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 keenandesign.com.

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