This post was updated April 4, 2015 with additional illustrations and commentary.
Earlier this week, the US and UK covers for the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, were revealed online to great excitement and — because design criticism is a spectator sport — no small amount of derision.
The US cover was designed by Jarrod Taylor for HarperCollins. An apparent homage to the classic post-war American book covers designed by the likes of W. A. Dwiggins, George Salter, and Ismar David, there was some suggestion, on Twitter at least, that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the dust jacket of the first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (published in 1957), designed by Salter himself.
Certainly, the covers do compliment each other — a testament to how well Taylor has captured the tone of the period — but the minor similarities grind to a halt at yellow train lines and the design of a headlamp. The composition, colour, and lettering are all quite different. More importantly in my opinion, the mood of the covers is in stark contrast. Go Set A Watchmen, with its (faux) hand-brushed letters, golden leaves, old-fashioned locomotive, and evening blue hue is wistful and nostalgic. The ruler-straight horizon and railway sleepers give it steadiness and calm. It evokes both the passing of time and the desire, perhaps, to return to the past.
Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, is simply a period piece. The design itself, with its hot purple sky, rugged mountains, ominous dark tunnel, tilted railway sleepers, and — let’s face it — bloody enormous red warning light, is far from nostalgic. It’s all fear, urgency and speeding danger — the stencilled letters telling you (in case you hadn’t quite figured it out yet) that this book means serious business… Armchair psychoanalysts have at it.
In fact, the cover of Go Set A Watchman is an update of the original dust jacket of To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960) designed by Shirley Smith — the autumnal leaves making a nice allusion to both the author and her previous book, as well as an indication of where the new novel might take us.
But, for all the vintage styling, there is a kind of efficiency to new design that is, I think, unmistakably modern. The illustration, the colour palette, and even the brush-stroke typography, all have the feel of contemporary commercial fiction. It will not look out of place either online, or along side other bestsellers in Barnes and Noble.
UK cover is, in the British fashion, being credited to the in-house design team at William Heinemann rather than to an individual designer.
Also looking to evoke the past, it appears to draw inspiration from the typography of vintage film.
The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) via annyas.com
Brother Orchid (1940) via annyas.com
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) via annyas.com
It’s a nod, perhaps, to the Academy Award-winning (and much beloved) film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck (1962), but the burning orange background, red shadows and dark silhouettes suggest — unintentionally perhaps — an earlier literary film adaptation, Gone with the Wind (1939).
The Art Deco-inspired typography is also perplexing. While To Kill A Mockingbird is set in early 1930s, Go Catch A Watchmen is apparently set 20 years later — well after the heyday of Art Deco (but firmly in the post-war period that inspired the US cover).
Stylistically too, there is something about the combination of illustration and type that feels rather inauthentic and, as a consequence, the cover has a sort of unsatisfying post-modernism gloss. It is much less successful at evoking the period than Ben Wiseman’s noir-inspired design for The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy (published in 2010) for example.
Even so, there’s no getting away from the fact that it is vibrant and bluntly effective. Less book jacket than a glaring burnt orange advertisement, it is meant to be read at small sizes online (pre-orders, pre-orders, pre-orders….), or piled up at a distance. If you miss the author’s name and the silhouette of a mockingbird at the top of the cover, the words To Kill A Mockingbird loom large at the bottom.
This bold placement of the old title between the lines of the new triggered a slew of obvious jokes on Twitter, but it is actually rather ingenious — the designer neatly accommodates a remarkably large font size and, at the same time, slides in a wry allusion to the long shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird — a far wittier, nuanced joke than the repeated ‘Go Set A To Kill A Watchman Mockingbird’ gags online. For all its brash intent, it’s a cleverer cover than it first appears.
Ultimately, neither the UK cover or its American counterpart are going to win design awards. But neither are they terrible, and given the expectations for this book (and the controversy surrounding it), we should be grateful for that. Certainly we should not blame the designers who have produced surprisingly effective covers given the limitations they were surely working under. Covers for high-profile (and expensive!) books always involve compromises of one sort or another, and already risk-averse publishers become even more timid when so much is riding on a single title. As we saw in 2012 with The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, big books often get blandly familiar, easily recognisable (and readable) covers rather than conceptual, original designs. The book industry is behind readers on this who — after years of exposure to Apple products — are more sophisticated about design than ever before, but Go Set A Watchman was never going to be the book that brought publishers up to date.
UPDATE: If you’re curious about what designers think of the Go Set A Watchman covers, Peter Cocking, Brian Morgan, Ingrid Paulson, and Michel Vrana share their thoughts with the Globe & Mail, while at The Guardian, Stuart Bache gives his considered opinion.