The age-old saying goes: “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” But that’s exactly what happened recently. The American Institute of Graphic Arts published the 2020 winners of its annual competition 50 Books | 50 covers earlier this month.
A total of 696 book or cover designs from 36 countries around the world were submitted to the competition. The winners included everything from I AM!: Affirmations for Resilience, illustrated by the great Trump satirist Edel Rodriguez, to Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter, a children’s book designed by Champions Design. The competition has served as a way to recognize and appreciate the design of books since 1923.
“We need to celebrate physical books as often as possible,” says Gail Anderson, distinguished designer and jury chair for 2020. “Who doesn’t love the heft of a book, the eventual wear and tear as it becomes a friend? And a coffee table book? Come on—that’s magical. Admittedly, this is coming from someone who has truly embraced the audiobook as a driving companion. Whatever gets people to read or to listen—count me in.”
One of the biggest trends the judges spotted this year was the use of illustration and handwriting in the designs. This was showcased on the covers Fake Moon, Tokyo Ueno Station, Almond, and White Tears, Brown Scars and may have been because COVID-19 made it difficult for publishers to stage photo shoots for covers. It is also a significant departure from prior trends of 2019, which included neon bursts of color, nature accents, and holographic and metallic accents—design tricks that no doubt played better when people were shopping in person rather than online, as many did in 2020. Still, some of the trends, like holography, live on and can be seen on the covers of this year’s winners as well, including Black Futures and You Were Born for This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance.
Ultimately, the competition shows how book covers can be a crucial marketing tool for book publishers—and works of art in their own right. “It is not only the author and text that engage a reader, it is also the actual look and feel of a book: the weight, the size, the cover material, the typographic structure, and printing techniques,” says Jennifer Morla, a juror and president and creative director of Morla Design. “It is the designer’s intent to seduce us into wanting to pick up and read that book.”
Take a look and judge all 50 winning covers and books here for yourself.