always show a portion of a character rather than the whole magilla. Body parts: hands, feet, hair, ears, etc are, and should be, more common than full frontal facial disclosure. Much of our work is spent hiding, occluding, interrupting faces.)

Above, we see John Gall's lovely cover for the Vintage edition of Lolita. 6

2. “Object”

Put a thing on the cover. Always compelling, and sometimes serves to establish place, tone and character as well. Paul Sahre’s covers for Rick Moody’s books spring to mind, as do the pair of shoes Gabriele Wilson put on her cover for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The loathéd, yet somehow obligatory, Lolita lollypop. I hereby declare a moratorium. The above is not an actual Penguin cover- I just borrowed the format to prove a private supposition of mine that almost any image whatsoever, when placed in a fetishistic context like the one above, will resonate metaphorically. In other words, all the art here is in the template, the frame, itself (Jaime Keenan's I believe?). 7

3. “Event”

Put a recreation of, or documentary evidence of an event on the cover. Especially useful if our work of fiction is historical, for which a wealth of extra-fictional reference materials already exist (think of all those Napoleonic War paintings adorning War and Peace jackets). The “event” can refer to any occurrence which transpires during the course of a work of fiction (or is alluded to) and which feels particularly resonant (Like, say, the bullfights in The Sun Also Rises).

4. “Place”

Put a place (or something indigenous to or indicative of a place) on the cover. Deploying this category is a very common method for constructing fiction jackets. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told by editors and publishers that a novel needs a jacket which provides “a sense of place.” NB often the “place” category also provides the “Time” category, as well as the “Theme” category, and obviously all these categories overlap in a myriad of ways...

5. “Time”

Indicate a narrative’s time period on the cover. Provided most often as an ancillary benefit of categories 1-4, often of several at once. Imagine, for instance, a jacket with Wiener Werkstätte wallpaper adorning it. One would see this book jacket and one might guess that the story inside came to pass some time around the early part of the Twentieth century and most likely took place in some kind of mitteleuropan setting. An example of the above (Here—substitute Art Deco for Wiener Werkstätte) is Coralie Bickford Smith’s jacket work for Penguin UK’s F. Scott Fitzgerald series. The Art Deco patterns (as well as the high production values) tell you everything you need to know: that this book unfolds during, and amidst the trappings of the Jazz Age.

6. “Text Sample”

Put an image that corresponds specifically to a line of text on the cover (frequently this line of text will be the book’s title). One frequently sees jackets designed to represent a gobbet of text. If a designer was given “Gone with The Wind” as a title, I see no reason (except for one of taste) that he couldn’t invoke wind, or the “windblown” as his jacket design subject matter (though we designers hate to simply parrot or re-iterate book titles on our jackets).

As I mentioned above, titles are frequent sources of inspiration for jacket designers as they often reference the previous categories and are frequently, themselves, windows into the author’s main thematic concerns.


Which is to say that these two publishing instruments (titling and jacket design) do similar work on behalf of the narrative and in the selling thereof.

As it turns out, fiction titles themselves can also be categorized in the groupings listed above:


Character: Anna Karenina; Tristam Shandy; Gilgamesh; Lolita
Object: The Maltese Falcon; The Scarlet Letter; The Golden Bowl; The Overcoat
Event: Sophie’s Choice; The Tempest; The Crying of Lot 49
Place: Moon Palace; Howard’s End; Berlin Stories; London Fields
Time: 1984; Parade’s End; Light in August; Spring Awakening 

Text Sample: The Catcher in the Rye; Handful of Dust; The Day of the Locust; Tis a Pity She’s a Whore; Rememberence of Things Past (though only in English)

7. “Affect, or Tone”

Put an image that represents the tone or overall emotional disposition of the narration. Sometimes a jacket amounts to no more than the mood it sets 9

8. "The Tell-All"

Put as many explicit plot elements as possible on the cover. "The Tell-All," I realize, is not really a category of material in the sense that the others are—it is, rather, comprised of the other categories and is thus more of a methodology (an extremely ill-advised methodology).

(Character: check; Setting: check; Time period: check; Object: gotta assume that sword's going to come into play...)

I've chosen a deliberately jarring example here— but let it be said that the raison d'etre, as well as the pictorial grammar of this romance novel cover above is no different from that of countless literary fiction jackets produced every day. As it happens, this category, this crammed-together grab-bag of plot points I'm calling the "Tell-All" is a tried-and-true favorite of those in publishing who would believe that
the primary job of the jacket is to report as much of the storyline to the viewer as possible and that signaling a book's genre through character and setting is paramount.

The "Tell-All" represents the apotheosis of the diegetical 10 form of jacket design. There is no editorializing here; there are no veils to penetrate. Only one part of the author's output is being addressed here- the most mundane part. Namely: "what happens" during the course of a given tale. 11

Which is to say: The "Tell-All" is not merely an admixture of the above categories. Almost all book jackets for works of fiction are admixtures of the above categories. Rather, the "Tell-All" crowds out all other forms of representation, leaving us with nothing more than the particulars of plot.

I detest this kind of jacket for reasons which will become clearer soon.

And, finally:

9. “Theme itself” 

Put a representation of the book’s “big idea(s)” on the cover…

1980 US Putnam, Perigee Books


As we can see- all of these categories I've just identified seem to collapse neatly into two classes:

1. The narrative facts (Character, Object, Event, Place, Time, Text)
2. The meta-narrative facts (Theme, tone, affect…)

We might now come to the logical conclusion that jackets are either literal or metaphorical; narrative or thematic.

And we would be wrong to do so.

It is obvious that these two classes coincide and interact—that jacket imagery can perform some kind of semiotic double duty 12.

Good fiction jackets, it seems to me, relay information to the viewer by means of imagery constrained to the particulars of a given plot, whilst hopefully, simultaneously, signifying something of the meta-narrative facts as well. Just look at that plucked flower above: It is clearly participating in both the "Object" and "Theme" categories...13


What is the exact relationship between these two classes? How is this mutuality brought about? What is the nature of the interaction between the specific image and its general metaphoric implications? How can the representation of a specific plot point on a jacket also be a reference to a clearly established thematic denotata? Let's return to some concrete examples and see…


1. At the very end of this catastrophically long series of blog posts I might itemize all the Lolita covers I've designed myself (like the Coke comp in part 1) and will find them wanting as well. (i do not put myself above the fray here). Also—it's extremely tempting to design covers to serve as illustrations for each and every argument made here, but a guy's only got so much time...

2. The vast majority of book jackets for works of fiction are representational (we will discuss both ABSTRACT, as well as ALL-TYPE jackets in a later installment).

3. As David Hume famously pointed out, you can't turn an "is" into an "ought." Nevertheless, understanding the "is," (how designers actually work) goes a long way towards clarifying the "ought" (how designers should work)

4. The "construction of the fiction jacket itself" will be broken down into four sections: 1. Materials 2. Methods 3. Medium and 4. Meaning. The Four M's!

5. Though I've tried to be as thorough as possible, it is entirely possible that I've omitted some obscure miscellaneous category here (bearing in mind that there are a couple categories like "All-Type" and "abstract" I have still in my back pocket).


I realize that this entire section will seem willfully reductive. Building blocks are supposed to be irreducible. So this crudeness is purposeful. Does that excuse it? Perhaps not.

(I should mention as a footnote to this footnote that the true irreducible components of any two-dimensional design are shape and color.)

6. What I find compelling here in John's treatment is that through the use of extreme cropping he has effectively transformed the face (of Lolita, one presumes) into an almost-abstraction. One senses instantly that this face is more than just a face. So then, one wonders, what does this mouth, pregnant with import, stand for? I'm not entirely sure, though, if we look at John's rejected comp for this same edition, we get some indication...

Rotating the image, John radically alters its meaning:

What was once a mouth, is

This rejected cover does quite a nice job addressing the appropriation, manipulation and distortion of innocence spoken of in Nabokov's text. An innocuous image here is force-ably transformed into something lubricious. The photo's treatment, at the hands of the designer, becomes an apt visual analogy to the forced degradations little Lo must endure.

(We are getting a tiny preview here of ideas that are coming imminently in this essay—ideas on meaning and usage. Manner of usage is an important concept in jacket design and, I would imagine that we are all tiring of me saying this, but: it will be referred to in a later post)

7. See?

8. And: lo and behold...

9. On a related note (and as an addendum to the earlier “wit in design” screed: if I never see another book jacket that portrays, through its graphics, the opposite of its title (i.e. if the book is called “Happy”, the jacket looks sad; if the book is called “Black” the jacket is white; etc) it will be too soon. This is an example, not of cleverness- but of obstinacy. When I worked on Thomas Bernhard’s book Frost for example,

the temptation to be shunned was not that of making the jacket look “frosty.” But, rather, I had to practically physically restrain myself from making the jacket look hot, or fiery. That contrarian solution might have been more pleasing to segments of the design community, but it would have made the book look droll when it is anything but.

10. Diagetical meaning relating to characters, things, etc inside the primary narrative

11.  I am making an important distinction here between implication and outright regurgitation. This is a distinction that will become vitally important later in this essay when we begin to dissect the work a jacket does over time...

11. All imagery, in fact, performs "some kind of semiotic double duty", whether intentionally or not.

13. though this particular object, this flower, does not have relevance to the plot per se, and thus is more of an emblem of the plot as a whole, rather than an instance of something specific mentioned in the course of the story's unfolding.


Section III coming up next (maybe next week or the week after if I can get to it).

I will continue the conversation above; examine some examples of fiction jackets which take on "Theme" without recourse to narrative particulars; I will contend with abstract fiction jacket designs, the "non-sequitur" fiction jacket, and I will discuss the all-type jacket for fiction as well.

See you soon I hope.



1. Fictions

Hello blog readers!

Below: the first in some promised posts about the process of jacketing works of fiction.

Some caveats: I've cut this piece down quite a bit (almost in half)— though it will still range over five or more installments (if I decide to post that much of it...) If you feel I've left a particular question I've raised in this section unanswered, well, that's because there is more writing coming down the pike—so please be patient.

This essay is heavily footnoted. I found that footnotes didn't work so well in this Blogger format—so I made the decision to place the notes at the conclusion of each section as end-notes. The end-notes are in red. Hopefully they contain interesting info so don't skip em! You can jump back and forth if you want to, or read them at the end. Suit yourself.

In any case, thanks for reading,




"Lolita discussed by the papers from every possible point of view
except one: that of its beauty and pathos."—Vera Nabokov


I was recently asked to judge a book cover competition. I’ve judged several of these things over the years but this contest was rather unique; it was comprised of unpublished covers commissioned expressly for the jury to ponder, rather than being made up of titles already commercially sold. More unusually, the style of the covers was set in advance. If you’re interested in the complete brief, here it is.
I began here with the intention of discussing how the parameters of this contest and several other factors over-determined the high quality of the final results- but I found myself repeatedly coming back to one particular contestant’s book cover, dwelling obsessively on it, and my mind, as is it’s want, spiraled off into territory that seemed more fertile and compelling than my original topic might have been.
The cover in question was submitted by Emmanuel Polanco, and it’s a proposed jacket for Nabokov’s Lolita.1

(Here’s another version)

Is it the crude handwriting that makes it so effective? Doesn’t the entire composition, in its offhandedness, carry the faintest suggestion of the childish about it? It is neither lusting nor leering, nor overly proud of its own wit.2
It seems to eschew the urbane gaze of Nabokov’s old-world narrator in favor of a naive and guileless one. The painted lips hint at an underdeveloped and mythologized understanding of romance; it is the cover, I could imagine, that a young Dolores Haze might have drawn.3
I’m sure the effect is unintentional.
And yet, the naiveté suggested by this cover reminds me that the unequal object of Humbert Humbert’s attentions is a child. And this line of thinking, in turn, reminds me that Lolita is, and should continue to be treated as (despite its verbal gymnastics, lasciviousness, and intermittent humor) a shocking and sad book (Dolores, or sorrows). It is not a sexy book- not an erotic book.

It is easy to forget, especially easy given the soft-core Lolita renderings (book jackets, film adaptations…) one sees down the years. Nabokov’s is a tale of perversion—unequal partnership, corrupted youth, and non-consensuality. Lolita is, for sure, a tragicomedy, and there are elements of the glib, the sensual, and the pure slapstick in it—but these days we tend to overemphasize these easy aspects of the tale and its telling. Furthermore, we think on the various rejections, bans, and the generally shocked reception the book was given upon publication, and we mentally admonish our predecessors for their prudishness. We then make book jackets and other portrayals that are self-congratulatory in their sensuality and/or lack of gravitas. But are these representations of Lolita truly speaking on behalf of the book, or rather, some modern attitude towards mid-century mores? The more I think on it, the more I feel like this kind of jacketing solution, for Lolita, is false, and pernicious in its own way.  It is at best, a misrepresentation, at worst a kind of whitewashing, and it does no justice to the text it putatively represents.4

“Here seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin-just as you might tickle and caress a giggling child”
It’s repulsive.
But it is wonderfully alliterative.
But still: ick. This is a child we are talking about here. Explicitly.
This dialectic is partly the point. If one examines the one sex scene we are privy to in full, this infamous lap scene, what is salient is that only one member of the couple is fully aware that a sexual act is transpiring. Lolita wiggles, squirms on her stepfather’s lap, her stepfather achieves “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”
Double ick.
It is the discordant lop-sidedness of the encounter, in age as in awareness, (coupled with the dual resonance of the lap as both the safe seat of childhood- the place where trust is implicit-as well as the intersection of sexual congress), which makes the scene rich, if still repugnant. This friction incriminates the reader, who is also, for reading the passage, in collusion, and now, like H.H. a “monster”. This incrimination, I would posit, is partly the point. We are complicit- we readers of Nabokov’s Lolita. We are witnesses to a crime, moreover witnesses who are seduced by the crime, by its trappings, by the cadence of its sentences, by Nabokov’s genius, and we just can’t turn away.
Pretty depictions of softly lit Lolitas (anatomized or whole) on book covers seem to perform the opposite function: they downgrade our outrage and our complicity (and in so doing they also lessen the effect of the book’s central metaphor—but I’ll get to that anon.) They are the cover design analogue of porn stars in schoolgirl uniforms-there is no longer anything obviously discordant about them as they are the fantasy-fulfillment of a culture that has long since sexualized its young. We don’t see those plaid skirts and feel the frisson of an unusual juxtaposition. We see merely the vague promise of sex, if even that. The uniform in this case is just another symbol that has lost its original immediacy. And through repeated use it has become meaningless. It no longer represents innocence, thus cannot represent fallen innocence either.5

So what’s a designer to do?6 Does a designer attempt a (truly) shocking cover, in order to properly represent the ethical disquiet that Nabokov’s narrative provokes?
“She was shaking from head to toe (from fever) She complained of a painful stiffness…and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse…”

In surveying the extant editions I don't see many that rise to the challenge.
Perhaps the first edition had it right: the so-straight-it-must-contain-something-dangerous approach, otherwise known as the “brown paper wrapper gambit,” (which in this case is green.)

Megan Wilson's Lolita cover for the Vintage edition is an interesting case—and stands as one of my all-time favorites. (Though—let's ignore the Vanity Fair quote shall we? What could "The only convincing love story of our century" possibly mean?) When I first encountered this edition I assumed our supposed Lolita's pose was flirtatious. One knee bends in front of the other—in almost a curtsy. She seems locked in some sort of stylized sexual demurral. However as time passes (and my reading of the text evolves) I begin to factor in the stark, ominous lighting, and the gaze of the photographer becomes threatening; the pose of the subject one of real discomfiture. The knee crosses protectively. What seemed to me at first as "come hither" has evolved into "please don't."

This cover (below) is satisfying (in it's imagery at least- the typography is another matter entirely…), and comes pretty damn close to achieving the requisite unease I’ve been discussing thanks to a stark visual double entendre. And yet, though clever, the jacket somehow feels too narrow in focus to be a proxy for Nabokov’s striking array of ideas. It performs its circumscribed task well, but it doesn’t capture the book’s gestalt.

Which leads me to my next point: maybe it’s simply impossible to give this book the jacket it deserves if one believes it deserves a representation of the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man.

But as it turns out, this book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, is not, actually, about a deranged pervert lusting after a nymphet.
I mean, it is, but it is clearly much more than merely this. Lolita’s central argument concerns the young and the old, but the old world and the new world- As most of you know- Lolita is a book about America: A young, robust, bobby-socked, dewy-eyed and apple-cheeked America- an America of
“Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth . . .”
This is an America of license plates, motel room keys, coke bottles, chewing gum . . . a young, fresh, insolent, unaware America.

"We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001" 

Lolita is the tale of a gentleman caller, hailing from an exhausted continent, (exhausted in its linguistics as it is in its literature) to adopt, as HH adopts his ward, a new language—to inhabit it, fetishize it, tyrannize it. 8
Nabokov’s is a book about America and its language.
Isn’t it?

Every book, or (or rather: every good book) contends with a calculus greater than the mere facts of its narrative. If books were only drama delivery-systems, than we’d have nothing to talk about in literature classes, and Stephen King 9 would be a Nobel Laureate. The facts of the narrative may keep us turning the pages, but it’s a book’s greater purpose, as it were, that makes it truly worthy of our attentions. We come for the liter-al, but we stay for the liter-ary.
This much is obvious- but it begs an important question for designers of book jackets.
(We) book jacket designers are delegated the responsibility of representing a text- That is unless we see ourselves as meager decorators of it. 10
But assuming for the moment that we’ve taken on the task of representing the text, rather than just adorning it, we designers must determine, must we not, what a book is about before we design a jacket for it? I find, when I’m reading a manuscript, I’m constantly on the lookout for images, characters, ideas that can serve, metaphorically, as proxies for the whole. But the question is constantly emerging in my mind: is this “whole” the narrative itself, in its literal details, or the thing(s) the narrative is driving towards- its greater underlying significance? 11 Which is to say: is it our job, in the case of Lolita, to represent "the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man;" or are we being asked to delve deeper?

The answer to this question turns out to be more complex than one would imagine.


1 Directly after I judged this Polish Book Cover competition, I was asked by to participate in John Bertram’s excellent Lolita project (wherein he asked a slew of book jacket designers to make their own Lolita jackets). I’m not sure if this particular Lolita cover above would have resonated with me quite as much if this second assignment hadn’t come along. In any case, because of these two factors Lolita was on my mind...

2. Book jackets these days, for reasons I won’t unpack, seem to revel, overtly, in wit, conceptual deviousness, unusual clever or droll juxtapositions- we, as a professional community, seem to have elevated the visual bon mot above all other virtues. Again, I won’t delve into the “why” of the matter here for want of space, but suffice it to say that clever work is the work that is celebrated in our community. Not that wit in itself isn’t valuable, and doesn’t have an appropriate place in design- but wit is not the same thing as insightfulness, and often insightfulness is what is called for in a book jacket. Our fetishizing of cleverness has taken a toll I believe, in that (quite often) these clever solutions work at cross-purposes to the (more often than not sincere) narratives they represent. A book in which an author has gone out on a considerable limb in order to write in a genuine and unaffected fashion does not want a cover that winks at the reader. Wit, when it becomes compulsive (as anyone knows who has a friend who puns too often) quickly becomes its opposite- dullness or predictability. Are we, as a professional community, that punning guy? I hope not.

3. Or, could it be the work of the young HH?

4. Christopher Hitchens, describing his (and my own) mutating relationship with the narrative: “When I first read this novel, I had not experienced having a twelve year old daughter…I dare say I chortled, in an outraged sort of way, when I first read, ‘How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty.’ But this latest time I found myself almost congealed with shock.” Hitchens also judiciously reminds us that “immediately following each and every one of the hundreds of subsequent rapes the little girl weeps…” Read that sentence again. Now survey again the treatments this book has been given. Feel the disconnect?

5. The book jacket which always springs to my mind when thinking of exhausted metaphors and their remedies is Chip Kidd’s brilliant jacket for Richard Lattimore’s translation of The New Testament. In lieu of yet another meaningless cross or crucifixion scene (divorced from any real notion of death, torture, or sacrifice) Chip gives us a photo of a real, actual, honest-to-goodness dead person. Offensive you say? I counter that you are inured to the once vibrant meanings that underlie your sacred texts. 

6. This is a good a time (I.e. Sooner rather than later) to mention that book designers are only partly responsible for the covers they produce, in the sense that their work has to pass muster with a marketing department as well as an editorial division (not to mention authors, agents, etc. who also must be appeased). It bears repeating that in attempting to sell a book, designers must, not always, but sometimes, pander to the very public I was just dressing down- a public which can on occasion lack the interpretive subtlety to parse literary subtext. I.e. if the general reading public expects a schoolgirl, or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket, then book buyers and book sellers will also be expecting a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket; and one can then reasonably assume marketing departments in publishing houses will want them as well. In the end, going backwards, upriver towards its source, even editors begin to take their cues from misinformed readers at large. I will reveal that on one occasion, a good friend, who is a multiply best-selling author (ahem) was told by his editor (NOT AT KNOPF) that his latest work wasn’t up to snuff because it “didn’t seem enough like the kind of thing” he writes. Ie, on occasion, even authors cannot beat back the tide of their own marketing expectations. (Dead authors have no say in this process, which is one reason we designers love them as much as we do). In any case, managing these expectations is, sadly, also part of our jobs as jacket designers.

7. I am aware that “about” is a tricky word. We’ll get to that in a minute.

8. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny." Martin Amis, Koba The Dread

9. For the record, I am a big fan. Just— not for the same reasons that I am a fan of say, James Joyce's 
10. I will confess that many times I find, in my own work, that decorating a book jacket is a more efficacious approach than that of attempting to represent or explain its meaning The “explication” versus “decoration” schools of book design will be discussed later.


It is extremely complicated to explain what one means when one says that a book is “about” something or other (difficult because the word “about” is hard to define; difficult in the sense that most good books proffer more than one central argument; and difficult, especially difficult,  in the wake of the putative “Death of the author,” Barthes, Saussure, Derrida, pluralities of meaning, and nearly fifty years of intertextuality, etc.)

And yet…

what I call “the cover design test” would be useful in Comp Lit discussions: i.e. if your theory of meaning (Marxist, Post Structuralist, Feminist, Freudian, Post Colonialist, etc.) cannot translate into a commercially viable book cover, then it fails at properly describing your text. (For instance: what would Roland Barthes have envisaged for the cover of Balzac’s Sarrasine—The subject of his structuralist analysis in S/Z? I would posit that this imaginary jacket would be a catastrophe, as his famous interpretation of the text was highly idiosyncratic and personal.) All of which is to say that I believe there to be more consensus around what books are “about” than most may think. We designers, in our jackets, attempt to capture meaning which is not exactly consensus-driven, but rather meaning that is both true enough, and flexible enough such that most readers won’t find it a stretch to believe. That is to say that we are trying to maximize understanding. In this sense, jacket design is a kind of interpretational utilitarianism.


Next installment—a continuation of the first. Examining the jacketing process for fiction in more detail (I will break it down, index the processes...). Along the way: a brief conversation about fiction titles. After which we return to Lolita with (hopefully) greater understanding.

Coming Soon