Judging a Designer by His Covers

Interview

Friday, August 15, 2014

Left to right: drafts of Peter Mendelsund's design for 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' and the final cover Left to right: drafts of Peter Mendelsund's design for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the final cover (Peter Mendelsund)

Some of today’s most striking, original book covers are being designed by Peter Mendelsund. He’s done book jackets for Stieg Larsson, Ben Marcus, and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as new editions for Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Calvino. All of Mendelsund’s covers look very different from each other — and from anything else on the shelf. He avoids genre clichés not only for creative reasons, but as simple business sense. “I think the best bet that any book jacket has of getting your attention is by being different from everything else around it,” he tells Kurt Andersen.

See a slideshow of his covers below.

Mendelsund’s designs always start from a close reading of the book. For example, he recently redesigned the covers of Kafka’s novels. Instead of the grim, mostly black covers we’re familiar with, Mendelsund chose bright colors and playful designs. “They’re funny books, in their own way,” he says, recalling anecdotes of Kafta reading The Metamorphosis aloud and laughing. “My hope was, if you make playful and exuberant covers, people will bring that to a reading of the books.”

Even though his job involves reading books and coming up with images from his reading, Mendelsund says he had never really thought about what happens in his mind as those images are forming. How does a reader transform words on the page into mental pictures? And how is it that we feel so sure we know what characters look like, when often an author only gives us the sketchiest of descriptions? Those questions led Mendelsund to write a book of his own, What We See When We Read, which distills his research into the neuroscience of reading. He also has a new collection of his first decade as a book jacket designer, Cover.

Slideshow: Mendelsund's Covers

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

Peter Mendelsund has created cover designs for books ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His new book, Cover, collects some of his most famous designs and explains how they came to be.

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

An early version of Mendelsund’s cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (with a translation based on its original Swedish title, The Man Who Hated Women).

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

Another draft of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features a white-on-white cover with a bright splash of blood, hinting to readers that they have picked up a crime novel. That blood splatter is a sort of design shorthand, says Mendelsund: “You could put a puppy on a cover and splatter it with blood and you have a crime novel.”

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

Knopf’s Editor in Chief, Sonny Mheta, wanted the book’s cover to avoid tired crime imagery. Mendelsund offered up an abstract dragon motif in the muted tones of a tattoo. Mendelsund initially favored the softer colors in this design, but writes that “brighter colors won the day.”

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

The final design of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Mendelsund says this bright cover is a departure from the usual signifiers of a crime novel: no murder weapon, no damsel in distress, and no blood.

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

Mendelsund’s cover for Franz Kafka’s Letter to Felice. He hopes his simple, unusual designs help readers to consider Kafka’s novel in a new light: “My hope was that if you make sort of funny, playful, and exuberant Kafka covers that people will bring that attitude towards a reading of the books.” 

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

Mendelsund originally intended to feature paper birds on the cover of The Flame Alphabet, echoing the birds that appear in the novel. When Mendesund flipped his cut-ups over, he realized their shape mirrored the flames of the novel’s title. 

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

When designing this cover for Ulysses, Mendelsund was struck by James Joyce’s description of the color green — from the “snotgreen sea” to “green flashing eyes.”

Peter Mendelsund
Peter Mendelsund

The design for The Republic was partially inspired by a quote from the book: “Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.”

    Music Playlist
  • Book and a Cover
    Artist: Suzanne Vega
    Album: Book and a Cover (Single)
    Label: Pid

Guests:

Peter Mendelsund

Produced by:

Matt Frassica

Comments [3]

J. C. Salomon from Flushing, N.Y.

“He avoids genre clichés not only for creative reasons, but as simple business sense. ‘I think the best bet that any book jacket has of getting your attention is by being different from everything else around it,’ he tells Kurt Andersen.”

This is doing readers, and authors, a disservice. When I’m in the bookstore, or browsing Amazon’s web site, I need a well-designed cover to cue what sort of book this is. Avoiding genre clichés is one thing, but rejection of genre idioms is inexcusable. Genre is a contract between writer and reader; a cover which miscues genre is a violation in the same way a misleadingly-written contract is.

And in fact, the first time I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the cover mislead me about the genre: I opened it expecting one kind of book and got another, and I couldn’t push through it. A few months later I tried again, this time after reading a review and realizing what genre of book it was, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Aug. 18 2014 05:33 PM
Alison

Spatter. Not Splatter.

Aug. 18 2014 02:50 AM
Russell Scott Day from Carrboro, NC

People buy books and records for the covers. Records stopped selling well when they were too small for a good cover. When I was a DJ I couldn't read the "Too Cool for School" covers of the CDs. Really. Records come in covers that are little books and had posters in them like Dylan's famous hair that was for tripping to.
I've been making covers for my books. The passport has the flag on it. George Heyward who designed Motown Club on 57th did the flag for Transcendia.
Death is the Title, or I slept on the Porch, has an interesting title. Psychiatrists Love Insanity, is right for a book of poems.
I've been going for the nostalgic and historical.

Aug. 15 2014 12:54 PM

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