Exercise: Judging a book by its cover.

Choose a book by an author you are familiar with. You are going to design two different covers for it, one using illustrations or photography and the other using just type.

Design the whole cover including the spine and back page. Include the title of the book, the author’s name, a brief description of the story and any other information you think is necessary.

As you are working remember that your design is intended to help a reader know what the experience of reading the book will be. Is it a serious text book or an off-beat funny novel? Are the readers expected to be young women or older men and does this matter?

Is it an ‘easy read’ or ‘literary’? Does the publisher have a house style you need to be part of?

When you have finished critique your work – which of your two designs do you feel works the most successfully and why? Make notes in your learning log.

I have chosen Zadie Smith’s Swing Time for reasons I explain in my diary.

I like the simple cover. I can understand why the cover designer chose to use only typography as the story is complicated to represent either graphically or in an image.

It is a story of two young girls, of mixed race, growing up in east London. One is a talented dancer but somewhat out of control. The other has less talent but more ambition. She also has a very pushy Jamaican  mother. The less talented girl is the narrator. She finishes school, having passed through a succession of teenage rebellious periods, and lands a job as a PA to an American pop singer. This singer has philanthropic ideals. She wants to help a school in The Gambia. The narrator is shocked by the poverty and cannot understand how someone would not want to leave it. Her struggle is within herself as she tries to find her place in this world. The talented dancer, Tracy, eventually dances in the chorus of a West End show. She is much more content with her background and place in society.

The story deals with friendship, race, ambition, lack of ambition, knowing our boundaries, learning to be happy and satisfied, philantrophy and its consequences.

Problem is how to represent this story on a cover.

I tried out some ideas in my log book.

I wanted to show the race element and the cross pollination of the UK and The Gambia. Swing Time, in the story is about the Narrator’s love of old swing time movies. But I thought, because of the contrasts in the book, black and white, ambition and contentment, poverty and wealth, a swing would best represent these ideas. So I worked on this in InDesign. I am not altogether happy with the result but it was the best I could do.


I tried several covers using only typography. I looked up a reference my tutor had given me but did not feel inspired by the examples. I wanted to keep the idea of mixed race but  black and white seemed too stark. I wanted clean simplicity to avoid my usual problem of overworking. I then decided to use a metallic silver tone (Patone silver C). with a black and white title.



Although I loved this book and felt a very special affinity with it I found creating the cover extremely difficult. Parts of this book could have been my story and I still intend to write to Zadie Smith to ask her if she had personally experienced the Gambia river crossing. The only difference between the experience recounted in the book and mine was that mine was a great deal more complicated and dangerous…

In the illustration cover, I like the colour of the headings and I like the two country map idea but I feel that the figures are a bit stylised and maybe if I was being very PC they might not be acceptable. But I will await my tutor input.

I prefer the metallic grey simple typographical cover. Maybe this is because the book had a typographical cover or maybe it is because Zadie Smith’s boos have all had this type of cover. I could also be that I inevitably will prefer simplicity.



Your illustrated book cover has a certain logic to it and I like how you’ve started to break down and handle your themes but I feel the overall image is a little too disjointed or contrived. It may be worth returning to the visual metaphor task from earlier in the course to try to come up with some keywords which sum up a sentiment of the book or core objects , locations or defining scenes that anchor the text. Depicting your characters and their cultures could be as simple as having contrasting props photographed / spliced together. It would be good also to describe your rationale for the text based image in your log further too.

Further TUTOR reflections in an email:

Stick with the book jacket a little while more but if you don’t come to any conclusions or manage to fully refine try not to worry. A good written reflection of what the sticking points are can be as good as reinventing the wheel and if you end up with some big ideas you can’t pull off – some thumbnails to show your concepts would be just as good. I think sometimes when you read something you are more personally entangled with it can make it quite problematic to find thee all encompassing image you wish for.
Extra pointers from me might be to see if you can go and photograph a location that might be suitable – or if you know someone who could capture this for you that would also be ok; finding an image online and documenting your understanding for the steps you’d need to undertake to license it would also be appropriate). You could also gather up some objects that you could imagine the characters associated with (dance shoes?) and just play around and handles these as props to inspire a set-up that would relate to the book. I think the typographic cover will probably come more easily once you’ve got these key visual metaphors concentrated into one clear focus of concept.
Following the above feedback I decided to collect some images that I thought represented the story.
I played around with these in my sketch book.. I then mocked up a cover using the Gambian flag colours and the ballet legs. I added and took away various other images.
Using this mock-up I worked inDesign to create the following new book cover.
I am much happier with this cover.