Drawing blanks: does a book’s cover really need to have anything on it?

It seems that nothing stirs the designer’s mind like designing a cover for a book about … nothing. Or something

I have nothing on my mind. Not nothing-nothing, you understand, but nothing-nothing. This was the subject of a book I worked on recently: the concept of nothing, the value of nothing, the significance and interpretation of an absence of … thing.

Weird and fascinating texts written by intimidatingly clever people cross my desk all the time, but this one was a bit special. I’ll let you in on a little publishing industry secret: most books are, by and large, about something. Something is the designer’s friend. You know where you are with something. Nothing, now that’s a rare visitor. What does it want? Where do you put it? What does it look like?

There is, of course, one very obvious answer. Not that it was obviously obvious to me at the time. After an awful lot of staring at a blank page, I got there eventually: nothing looks like nothing. This was the beginning of a half-formed, sort-of idea.

And then I came across Peter Mendelsund’s blog, documenting in generous detail the creative process behind his work on Italo Calvino’s backlist. Apparently he’s had nothing on his mind too, highlighting this pertinent quote from Calvino’s The Arrow in the Mind:

“Is the blank also a colour? The blank is the colour of the mind. The mind has a colour that we never see because some other colour always passes through our minds and superimposes itself on our gaze.”

The colour of the mind. Who could resist having a stab at that? Subscribing to the Adamantian philosophy that under no circumstances should you fear ridicule, one of the cover concepts that I pitched to my client was blank. No title, no author, no fake stickers. Simply nothing.

It was swiftly, politely, justifiably rejected. This wasn’t a massive surprise – it was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Somewhere between apt and unmarketable, it was one of those ideas that would either hit the brief squarely on the head or hit a wall. To the wall it went.

But it’s still on my mind, and now I’m questioning all of my assumptions about nothingness in book design and what a cover should or shouldn’t be. As with any physical format awkwardly adjusting to the digital world, it’s impossible to pin down quite how books are supposed to behave from one day to the next – into this void of uncertainty, devilish advocacy spills from my mind….

Such as: Why not nothing? Does a book’s cover really need to have anything on it? Displayed for sale online, all of the pertinent details are typically displayed next to it. It’s nice to have the title and author and all that word-jazz on there, but it’s no longer essential. The cover can be relieved of its duties, free to become a blank canvas for a more expressionist interpretation of the text.

And: Here in the real world, on the shelf of a library or shop, isn’t the spine more important than the cover anyway? Why do we never talk about spines? Do spines not deserve our love?

Also: Designers are breaking and remaking the visual language of books all the time. Text is removed, reshaped, redacted. At what point does the unconventional become the conventional? (After a lot of confusion, apparently.

There are reports of readers who scratched away the overprinted blackness of David Pearson’s fantastic Nineteen Eighty-Four cover to get to the title, the deliberate obfuscation interpreted as a challenge to emancipate the norm. Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! had the opposite problem: too much text. The story starts right there on the front and continues on the endpaper, denying the reader that usual initial breathing space. Whole shipments were returned as faulty.)

It occurs to me that the music industry answered all of these questions long ago, going through its own revolution of design abstraction. Record sleeves constantly disrupt conventions and expectations. One example springs to mind, a sleeve that shares very subtle design nuances with my own book cover: The Beatles’ White Album. Nothing but a square of nothing. It is the apotheosis of blankness…. Except that it isn’t blank any more. Artist Rutherford Chang recently collected hundreds of copies for his We Buy White Albums project, and not a single one is immaculate. Each is marked with unique discolourations, stains, rips, stickers and vandalisms. Seen together, they display the incredible diversity that identical nothings can attain over five decades.

Perhaps it is time that reveals the colour of the mind. Nothing is merely a vacuum, to eventually be occupied by a million somethings, all weird and fascinating. And now … now I have something on my mind.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York, danielgray.com. Peter Mendelsund writes about his covers for Italo Calvino’s books at whatweseewhenweread.tumblr.com

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