Monday, 17 January 2011

Judging by the cover

One of the greatest pleasures in life is to be in a bookshop for no special reason, that is, not with the intention to buy a specific book, but with the desire to look at titles, names and covers, read summaries, discover, be tempted, not resist, buy, leave with a number of them anxious to start.

Last May I had read an article in the Guardian about the different covers the same book might have in different countries (read the article here and see images of covers here). “Why don´t publishers replicate covers that have been a success abroad”, asked the author of the article. There are designers and publishers who think that readers in different countries do not need different covers. Other professionals in these fields believe that one should start from zero and, when working on the cover of a book that has already been published, they even avoid looking at the existing covers. The reasons invoked in the article for creating distinct covers are cultural (“It´s a cultural thing, as taste-driven as different countries eating different things for breakfast”) or relate to marketing (“…literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US, so publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers” or “The UK book market is more competitive, all the covers is shops shouting ‘Buy me!’”) or might even be α question of pride.

Photo: Observer
I thought about the factors that determine my choices when I am off to ‘an expedition to the unknown’. I won´t deny that it´s the combination of title and cover that makes me pick up the book of an author I don´t know. It´s important that the cover is elegant and attractive, for my taste (many times these covers have no image, just letters and excellent design). Then I read the summary. And then the decision is made.

I don´t think I have ever questioned whether the cover and the summary transmit the same ‘essence’. Actually, I think I never expected a cover to be a sort of summary of what I would discover inside, unlike the summary itself, which is supposed to provoke my curiosity. At the same time, I don´t remember ever having felt cheated for having loathed a book the cover of which had instantly attracted me. But I do remember the opposite: how uncomfortable I felt on two occasions when reading very good books that, in my opinion, had cheesy covers. The first had been recommended to me; and I had read about the other one in the newspaper. Otherwise I am sure I would have never picked them up if I had simply seen them on a stand together with others. It´s a question of aesthetics, of taste. But also of branding. Because in many cases the cover design identifies a publishing house, which, when considered of quality and allows for an instant visual identification, may win the battle in the middle of intense competition.

One of the most discussed issues in our professional field is that of a show´s poster. What it is and what it is not. What it is for and what it shouldn´t be for. I rememeber that at the time I read the article in the Guardian I had forwarded it to a number of colleagues because I could see quiet a few analogies between book covers and show posters.

What´s a poster? It´s a promotional tool. It has got a functional character. It serves to inform (what, when, where); it serves to stengthen the image and identity of the proposing institution; it serves to attract the audience. Unlike what happens in other countries, the cultural supplements of certain portuguese newspapers are full of advertisments of shows. Some times we have four ads sharing the same page. Just like in the streets we find a series of posters of different shows ones next to the others. Competition is fierce. Who will manage to overtop and attract the public´s attention in order to gain customers? The one that has a good design, that is, the one that will allow to rapidly identify who proposes, what and where.

What a poster is not? It´s not an extension of the show. It shouldn´t aim to transmit its essence over other functions, that should be a priority, such as to inform (actually I think that only those directly involved in the creation of the show are able to identify or feel its essence in a poster). It shouldn´t serve to present the names of all those involved, filling the image with letters, helping to bury the information that is essential for the show´s promotion; in fact, a poster is not produced in order to serve as a register. It shouldn´t either serve to include the logos of all those supporting the show. When these issues prevail, quite often the result is a bad poster, a poster that is not functional.

The process of creating and approving a poster may become quite tense, mainly when the proposing institution is not a ‘space on loan’, but an institution with a strong identity (and a strong visual identity). The challenge for the designer is to create a proposal that fits in the institution´s general line of communication, but which at the same time is distinctive of each project. For communication professionals the challenge is to defend the institution as well as the project, to create the conditions for the process to be as fluid as possible, defining from the beginning, in articulation with those involved in the show, the objectives to be reached through the poster. The evaluation of the quality and efficiency of a poster cannot and should not be reduced to aesthetic criteria (it´s nice, it´s not nice) or to be made with the aim to be ‘fair’ (either all names or none). The true issue here is: Does it fulfill its purpose? Does it inform? Does it identiify? Does it attract? The rest should be a discovery. And, regardless of what one might discover, I doubt the public might ever blame the poster for not telling the whole story…

Reading suggestion
Navigating the design minefield

Note on January 20:
Regarding book covers, another article in today´s Guardian, Can you judge a book by its cover?  Once again very relevant in what concerns the issue of show posters.

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