The art of designing ‘Ulysses,’ ‘Lolita’ and ‘The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo’
You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but browsing the stacks of your local bookstore or public library, what makes you gravitate toward one text over another?
Mendelsund is the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf Books. A professional musician for more than a decade, he stepped away from the piano and embarked on a design career with no formal training. Eleven years later, he is a renowned designer who has put the face on hundreds of books.
Mendelsund has a few rules that he follows when he goes about designing a book: first, it has to represent the story well.
“It’s a serious responsibility. I like to read the work as closely as I can,” Mendelsund told senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown during a recent stop by the NewsHour studio. “It’s very important to me that the cover that ends up on the book not be in some way dissonant with the author’s project as a whole.”
Second, the cover has to pop. When competing against all the over books on the table, Mendelsund wants you to choose the one he designed.
“Any cover that looks very different from all the covers around it — that cover is going to draw your eye. If all the covers on the table are colorful and you make a white cover, it may seem bland by itself, but that white cover, just by virtue of being different, will draw your eye and draw you to it.”
Another way to make a book pop? Make it pretty.
“If you make something pretty enough, it doesn’t matter what it looks like people will want it.”
One best seller that Mendelsund designed, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” did just that. Unlike many other thrillers and crime novels, the cover shows no blood, silhouettes or weapons. Instead, he gravitated towards a more “delicate” look.
“It just looked so different and hopefully was visually appealing enough that when you were in a bookstore and you saw it, at the very least you would come a little bit closer to it.”
Sometimes Mendelsund gets it right the first time, sometimes it takes several stabs. With “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” he estimates he designed 50-70 different versions.
He was tasked with creating the cover for the 50th anniversary of Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch.” In “Cover,” Mendelsund writes that some books, such as Cortázar’s, are so inspirational that he will never be satisfied.
“When the book date comes around, one must produce a cover. Perhaps not the cover. But a cover,” he writes. “I don’t think I will stop making ‘Hopscotch’ covers, though.”
Mendelsund’s book “What We See When We Read,” which investigates the act of reading itself and how readers visually interpret the words on the page, was released on the same day as “Cover.”
Stay tuned — the PBS NewsHour will air senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Peter Mendelsund.
You can also check out the images below to see more designs by Peter Mendelsund that are featured in his book, “Cover.”