Inducing vertigo? Twitter reacts to Pushkin’s new crime series covers

Today, Pushkin Press launched its new Vertigo imprint, dedicated to republishing crime classics from 1920 to 1970. The striking typographic covers for the series, designed by Jamie Keenan, have already proved particularly divisive on Twitter, raising the old legibility/communication debate once again

Last month, we posted about Jamie Keenan’s book covers he’d designed for Vertigo, the new imprint of Pushkin Press. The aim of Vertigo is to publish established crime classics from around the world, many for the first time in English.

The first four books in the series are out today and it seems Keenan’s striking, type-heavy covers have already been causing a stir on Twitter. Earlier on today, crime writer Ian Rankin tweeted that he had been sent the books and included a photo of the covers with the question, “Anyone else find titles and author names hard to make out?”

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A fair enough question – and one that was immediately met with a diverse range of opinion on Twitter. Well, diverse in the sense that a handful of people (mainly designers) defended Keenan’s direction and, well, virtually everyone else responding to Rankin’s tweet, didn’t.

The covers were either “terrible”; “awful”; “cool, very arty” but “doesn’t make good business sense”; or just “hard on the eyes” and, of course, induced vertigo. (The best, though, was the simple “real whodunits indeed”.)

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To Rankin’s credit he RT’d four of the most positive responses he received to his question – from designers Jim Tierney, Jon Gray, David Beckitt and Alistair Hall – and then also tweeted “Good to see so many graphic designers pointing out how great those covers are.”

What’s interesting though, is the reaction that the work has received more generally; with the main, admittedly quick-fire, objection to the designs being their legibility. In each case there’s no doubt that the author’s name and title can be tricky to make out, but does that mean they’re badly designed covers? Of course not – and Rankin’s tweet wasn’t suggesting that either. ‘Boileau-Narcejac’ is a pretty tough name to get through whether it has translucent red ink printed over the top of it or not.

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But what I liked about the covers in the first place was that, like their subject matter, they took some working out, a little deciphering; some effort on the reader’s part of get into the text. Keenan’s covers seemed to both say something about the books, albeit mysteriously, without giving too much away. And to paraphrase designer David Carson, who has a bit of form in this regard, “don’t confuse legibility with communication”.

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For me, this meant the covers paired brilliantly with the wider concept of ‘crime fiction’ (the books are meant to be classics of the form, after all) and eschewed the more obvious visual clichés which might put off non-crime buffs from picking up one of the books in a shop, or clicking on a cover online. The covers practically demand a second look, which surely can only be a good thing?

(Some commenters on Twitter quite reasonably pointed out that the covers could prove very challenging for people with colour blindness – certainly an issue that designers perhaps need to think about more widely.)

So, in light of another ‘book-covers-debated-openly-on-Twitter’ rumpus – which we’re all for at CR – here’s Keenan again on the subject of these challenging covers and his reasoning behind taking a very bold, expressive typographic route.

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“From the beginning I wanted to come up with something that looked alien, as though someone had brought it back from a holiday in a country you’d never heard of,” says Keenan. “[Something that] looked timeless – they could be from the 1920s or last week – and I liked the idea that the mystery of figuring out who had done what on the inside of the book could be repeated on the outside.”

Keenan’s solution was to fill the entire cover with both the book’s title and author name, overlaying them in a rather disorienting manner. “While in one way the covers don’t veer too far from the conventional crime cover layout,” Keenan explains, “it takes a little bit of effort to find out exactly what’s going on. There’s a hint of conflict, deception and things not being what they seem.”

While each of the covers in the series uses bright colours there is, he says, “enough noise and dirt added – I wanted the covers to look screenprinted on the cheap – to stop them looking too pleasant. To push the idea of conflict, no element on the Vertigo covers, other than an image, occasionally, is ever straight. This borrows from a lot of classic crime and thriller film titles and European poster design which helps reinforce where the books are from stylistically and geographically.”

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Aside from the layered and translucent type, the covers each employ a small image which is relevant to the story of that particular book: a tower on the cover of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (the book behind Hitchcock’s film), for example, or an open wardrobe on Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia.

“Series design is always a bit of a balancing act,” adds Keenan – “too tight and the books lose their individuality, too loose and the series style becomes irrelevant. Used quite coldly, straight on in black and white – in contrast to the colourful covers – I wanted the images to be everyday objects and look like pieces of evidence and, because they’re so small, they help to make the type look even bigger.”

For the Pushkin Vertigo logo, Keenan created a positive/negative space device to display a ‘P’ and ‘V’. “Even though a lot of each character is missing,” he says, [this] again hints at mystery and deception and, as before, there are lots of conflicting angles involved.

“The overall look I wanted to convey was of a series of covers that had been put together in a hurry, slightly amateurishly – not hard for me – and to look like something you find stuck on a wall in Bulgaria to advertise a dodgy circus.”

Vertigo, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia and Master of the Day of Judgment are all published today by Pushkin Vertigo; I Was Jack Mortimer and She Who Was No More will appear in November, with further titles set to be published throughout 2016. See pushkinpress.com – more on the Vertigo imprint, here. More of Jamie Keenan’s work is at keenandesign.com

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