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How to judge a book by its cover

No matter how highbrow one gets in life, a book is all about falling in love at first sight as many readers and book-hoarders would like to believe. Why else would you think a gigantic crimson stiletto with a horned edge made Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, a sure-shot bestseller? It’s not just that, iconic book covers of A Clockwork Orange, The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, Atlas Shrugged, and so many others have almost become symbolic imagery, thanks to visionary designers of these universal classics.


Satyajit Ray designed over 200 known book covers in his life. Kumauner Manush Kheko Bagh or The Man-eater of Kumaon by Jim Corbett evokes myriad interpretations through its tiger print cover

The early cover-up
Shilpa Das, a professor at National Institute of Design (NID) and Head at NID Publications, travels back in time speaking of book cover design at the beginning of the 20th century. “Until about 10 years ago, there wasn’t much stress on aesthetics, design and layout of books. Most titles were conceived of as academic texts and had shoddy production value. The paper quality was also low.” She cites Dance of Shiva by Anand K Coomaraswamy as an epoch-defining book, which was first published in 1918 when book design was in its nascent stages. “It came in paperback and was a bible for song and dance. Yet by design, it was primarily monochromatic and had a Nataraja on the cover.”


The veiled woman on a yellow background, that is also the cover for Looking Beyond (Roli), etches several nuances of Jibananda Das’ Banalata Sen. Pics Courtesy/ Looking beyond

Garish, bearing high contrast and an inadequate sense of elegance are few of the traits of book design that Das delineates pertaining to yesteryears. In the 1950s and ‘60s, books were churned out with the same kind of language, as one of the visible government-aided publishers of those times was Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. She recounts other publishers that endeavoured to establish minimalism with the time. Jaico Publishers (‘80s and ‘90s), Motilal Banarasidass, Jawaharlal Nehru University Press (‘90s), Adyar Library and Research Centre in Chennai and Kali for Women (under the influence of Sharmila Rege who commissioned a few artworks) come to Das’ mind.


The King’s Harvest (Aleph) and A Little Book of Life (Rupa) are two varying examples of illustrations (a trend nowadays) and minimalism, respectively 

Power to the regional title
Lest you anticipate writing off pictorial representation of Indian literature, think again. Bhasha literature that had just begun to find its voice in the written word was soon proliferating. Bengali and Marathi literature gained bold covers, as the artist was multi-faceted as is evident in the case of Satyajit Ray: a filmmaker of worldwide repute, writer with a loyal following and a stunning designer who visualised book covers and film posters. However, in the last decade, as several heads in publishing confirm an experimental mode can be discreetly recognised.


Random House’s Jugaad plays with simple typographies and illustration, communicating the idea of innovation in a succinct manner. 

Bena Sarin, Creative Director at Aleph Book Company, shares, “When I joined Penguin about 10 years ago, paintings from the National Art Gallery, Calcutta Museum and other similar institutions were sourced from, for covers. Two things that transformed this approach were access to the Internet and advent of the digital camera.” She speaks of these two industry-altering events as they increased repositories for reference images through websites and facilitate “translation of one’s visualisations by clicking them”. Counterposing the previous scenario, Sarin mentions how one had to literally beg and borrow images and successfully design if a book’s budget was substantial, meaning a print of 10,000 copies, at least.


Nia Murphy, designer of Alone in the Forest (Tara), shares that the unusual combination of purple and yellow makes the cover visible from a distance.

Vintage flavour
Both Sarin and Rajesh Kejriwal, founder and CEO of Kyoorius, a leading design agency, feel that the book covers of the ‘60s had their own charm. While Sarin asserts that they stayed true to the book for they didn’t have strong market obligations, Kejriwal shares that they “formed a stunning blend of colour, typography and illustration.” Thinking about being experimental and ‘different’, Kejriwal defines an important conception, “Experimental book covers are a specialised type of graphic design that demand good understanding on type treatment, proper font usage, how browsers interact with words and pictorial content on book covers. It should be expressive rather than experimental. And, this is not new and neither is it a trend.”


I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (Tara) was selected for the New York Times Best Book Cover Designs of 2012 and was designed by Rathana Ramanathan.

Photo-stop, please
Kejriwal asserts that the current practice of running to Photoshop and vector graphics software discount expression and originality. The colonial hangover is what Sarin feels is skewing original ideation as the West is constantly looked towards, for inspiration. She mimics an oft-repeated remark, “If a person says, ‘Oh! It looks like a book from the US’, which means that it looks good,” she laments, “Japanese designs, for instance, don’t look elsewhere for emulation.”


Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph) consists of sketches that Pinto had made, an idea that Bena Sarin had also unknowingly conceived of

Maithily Doshi, in-house designer with Rupa Publications, highlights the constraints of time and audience, a worry that Sarin had at Penguin Books where she had to produce 300 covers in a year. “If we look at Dutch design, it’s structured, perhaps due to their culture. But that’s not possible here as we are too diverse and no book can be recognised as typically Indian,” opines Doshi. Still, with many covers catching eyeballs most days, we select a few landmark ones, that are changing the norm, one step at a time.

From kids’ eyes
“Often, a picture from the inside is used for the cover which we don’t do in our books. Our brief to illustrators is to give a glimpse of what the reader could look forward to. Children do get attracted and judge a book by its cover,” says Radhika Menon, Publisher, Tulika Books.

Blast from the past
Earlier on, covers were restricted in design, some feel, due to lack of attention and budget allocations. Pic Courtesy/ Shilpa Das

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