Jacket Required: On Book Cover Design

9780700620012As Art Director and Webmaster, I’m responsible for all matters pertaining to graphic design at the University Press of Kansas. I design everything you see with our name on it, including books, ads, catalogs, flyers, conference booth signage, and website graphics. The one aspect of my job that readers and authors seem to be the most curious about, however, is book cover design.

In my 16 years here at the Press, I’ve designed the dust jackets or paperback covers of over 500 published books. A book cover serves two purposes. The first is to sell the book, and the second is to educate potential readers of its contents. To accomplish the first objective, a cover has to look attractive, legible, and effortless. It has to be eye-catching and readable whether it’s viewed from across the room at a bookstore or scholarly conference or as a thumbnail image on Amazon. To educate the reader, each book’s cover needs to accurately convey not just the subject matter but also the author’s approach to it. Because one person (me) designs all our covers, to some degree a Kansas “look” is inevitable, but it’s far more important that content drive the design of each cover. A good designer is like a chameleon that blends into the background, or an actor who gets lost in a role. While graphic design is often described as a “creative” profession, self-expression doesn’t make for great book covers. The designer’s job is to be an advocate for the book, and to present that book in its best light. Effective visual communication is essential to realizing the university press mission of promoting scholarship, advancing research, and disseminating knowledge.

Designing for a university press is a dream job for a book lover. You never know what unforeseen subject matter is going to show up on your desk. Military history, political science, and the Great Plains are my bread and butter, but I’ve also done books on birds, bears, greyhound racing, organic farming, UFOs, the Harlem Renaissance, fat studies, fish, and football. Though some subjects are bound to repeat themselves (in my case: the inescapable William Howard Taft), each project is unique in its own right, and that’s what makes the job interesting. To each idea its book, and to each book its cover.

–Written by Karl Janssen, Art Director and Webmaster, University Press of Kansas