More Than Words: The Evolution of Modern Book Design

We know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is we often do. The design of a book can often convince us to read it. It calls out to us from the bookshelf or Kindle page.

It was only in the 20th century that book cover design became a critical detail in how a publisher markets a book. Publishers turned to fine artists and commercial designers to come up with the “look” for a book. For the most part, these were modernists, already deeply engaged in the artistic revolution that was happening in typography and fine art. The influence of the Bauhaus and European commercial art had found its way to the United States, and in turn, began transforming American product design.


The influence of the Bauhaus and European commercial art had found its way to the United States, and in turn, began transforming American product design.

In 1924 Charles Scribner’s publisher Max Perkins commissioned artist Francis Cugat to create the cover art for The Great Gatsby, which inspired the author to write it into the book.

Consider The Great Gatsby, possibly the most iconic American book cover design in history. Designed by little-known artist Francis Cugat (the only book cover he ever designed), it is said that when F. Scott Fitzgerald saw the completed gouache painting, he immediately wrote his publisher, Max Perkins: “‘For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”

But not everyone shared Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm. Ernest Hemingway told Fitzgerald that the cover was “garish” and looked like a “bad science-fiction novel.” He allegedly removed the jacket before reading the book.

For the most part, it was relatively rare for a book’s designer to get any credit for their work, but they were instrumental in helping publishers reach new audiences, especially when a book went into paperback.


At top, a set of three covers by Alvin Lustig. Below, covers by modernist Roy Kuhlman, who created covers at Grove Press.

Roy Kuhlman, Alvin Lustig, and Germano Facetti (who headed design at Penguin) each found ways to create compelling works of art that just happened to be the cover of a book.

That probably wouldn’t be said of Wendell Minor, who was enlisted to design the cover of Peter Benchley’s 1974 book, Jaws. In a review of the finished work, one editor described Minor’s drawing of a shark as looking like “a penis with teeth”.

By the time the book came out in paperback, it had been successfully revised by illustrator Roger Kastel to include a much more realistic shark, and a more erotically drawn woman swimming above it. The image also became the now-famous movie poster.


With Jaws, artist Wendell Minor was entirely literal in illustrating the fear of a giant white shark. But for S. Neil Fujita, his philosophy was predicated on the subliminal, as with his famous cover for The Godfather, which became the symbol of the franchise.


In the case of The Godfather, the marionette became the unmistakable signature of the Godfather franchise.

Generally speaking, most graphic artists don’t agree with illustrating the obvious (like Jaws), rather, they distill the essence of a book’s story down to something more abstract.

S. Neil Fujita famously did that with the covers of both Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather. Like the many jazz album covers he designed, Fujita believed abstraction was the best way to communicate the lynchpin of a story; but in the case of The Godfather, the marionette became the unmistakable signature of the Godfather franchise.


Wunderkind designer Chip Kidd created some of the most iconic book jackets of the 1990s, using a mix of mediums and using typography as an emotional tool.

In the early 1990’s designer Chip Kidd became the Golden Boy of the publishing world for such books as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of the first books to feature an acetate cover overlay), Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (with the dinosaur silhouette that was later incorporated into the movie poster), and the books of David Sedaris. “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story,” says Kidd, who rarely breaks this rule.


“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” — Chip Kidd


But let’s face it, sex – or even the faintest suggestion of it – sells, and plenty of graphic designers have found ingenious ways to allude to it with their cover art.

Designer Jon Grey managed to make a buttonhole look like a vagina for the cover of Alissa Nutting’s 2013 book, Tampa, whose subject matter is far more explicit. Others went Full-Monty such as the designer of Irving Welsh’s Porno. There’s nothing subtle about an inflatable doll.

By the 2000s, photographic imagery became more prevalent and books like Porno and Tampa raised the bar on sexual suggestion.

But it is Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel, Lolita which has garnered the greatest number of cover designs of all time. When the book was first published, it had the most ascetic cover design possible, even the font seemed chaste – perhaps a way to disguise the sordid story inside. It wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of the book that the covers began to feature Sue Lyon’s famous heart-shaped glasses.

There exist more than 185 covers of the controversial novel, Lolita. But when the book was released in 1955, its prurient subject matter deemed it worthy of the most chaste cover imaginable (lower center.)

Over the course of the 66 years since it was published, Lolita has racked up 185 covers from 36 countries – and counting. There’s even a book about it, The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, by John Bertram and Yuri Leving.

In the end, though, we have a certain respect for minimalism; the purity of just a title and the author’s name on the cover.

Penguin Books became famous for its decidedly simple cover designs, many with nothing more than the author and title. They were an instant success and at one point, could even be purchased from a vending machine known as the Penguincubator.

From the 1930s until the late 1960s, Penguin books made that their signature with volumes featuring just three bands of colour and a crisp, Gill Sans typeface. Designed by a 21-year old designer on the staff of penguin, he unknowingly created a brand so iconic that even today, the Penguin paperback remains as distinctively British as Harrods’s, Aston Martin, and Marmite.

> Discover our collection of many of the titles described in this story in the Collector’s Library.