The art of designing ‘Ulysses,’ ‘Lolita’ and ‘The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo’

BY Victoria Fleischer  August 27, 2014 at 4:59 PM EDT
Mendelsund used the eye for a series of publications of Kafka's books and letters. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Designer Peter Mendelsund uses a symbol of the eye in a series of re-publications of Franz Kafka’s books and letters. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

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?

It could be the work of designers like Peter Mendelsund, whose new book “Cover” was released earlier this month.

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.

According to Mendelsund, Joyce brought samples of cloth with him to the printer -- he had specific colors in mind for his covers. The designer capitalized on that original idea. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

According to Mendelsund, James Joyce had brought samples of cloth with him to the printer — he had specific colors in mind for his covers. The designer capitalized on that original idea. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse 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.”

"Does a designer attempt a (truly) shocking cover, in order to properly represent the ethical disquiet that Nabokov's narrative provokes?" From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“Does a designer attempt a (truly) shocking cover, in order to properly represent the ethical disquiet that Nabokov’s narrative provokes?” From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

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.”

Peter Mendelsund was inspired by wall stensils of the 1968 Paris riots when designing these covers for Simone de Beauvoir's "A Very Easy Death," "Adieux" and "The Woman Destroyed." From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Peter Mendelsund was inspired by wall stencils of the 1968 Paris riots when designing these covers for Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death,” “Adieux” and “The Woman Destroyed.” From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

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.

Mendelsund worked on the cover for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for three months, designing almost 50 different covers. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Mendelsund worked on the cover for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for three months, designing almost 50 different covers. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“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.

" I don't think I will stop making 'Hopscotch' covers." On the top left is the final design choice for the 50th anniversary cover of Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch." The remaining five are among the many ideas that Mendelsund came up with, but did not use. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“I don’t think I will stop making ‘Hopscotch’ covers.” On the top left is the final design choice for the 50th anniversary cover of Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch.” The remaining five are among the many ideas that Mendelsund came up with, but did not use. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“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.”



Mendelsund initially was cutting up paper to make birds for the cover. When he flipped over his design, he realized that he had accidentally created fire. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Mendelsund said that he initially had cut paper to make birds for the cover. When he flipped over his design, he realized that he had created something that looked like fire. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

This Foucault cover is part of a series by Mendelsund, each featuring a different related object against a white background. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

This Foucault cover is part of a series by Mendelsund, each featuring a different related object against a white background. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

"The portrait of Stalin is hanging from a real, tiny brass nail." From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“The portrait of Stalin is hanging from a real, tiny brass nail.” From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

"War and Peace" made a come-back on the best-sellers list after this printing of the book. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“War and Peace” made a comeback on the best-sellers list after this printing of the book. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Each jacket of Mark Z. Danielewski's "The Fifty Year Sword" is perforated differently by a special spike axle in China that was created for this design. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

Each jacket of Mark Z. Danielewski’s “The Fifty Year Sword” is perforated differently by a special spike axle that was created in China for this design. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

"Plato's Republic as 1971 Chermayeff & Geismar Pan Am World's poster. 'Come for the flickers shadows -- stay for the theory of forms.'" From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“Plato’s ‘Republic’ as 1971 Chermayeff & Geismar Pan Am World’s poster. ‘Come for the flickering shadows — stay for the theory of forms.’” From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

"A boy beset by codes. The symbols over his eye, and the one that appears on, but almost in his mouth, have an aspect of afflication (an eye-patch and a ball-gag) as well as an aspect of adornment." From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

“A boy beset by codes. The symbols over his eye, and the one that appears on, but almost in his mouth, have an aspect of affliction (an eye-patch and a ball-gag) as well as an aspect of adornment.” From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

This was one of Mendelsund's original designs for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" before the title of the book was changed. From Cover by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books

This was one of Mendelsund’s original designs for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” before the title of the book was changed. From “Cover” by Peter Mendelsund, published by powerHouse Books