Friday, January 21, 2011

Designers of the World, Don't Unite!

Just look at this.
To scan the new arrivals and pull this selection from the shelves and tables took me less than one minute.

Seven publishing houses.
Eight designers.

The averted, cropped off or masked face of a woman tells me nothing except that the designer and publisher don't want to be held accountable. It's the pinnacle of non-committal design.

I will leave it to others (who have read the books) to determine what the design ethic at work across such a broad spectrum of subject matter, not to mention cross-section of the publishing industry, has to say, if anything, about gender relations.

But I will say that it is unsettling to witness publishers and designers churning out the exact same visuals as each other in a year when the book is loudly rumored to be on its last legs.

It brings to mind a biologically deficient strain of corn, its pesticide-protected field blanketing the continent, feeding us all we can eat and fueling us as far as we can go until that one microbe who has the doomsday genetic code rides in on the wind of an uncovered sneeze and turns the corn fields and our dinner tables into wastelands.

I know it's not as apocalyptic as all that, obviously. Just as anyone who works in a decent bookstore knows that paper books are,
very long for this world.

You can just put me in that camp that thinks we should be encouraging diversity wherever we find it, you know, for the health of the species.

I want to sell your books, guys, but you make it a hell of a lot harder when they all look the freaking same. Designers, don't you all talk to each other? Publishers, don't you look at what the other ones are doing?
Oooooooh, I see.
You do.

It's a little thing to many, maybe.
But I think that good design has a lot to do with good life.
And bad design makes my head hot.
And collectively bad design that appears to be the product of an agreement amongst the largest publishing houses in the country makes me...turn away.


Evan said...

I can't answer for it all, of course, but I think there must be a couple practical concerns at play here too. When you put a face on the cover, you either set the reader's imagination on that face, or you highlight the fact that the face described in the book doesn't match up with the face on the cover (i.e. if you take a picture of the back of a blonde woman's head, she can stand in for any blonde woman in the history of literature. But when you have an eye color, it's probably not going to match. And are her lips really full enough? Does the character really have that startling expression? Pointy ears? I wouldn't have pictured that.)

On the other hand, seeing a book cover that features the main character's face is like seeing the movie before reading the book. Can you really read To Kill a Mockingbird without thinking of Gregory Peck? Because I can't. Which is not a bad thing, because come on, Gregory freaking Peck.

I'm not disagreeing, really. I love good design, and this is a lazy trope. But I think there is some method to the blandness.

Paul Theriault said...

Evan, I agree with you that the designer wants to leave the details of the character up to the imagination of the reader, but do they have to so dull and gutless about it? That's my question. Why are they trying to bore people right from the get-go?

This round of copycat design just seems particularly bland, and alarmingly widespread across the publishers. It just looks like they don't care about the books they are selling. "If you liked that book, which you know you probably do, because its jacket has been all up in that show you watch/site you visit/mag you read, then you should check out this book, because, check it out, this one's exactly as appealing to your particular tastes (which we've got studies about from these folks that watch infinitesimal consumer trends playing out in near-real time on a continental scale, and give recommendations on how to capitalize on them).

They're displaying little respect for the readers or the authors of these books if they're packaging them so uniformly.

It gives me the impression of rolls of paper towels in the supermarket, displayed directly opposite the mops and washrags. Brand identity (individual publishers competing with each other for the quality of the books they publish) becomes brand conformity (publishers lining up shoulder to shoulder in the face of the "competition") when two rival technologies are expecting to be facing off.

I'm not saying that I know that that's what's happening. I'm saying that when these big entities start designing in lockstep, it makes me worried for their state of mind.