From bold typography exhibiting confidence, to delicate minimalism, the interplay between image, colour and type are arranged in design to celebrate a book. While it is important not to judge a text solely by its cover, our preconceptions often originate from the visuals we see on a book. But covers provide more than this; they are something to physically hold in your hand and in this sense, they form a part of the association and experience of reading a text. The best covers emulate a narrative in original and often powerful ways. Here is a list of some of the most striking book covers I have come across in the 2010s.
Penguin Clothbound Classics
Design by Coralie Bickford-Smith
Modernising literary classics, The Penguin Clothbound Classics series remind readers of their relevance. Often, we feel estranged by the formality of dated, classical covers. While they retain an authenticity and charm impossible to replicate, the clothbound series provides a refreshing take to revitalise these texts. Each patterned design is comprised of two colours; individually they are a work of art, together they represent the multiplicity and vibrancy of a whole literary canon. The fabric offers a unique texture to enrich the design, helping to breathe new life into antiquity.
Brown by Kevin Young
Design by Kelly Blair, cover illustration by Jason Kernevich
The typography delicately crowning the top of the cover frames a layered collage, blurring the distinctions between art and literature. The poetry collection depicts personal experience shaped by culture. Politically engaged, subjects range from hip-hop to activism in its vibrant forms, including cycles of sonnets. The layers of history Young excavates in his poetry is translated into the visual texture of the front cover, supplementing a powerful meditation on racial identity.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Design by Helen Crawford-White
There have been many designs of McBride’s novel, but this cover has remained my favourite. The singular rose avoids cliché in its overlap with the type, reflecting the intensity of the love affair central to the narrative. With its large font, many classics of the 2000s have also used this approach, including Zadie Smith’s debut in the new millennium, White Teeth. As a stream-of-consciousness text, McBride’s free-flowing prose is characterised by an urgency and volatility that rejects standardised uses of speech marks and punctuation. An innovative depiction of interiority, passion and adolescence, The Lesser Bohemians is exhibited gorgeously by the rose bursting through the title of the cover.
Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar
Design by Faber
Often serving as a form of decoration, book cover traditions have also been subverted – in this case, by rejecting any graphic element. 2019 has seen a particular trend of visible omissions of words, often seen on the covers of novelty books, and usually humorous. Yet this design exhibits an intricate plot through the cover alone, demonstrating the power of minimalism. The story follows the protagonist’s journey to America from India to study, falling in out and of love; with the cover crossing out words including ‘lover’ and ‘meditation’, the complex and shifting identity of an immigrant in Montana is represented cleanly and powerfully by the cover design.
Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka
Design by Peter Mendelsund
Written in 1914 and posthumously published in 1927, the incomplete text is startlingly modern. A new translation of the visionary novel was published by The Schocken Kafka Library, using a motif of eyes to provide a strong, cohesive theme across the renowned literary figure’s texts. Known for his surrealist novels and explorations of alienation and existential anxiety, Mendelsund’s cover for the 2011 reprinted edition re-envisions Kafka’s classic novel. The effect is an effortless, powerful depiction of contemporary anxieties, including surveillance, alienation, and our vision of the world.
Release by Patrick Ness
Design by Levente Szabo
This YA novel explores themes of identity and personal navigation, depicted superbly by designer Szabo. The cover has always been memorable to me by its limited colour palette and the powerful simplicity of its outline. The symmetry of faces resembling forestry or a river echoes both the protagonist and his lover, but also self-introspection, as if looking into an inverted mirror. This theme particularly resonates with younger audiences as a coming of age LGBTQ+ novel, and it is an example of a book cover that not only emulates its narrative, but also becomes a part of it.
– Leoni Fretwell