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Books Designers Have Chosen the Best Covers of the Year

Sadie Barnette: Legacy & Legend, My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), and Bang! Masturbation for All Genders and Abilities by Vic Liu. Image: Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and Pitzer College Art Galleries, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Microcosm Publishing.

While the phrase “you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover” is useful in some situations, it’s not so useful for actually picking books to read and explore. Book cover design is a unique skill and craft that is intended to deliver a message. Book covers can pique our interest more than a blurb or even the author’s name. This is why the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) for the last 99 years have decided to bring attention and celebrate to what they deem as the best of the best in cover design each year in their annual 50 Books | 50 Covers competition.

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No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Image: Riverhead Books.
(Riverhead Books)

The 50 winners came from over 600 submissions (in 2021) around the world. They range from children’s picture books and adult fiction to non-fiction titles that include cookbooks, musician collectable titles, and academic books. Even within fiction, there are new titles like No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and cover redesigns like O Retrato de Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray) by Oscar Wilde now designed by Casa Rex and Gilgamesh newly translated by Sophus Helle (designed by Yale University Press.)

The four AIGA jurors include esteemed designers Silas Munro, Laura Coobs, Brian Johnson, and Kimberly Varella. The competition board chair Munro stated in a press release,

In this year’s competition, innovative book designs for topics ranging from designing and motherhood, African surf culture, stories of resistance, visual histories of Detroit, Black food traditions, and more all give our jury life, hope, and visible windows into new possible worlds. The covers and books we looked at had a diverse range of visual language and took aesthetic risks.

The judging process

The winning books will enter AIGA collection at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University’s Butler Library. The full title is 50 Books | 50 Covers because they look at every inch of the nominees. Cover, Spines, flaps, images, cases, etc. are considered alongside the context of the novel and what’s going on in the world. On the Monocle Weekly podcast, Jessica Helfand (a juror from 2019) talked about the physicality of books and how they get them in person to judge. “The experience of looking at the book’s interior is quite different than [just] looking at the covers.”

M. Leona Godin's There Plant Eyes: A Cultural and Personal History of Blindnes. Image: Pantheon Books.
(Pantheon Books)

In looking over this year’s winners, I was able to learn a lot more by seeing images taken from different angles or zoomed in. For example, when looking closely at M. Leona Godin’s There Plant Eyes: A Cultural and Personal History of Blindness you can see the braille that if you held the book in person, is readable. The use of ultra-violet colors (like those in the Electromagnetic Spectrum) makes the title hard to read even if you have 20/20 vision. This difficulty on the viewer relates back to the topic of the novel.

Everything And Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl. Image: Verso.

The jurors award serious designs as much as they do silly ones that spark joy and our imaginations. The key is that they do something special and keep in theme with the novel. Some of these include titles like Have You Ever Seen a Flower? by Shawn Harris and Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora by Bryant Terry. Everything And Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon by Mark McGurl is covered with spines.

What are some of your favorites from winners from the 2021 edition of 50 Books | 50 Covers? What’s the last book design that blew you away?

(image: Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and Pitzer College Art Galleries, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Microcosm Publishing.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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