The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Favourite Covers of 2012


For the past couple of years now (since Joseph Sullivan put the Book Design Review on ice in fact), I’ve been posting a short list of my favourite covers for books for the year. Now that thing for the New York Times is out of the way, I’m free to post my list for 2012.

To make a couple of very general observations about book design this year, the cover that probably made the greatest impact was Fifty Shades of Gray. It was a design that made it OK to read erotica in public, something which surely contributed to the book’s breakout success — a point not lost on other publishers who rushed to re-package their own erotica titles in a similar fashion. The results inevitably lacked the finesse of the original, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say…

But while the cover of Fifty Shades of Gray smartly defied the conventions of its genre, it wasn’t an exciting cover and some publishers seemed to be more conservative in their design choices, playing it safe or relying on formulas. The jacket for The Casual Vacancy could hardly have been more forgettable, and it was not alone. A bland sameness crept in. Perhaps that could be said every year. I suspect, however, that smaller budgets, tighter deadlines, and readers browsing thumbnails rather than shelves had an effect.

Nevertheless, some publishers were willing to trust their art directors and designers, and publish interesting and challenging covers. If I was to identify a common theme to my choices this year, it would be hand-drawn lettering and illustrated designs. With the ubiquity of stock photos and uninspired type-choices, that seems to be where the interesting things are happening, at least to my mind. Perhaps photographs will make a come back next year?

After Freud Left edited by John Burnham; designed by Isaac Tobin
University of Chicago Press

All Men Are Liars by Alberto Manguel; design by Jason Booher

El asenino hipocondríaco by Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel; design by Ferran López, illustration Santiago Caruso
Plaza & Janés

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss by Philip Nel; design by Chris Ware
University Press of Mississippi

Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain; design by FUEL
Portobello Books

The Dubliners by James Joyce; design by Apfel Zet / Richard Bravery
Penguin Essentials, Penguin (UK)

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus; design by Peter Mendelsund

A Free Man by Aman Sethi; design by Ben Wiseman
W.W. Norton

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood; illustration by Vania Zouravliov
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Vintage Isherwood, Vintage (UK)

The Heart Broke In by James Meek; design by Jennifer Carrow; illustration by Michele Banks
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel by Shalom Auslander; design by John Gall

How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees; design by Christopher Brian King
Melville House

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson; design by Jonny Pelham
Hesperus Press

Husk: A Novel by Corey Redekop; design by David A. Gee

In Praise of Nonsense by Ted Hiebert; design by David Drummond
McGill-Queens University Press

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; design by Cardon Webb
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Vintage (US)

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson; design by Matt Dorfman

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes; designed by Alison Forner

Men in Space by Tom McCarthy; design by John Gall
Vintage (US)

NW by Zadie Smith; designed by Gray318
Hamish Hamilton

Office Girl by Joe Meno; design by Cody Hudson, photograph by Todd Baxter

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; design by Jessica Hische / Paul Buckley

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Penguin Drop Cap, Penguin (US)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton; design Leanne Shapton / Matthew Young
Particular Books

Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon; design by Paul Sahre

Why We Build by Rowan Moore; illustration by Diane Berg
Picador (UK)

Honourable Mentions:

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You can find my lists for 2010 and 2011 here and here, and if you haven’t seen my 50 covers post from earlier this year, you can find that here. Happy Holidays!

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  1. Pingback: Things-I-Love Thursday – Bloody good book covers « lucylovesalliteration

  2. Hi there! beautiful roundup!! One thing: I’m relatively certain the jacket design for the James Meek is by Jenny Carrow–I think perhaps the interior design is by Abby Kagan. Abby usually does interiors. You should confirm though!! I don’t have the book right here. (I just looked on Jenny’s website and unfortunately it isn’t up there…but I could have sworn it was her!)

  3. Thanks Lynn. I will check. :-)

  4. Hi Lynn. You are correct. The jacket design for the James Meek was by Jenny Carrow. I’ve updated the attribution. Thanks again!

  5. no problem, glad I could be of help. Thanks for maintaining a fabulous website!

  6. This website is beautiful and so interesting. Found the link on the New York Times -great find on Jan 1, 2013! Thank you.

  7. Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by — I’m glad you like the site.

  8. This is a site I check often. So beautifully done. Thanks!

  9. Thanks Kay — I really appreciate it. Happy New Year!

  10. The pencil sharpener is my favourite: simple, neat and poignant. Manguel is on my reading list, but it seems it still have to wait.

  11. I would like to give you my website address:
    I saw you missed it at the cover of EL ASESINO HIPOCONDRIACO.

    Thank you very much for your interest into my artwork.

  12. Thanks Santiago! It’s a great illustration. I’ve added the link. :-)

  13. Pingback: Links variados de un jueves de enero « El Serif de Chocolate

  14. Pingback: 50 Covers for 2013 | The Casual Optimist

  15. Pingback: • » Die besten Buch-Cover 2013 • Lukas Hermann •

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