Last month, we posted about Jamie Keenan’s book covers he’d designed for Vertigo, the new imprint of Pushkin Press. The aim of Vertigo is to publish established crime classics from around the world, many for the first time in English.
The first four books in the series are out today and it seems Keenan’s striking, type-heavy covers have already been causing a stir on Twitter. Earlier on today, crime writer Ian Rankin tweeted that he had been sent the books and included a photo of the covers with the question, “Anyone else find titles and author names hard to make out?”
A fair enough question – and one that was immediately met with a diverse range of opinion on Twitter. Well, diverse in the sense that a handful of people (mainly designers) defended Keenan’s direction and, well, virtually everyone else responding to Rankin’s tweet, didn’t.
The covers were either “terrible”; “awful”; “cool, very arty” but “doesn’t make good business sense”; or just “hard on the eyes” and, of course, induced vertigo. (The best, though, was the simple “real whodunits indeed”.)
To Rankin’s credit he RT’d four of the most positive responses he received to his question – from designers Jim Tierney, Jon Gray, David Beckitt and Alistair Hall – and then also tweeted “Good to see so many graphic designers pointing out how great those covers are.”
What’s interesting though, is the reaction that the work has received more generally; with the main, admittedly quick-fire, objection to the designs being their legibility. In each case there’s no doubt that the author’s name and title can be tricky to make out, but does that mean they’re badly designed covers? Of course not – and Rankin’s tweet wasn’t suggesting that either. ‘Boileau-Narcejac’ is a pretty tough name to get through whether it has translucent red ink printed over the top of it or not.
But what I liked about the covers in the first place was that, like their subject matter, they took some working out, a little deciphering; some effort on the reader’s part of get into the text. Keenan’s covers seemed to both say something about the books, albeit mysteriously, without giving too much away. And to paraphrase designer David Carson, who has a bit of form in this regard, “don’t confuse legibility with communication”.
For me, this meant the covers paired brilliantly with the wider concept of ‘crime fiction’ (the books are meant to be classics of the form, after all) and eschewed the more obvious visual clichés which might put off non-crime buffs from picking up one of the books in a shop, or clicking on a cover online. The covers practically demand a second look, which surely can only be a good thing?
(Some commenters on Twitter quite reasonably pointed out that the covers could prove very challenging for people with colour blindness – certainly an issue that designers perhaps need to think about more widely.)
So, in light of another ‘book-covers-debated-openly-on-Twitter’ rumpus – which we’re all for at CR – here’s Keenan again on the subject of these challenging covers and his reasoning behind taking a very bold, expressive typographic route.
“From the beginning I wanted to come up with something that looked alien, as though someone had brought it back from a holiday in a country you’d never heard of,” says Keenan. “