Front to back: The Metamorphosis

For WW Norton’s new translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, book cover designer Jamie Keenan reworked an old Italian typeface to form the shape of the ‘transformation’ itself. For the second in our series examining the design process behind a single cover or series, we talk to Keenan about how he made it

For WW Norton’s new translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, book cover designer Jamie Keenan reworked an old Italian typeface to form the shape of the ‘transformation’ itself. For the second in our series examining the design process behind a single cover or series, we talk to Keenan about how he made it…

New York-based publishers WW Norton’s edition of Kafka’s classic tale is in a new translation by Susan Bernofsky and features an introduction by film director David Cronenberg. The famous story concerns travelling salesman Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into an insect. Norton’s art director Albert Tang approached British designer Keenan with the cover commission.

According to Tang his requirement was simply for “something really cool, hip and [that] stands out among the numerous other copies out there.”

“Generally with book covers you’re attempting to sell a story, mood, style, idea and everything else to someone who knows little or nothing about the book at all,” says Keenan. “The cover is like a corporate identity that has to convey everything about the book in a couple of seconds. Which is why, when just about any book becomes successful, it’s not unusual to see covers on other books appear that imitate the feel of that original to grab the attention of people who have become familiar with its visual language.”

Working on the cover of a classic presents the designer with a slightly different challenge. “The need for the cover to communicate everything about the book is no longer so important,” he says.

“You can rely on people’s existing knowledge of the book and use (or even abuse) that knowledge in some way. Also, once a classic is no longer under copyright, you can buy a few different versions of it – the cheapest version of Metamorphosis on Amazon is just £1.70, so you have to attempt to give people some reason to buy your version.”

For the design of the cover, Keenan says he quickly decided upon “the idea of turning the title of The Metamorphosis into the cover image – and I knew I wanted to get across that shiny black quality that beetles have and that weirdo, fiddly, twitchy thing that a lot creepy crawly things have, too.

“This attempt to get across the feeling of ‘fiddlyness’ led to me finding a scan of an old Italian typeface that instantly conveyed that quality and also had enough solid sections for the shiny black part of the equation,” says Keenan. “Fairly quickly a combination of this typeface and some legs donated by an image of a stag beetle produced the cover that pretty much ended up on the final thing.”

Most of the letters that Keenan used on the final cover have been tweaked in some way – curlicues are moved to a different part of the letter, or removed altogether – though the ‘S’ remains as it was in the original font, with the addition of a beetle leg.

The really clever part of the design, however, is how Keenan has balanced the letters in order to create the beetle shape. The ‘M’ forms a symmetrical head; the first ‘O’ helps to form the centre of the body, with other letters flanking it for limbs; while the ‘SIS’ formation neatly closes off the end of the shape.

“The secondary font is much straighter with just a hint of the Gothic about it, while being straight enough to ensure it doesn’t fight for attention,” adds Keenan of the type used to display the rest of the text on the cover. “And the finished version is embossed and uses a gloss to give the beetle a bit of added shine.”

Early version of the cover with different secondary type and less prominence to Kafka’s name

When presented with the first draft of the cover last year, Tang was more than satisfied that the idea would work, as this amusing email exchange between him and Keenan reveals (reading from the bottom).

The Metamorphosis is published this month by WW Norton; $10.95. More of Keenan’s work is at

  • I love the inclusion of the correspondence, nice to see some behind-the-scenes!

  • Pat

    Thanks for the typeface & beetle image (& email chain?) I wouldn’t have understood it otherwise!

    It’s a lovely cover – and works! It doesn’t need anything else (or to be shown 2.5 times)!

  • Great use of an old font. Glad it kept the organic feel of the story juxtaposed against the creepiness of the original novel’s era

  • I saw this cover on Google+ – it’s a really good one. The fact the novella’s so good is a big help too, of course. It certainly stands out, although I think most literature fans will have read this by now. No real need to dash out and purchase it again.

    I remember seeing a Danish play on The Metamorphosis in London, back in 2006. Nick Cave did the music, it was a great show.

  • Clive


  • Matt

    I absolutely love this. It caught my eye instantly, gave me an insight in to the contents of the book, and really made me want to read it; all the things a good book cover should do.

  • Excellent piece of work. Could only be used for a well-known title though as unreadable on a small size on the Amazon online bookshelves. I design ebook covers and most people insist on very readable titles. Beautiful nevertheless.

  • Great stuff. Conveys the mood of the book, the era it relates to and maintains its credentials contemporary to 2014.

    Enjoyed the email too.

  • Michal Skedi

    Nice work, although not very original. Oded Ezer has done this famous poster in 2008:

  • Mark

    Holy crap!!!! indeed, brilliant cover, one of the best things i’ve seen for a while. Well done.

  • Mark A. Mandel

    @Michal Skedi: This cover doesn’t owe anything to the Ezer poster. All they have in common is that they both evoke beetle parts. Helvetica’s smooth, clean look is almost as far from the Italian font’s creepy beetliness as you can get. Ezer subverted that look by breaking pieces off those letters, and making them grow bits of alien things: beetle and spring and coathanger and helicopter rotor. Keenan tweaked and adjusted the baroque Italian shapes and *built* a beetle out of them – I’m tempted to say “almost as The Modern Frankenstein” – with legs that could have grown from them organically.

  • Michal

    @Mark A. Mandel: I tend to agree with you on the difference between using Helvetica (Ezer) and the Italian typeface (Keenan). But take a look at an earlier work in the same DO article (Biotypography, 2005-2006 ) I guess your description “almost as The Modern Frankenstein with legs that could have grown from them organically”, will perfectly fit in here.

  • Otakore Literantadodist

    That looks cool! I had a bad published book of Metamorphosis. Seeing your post and researched more about the new translation with whooping 5/5 stars, this would be a sure buy and might be the best.