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It is common for the jackets of literary
fiction to be changed when published in other countries. A work of
fiction may have a different cover for every country it is published in.
If nothing else, this practise suggests that globalisation, with its
tendency towards standardization of design, hasn’t reached the literary
‘Cultural inappropriateness’ is the reason usually given for changing a
cover design. However, ‘commercial inappropriateness’ is probably a more
accurate reason. A design that works in the USA, for example, may be
deemed unsuitable for the Italian market. A brief search on the various
national Amazon sites throws up some interesting cover ‘make-overs’, and
my far from scientific researches (and years spent buying and browsing
books on both sides of the Atlantic) tell me that covers originating in
the UK are frequently changed when they are published in the US.
This is confirmed by Susanne Dean, the London-based creative director of
heavyweight publisher Random House. Her UK cover designs are routinely
changed for US publication. A recent example is her design (Fig. 1) for
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
A book about an autistic child who sees the world with searing,
un-metaphorical clarity, it has won a number of major literary prizes
and has become a bona fide bestseller in the UK. It is that rare
phenomenon, a work of genuine literary merit which is read by adults and
Dean’s witty, illustrative cover, with its vernacular typography and
run-over dog, is acknowledged within the UK publishing trade as a
commercial and artistic success. It neatly captures the dead-pan allure
of Haddon’s unusual tale, and appeals equally to young and old – no easy
task for the modern designer. But Dean’s design horrified the book’s
American publisher: ‘If we put this out, we’d sell three copies,’ they
said. The American cover (Fig. 2) is blandly neutral in comparison: the
design is mainly typographic with a graphic of an upturned dog as the
only concession to the story’s central motif. It looks as if the US
publisher is attempting the difficult balancing act of trying to appeal
to both the young and the not-so-young, but only succeeding in crash
landing somewhere in between.
Design interest in this extraordinary book doesn’t end there, either.
The following review by the British literary critic John Mullan in The Guardian Review, a highbrow supplement to The Guardian
newspaper, caught my eye: "Many readers," Mullan notes, "will have
their experience of Mark Haddon’s novel shaped by a technical
peculiarity of which they might not be conscious. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
uses a sans serif font: that is, a simple kind of print in which
letters lack the little tails and plinths that printers call serifs.
This is highly unusual in any published book; the convention is that
serifs help the brain’s visual apparatus as a line of print is scanned.
The tiny thickenings and thinnings of the limbs of every letter give the
eye something to catch on to. Sans serif fonts may be used in
advertisements, headlines and the like, but their simplicity is almost
physically uncomfortable in any lengthy text."
It’s worth quoting Mullan at length (he’s a senior lecture in English at
University College London, as well as a prolific critic) because it is
unusual to find any prominence given to typography outside the design
press. And even more unusual to find remarks about a book’s typography
within a serious review in a national newspaper. Mullan spotted that the
use of a sans serif font (Frutiger) aided the author’s intent: "The
font’s discomforting simplicity," he states, "is perfectly suited to
Haddon’s narrator, Christopher, in all his pedantic veracity (sometimes
just cataloguing or enumerating) and the plainness is even there in the
The book’s design was by Peter Ward. The text is interspersed with
illustrations, diagrams, equations, charts, maps and other graphic
ephemera. Ward is reluctant to take much credit for the use of the sans
serif font, but is fulsome in his praise of Mark Haddon and the book’s
editor Dan Franklin. "The font was probably Mark’s idea," he states. "I
was given the manuscript and I was instantly struck by it. It was
wonderful, and the job of translating Christopher’s thoughts and speech
was a designer’s dream. A really wonderful job."
Ward also designed the text for Irving Welsh’s ‘Filth’, in which a
wandering tape worm makes frequent appearances. It is not unknown for
novelists to be interested in typography. Evelyn Waugh was a noted
connoisseur of typography and collector of fine printing; in the current
era Dave Eggers takes a sharp-eyed interest in the typographic
construction of his books. But it is rare within literary fiction, where
semantic and conceptual adventurousness are highly prized, to find
alternatives to justified blocks of serif type.
It’s worth noting that the American publisher did not retain the use of
Frutiger for the book’s text. What does this tell us about the
difference between UK and US graphic perception? I wouldn’t presume to
Is graphic design still a hothouse for experimentation? McCoy suggests there is more going on today, but the venues and media have changed—for the better.
Section: Inspiration -
history, interview, Voice
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