I used to be embarrassed that I often buy books based on their cover, but I’m not anymore: Book covers are a labor of love, filled with artistry and design.
That’s the animating force behind the annual 50 Books | 50 Covers list, which was just released by AIGA, a professional association for the design industry. The competition, which first began in 1923, offers insight into this particular moment in time, where there’s a growing diversity in design as well as a fixation with typography.
This year’s 50 books, which encompassed fiction and nonfiction for both kids and adults, were selected by a jury of four designers from various disciplines. Silas Munro, the jury chair for this year, is a partner at the design agency Polymode, which specializes in books, among other things. As the jury culled down the 605 book entries from 29 countries, Munro says it soon became clear what made a good book cover. “I picked a jury in which we all have different approaches and aesthetics,” he says. “But we agreed that a good cover is unexpected and arrests you visually.”
One notable example of this is Black Food by Bryant Terry, which is a cookbook. But in an unusual move, there’s no food photography on the cover, but rather just bold, fun, multicolored typography. “It’s using type to create something that felt appetizing, but also speaks to black culture,” Munro says. “It’s embodying the chef who wrote it, and there’s just a vitality there that you don’t forget.”
A good book cover primes the reader for what’s in the book, Munro says. It should create a mood that lays the foundation for the story or information within. “Design is an emotional act,” he says. “There’s a lot of intuition that goes into creating a cover.”
Afro Surf, by surfer Selema Masekela, for instance, is about surf culture in the African continent and features a picture of a Black surfer staring directly at the reader, surrounded by green, yellow, and red graphics that call to mind African visual culture. It reflects the content of the book, which is about a pastime that brings joy, but it also engages with current conversations around systemic oppression by discussing how Black surfers are redefining a sport that has been historically white. “It’s about who’s visible, who’s included,” Munro says.
But the books chosen also reflect the design trends of our moment. Looking through the list as a whole, many books feature nothing but bold, colorful typography. Others don’t have words at all, but feature striking, dramatic images. This is quite different from the trend in books a decade ago, Munro says, which typically featured both an image and the title. “We’re in the golden age of type design,” Munro says. “There are more diverse typeface designers, including people of color and women. Typeface design, even more than graphic design, has been historically exclusive to white men.” These diverse designers developed new aesthetics, playing with proportions and colors in fonts that stand out.
As they culled through the many books to come up with this list, Munro says an underlying question was what is the value of a book in our world. He argues that in our tumultuous times, full of political polarization, climate disasters, and a pandemic, books play an important role because they help people escape. “Books can transport you somewhere else and open up new worlds,” he says. “Having a beautiful, resonant book is a real treasure: It’s an expression of knowledge or storytelling that can give us hope.”