The best book cover designs of 2020

Mark Sinclair, senior editor at Unit Editions, shares his favourite ten book covers of the year with us, which have emerged as the book world has buffeted the challenges (and opportunities) presented by the coronavirus pandemic

During the eight months since the UK declared the first of its nationwide lockdowns, writers have still written, publishers have still published and book designers have continued to produce an ever-varied range of covers for new titles. Yet there’s no denying that, as with pretty much every job in every sector across the country, the worlds of design and publishing have had to change and adapt accordingly throughout most of 2020.

Publishing itself has effectively enjoyed something of a captive audience and many people, lucky enough to have found more time to read (and buy) books, have been doing just that. While the overall picture has been fairly gloomy for print, many publishers have reported steady sales of fiction titles and cookbooks over the period (and the audiobook and ebook sectors have apparently seen demand soar), while remote discussions on the pleasures of reading (blogs, Zoom talks etc) show little sign of dissipating in the lead up to Christmas. It’s also interesting that an illustrated picture book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, has turned out to be one of the year’s biggest sellers.

How the smaller world of book cover design fares within this environment isn’t necessarily a concern high up in many people’s lives as they negotiate the pandemic (unless you’re a book cover designer, of course). But with the intermittent openings of bookshops and libraries, the various ways in which art direction, design and typography can introduce readers to a particular book have been made to work even harder — as part of an online book browsing experience that, in lockdown, has become more the norm than ever.

Independent bookshops have certainly battled to stay in business, however, with many offering a home delivery service and ‘table browsing’ via images of their interiors (shout out to the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth, Glos). Many of the UK’s nimbler small presses, well-used to shifting books online, have continued to do so but often alongside new initiatives such as book subscription services in order to maintain those close and intimate relationships with their reading public.

The platform launched in early November with 150 indie shops signed up and was welcomed by many readers determined not to give Jeff Bezos any more of their money; while the much-loved Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD) Awards, unable to fulfil its regular slot in the book design calendar, moved its shortlists and results online. There’ll be some catching up to do in 2021, that’s for sure.

So it’s within this strange, unpredictable landscape that this list of ten brilliant book cover designs from 2020 emerges, the majority of which I haven’t (yet) seen in the flesh in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, but rather have discovered on booksellers’ and designers’ websites and social media posts as they, thankfully, continue to share their work with readers and fans alike.

Anger by Barbara H Rosenwein, Yale University Press. Design: Alex Kirby
Appropriately enough, Alex Kirby’s cover design for Anger by Barbara H Rosenwein looks like it required some pent-up aggression from its creator, alongside some designerly restraint. Kirby ink-stamped the all-caps title over and over and made use of these iterations across the book’s cover, before employing a cleanly-rendered version of the word at its base — in vivid pink. The result is a dynamic design that enables the subject/title to move from chaos to resolution.

The Smiley Collection by John Le Carré, Penguin Classics. Design: David Pearson
A John Le Carré box set is an ambitious project by any measure, but it’s one that in the hands of designer David Pearson and writer Nick Asbury paid off brilliantly — enabling both to play to their strengths. A purely typographic approach to the design of these eight novels (three shown above) demonstrates the power of text both as a written and a visual form, not to say as a persuasive method of creating drama and old-school thrills, enhanced by its neon-sign-like setting out of black. Art director: Jim Stoddart

Out of the Shadows: The Psychology of Gay Men’s Lives by Walt Odets, Penguin. Design: Tom Etherington
The picture placement and framing of the evocative Wolfgang Tillmans photograph used on the cover for Walt Odets’ Out of the Shadows contributes to the cover’s success as much as the image itself (a portrait of ‘Collum’ from 2011). Tom Etherington’s design also demonstrates the satisfying power and balance of Penguin’s cover furniture, locked-up here with great skill.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch, Riverhead. Design: Rachel Willey
With its unusual placement of title and author’s name, not to mention bright swooping stripes of colour, Rachel Willey’s cover for this collection of stories from Lidia Yuknavitch stands out a mile. The fact that the medieval-seeming wolf/dog illustration casts a convincing shadow only adds to the mix of strangeness going on.

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Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate. Design: Jamie Keenan
Five is the magic number in Jamie Keenan’s brilliant typographic cover for Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel. Rather than simply rendering the seven five-letter words on a flat plane, threading the coloured papers together in a chequerboard pattern ensures the cover has a greater sense of presence and space. Extra points for the nicely stacked ‘THE’. Art director: Julian Humphries. Photographer: Jeff Cottenden

Zo by Xander Miller, Penguin Random House USA. Design: Janet Hansen
A bold piece of work that brings Xander Miller’s minuscule title right into the foreground — running it from the top to the foot of the cover — and makes the most of the shapes of its two letters. Designer Janet Hansen also cleverly makes both the Z and O act as frames for some intriguing imagery and a fantastic range of colours.

Sometimes I Never Suffered: Poems by Shane McCrae, Farrar Straus & Giroux. Design: Crisis
What at first you might think is a portrait of a boy’s face dotted with coloured lights is, in fact, a painting by Toyin Ojih Odutola — and the image itself is constructed from twists of what looks like thread. A beautiful pairing of an image with minimal, unobtrusive text from the design studio Crisis.

The Blind Light By Stuart Evers, W W Norton & Co. Design: Sarahmay Wilkinson
A cover that plays with the idea of its own surface and seems to emit its own light, a blinding one at that — Sarahmay Wilkinson’s design for Stuart Evers’ novel takes a conceptual turn but matches it with a bold use of type and a bird’s-eye view image of fields in long shadow. (I also really like the unnerving way that the letters run right to the edges of the cover.)

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper, Riverhead. Design: Lauren Peters-Collaer
A deft use of layering makes this elegant cover by Lauren Peters-Collaer really work and suggests the reader look a little further. What could be a leaf becomes a heart once you match the hole with the scale of the skeletal illustration behind it. The hand-drawn type and the two striking colours also add to the classic feel of this great cover. Art director: Helen Yentus.

Must I Go by Yiyun Li, Penguin. Design: Jon Gray
Jon Gray’s cover for Yiyun Li’s Must I Go conjures up the mid-century beauty of a classic Alvin Lustig design, with its strata of different textures and subtle colour palette. As with any gray318 design, the type is centre stage and, as here in a scratchy, hand-rendered way, it’s once again really well-considered.

Mark Sinclair is Senior Editor at Unit Editions and a freelance writer and author;

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