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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Showcasing a Superb Cover Design

My addiction of choice is frequenting thrift stores with my fiancee. I get lost in the print books, and time disappears.

I find that I often gravitate toward books with a dull coating or laminate on their dust jackets or covers. They seem to fall into my hands, and I want them, as much for their tactile qualities as their content.

A few days ago I came upon a business book entitled ReWork, written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and I was gratified by both its design and its production qualities.

Why Analyze a Book’s Design?

Given all the books in existence, particularly in this age of electronic books, it is perhaps helpful to be able to articulate why a print book is particularly appealing. If you can isolate those qualities that make a book design “work” (both from the point of view of graphic design and commercial printing), you are at an advantage as a designer. If these qualities appeal to one person, they may also engage many readers, and this is the essence of an effective print book dust jacket or book cover design. It makes you want to open the book and read it.

Why I Like This Book

At first glance, ReWork has a black and white cover. But, once you look closely, you see the restrained use of an intense match red (no halftone dots under the loupe) for the word “Work.” Your eye goes right to the word “Work” and then backwards to the “Re” printed in match silver.

On second thought, the eye actually goes first to a crumpled piece of paper in the center of the book, a dramatically lighted ball of paper. You ask, “Why a ball of paper?” and then you see the red “Work” and then the “Re” before the “Work.” ReWork. Then the cover makes sense. And then it makes you smile, because almost everyone has crumpled up a sheet of paper into a ball in frustration before starting a job anew.

When a visual icon, the crumpled ball of paper, first elicits interest, then raises a question, then answers the question—that’s good design. Upon grasping the concept, the reader can then go on to the ancillary text: “Ignore this book at your own peril,” the by-line, etc.

Why This Works

With a visual motif that’s intriguing, simple, and powerful at the same time, this print book grabs the reader with more subliminal production qualities as well:

  1. The black background is a four-color black, which adds richness as well as complete opacity to the heavy black ink coverage. The black ink seems to have been spread over the cover with a knife, it is so rich and thick. Then again, it’s also covered with a dull UV coating, and the paper ball is not only a process color mix (with highlights of yellow and blue, if you look closely); it has also been highlighted with a spot gloss UV coating. The effect of this contrast is to dramatically separate the crumpled paper from the black background. It jumps out of the design, as though it had been thrown at you.
  2. Not to stop here, the print book designer chose to highlight the title, ReWork, by embossing the words and by covering the “Re” with a dull UV coating and the “Work” with a high-gloss UV coating. Again, the designer’s stark contrast between two visual elements makes the cover even more dramatic. (And it works just as effectively for the type as for the distinction between the glossy crumpled paper and the background of rich black ink.)
  3. The design succeeds because it’s bold, perhaps even loud. The type works in a similar vein. Set in all caps (on the Internet, this is considered shouting), it has been designed using an uncompromising, geometric, sans serif typeface.
  4. Finally, in all of my studies of graphic design and custom printing over the past three (almost four) decades, I have learned the value of understatement. A little bit of red, for instance, is stronger in its contrast with its surroundings than is an excess of red (or any other highlighting color). On the front cover, spine, and back cover, the ReWork print book designer has demonstrated the power of a restrained amount of red ink set against a mostly black and white background.

Consider such a book jacket as being analagous to the gilded wood frame that displays a fine painting (or, in this case, the interior text of the book).

Moreover, consider this dust jacket as a stellar example of those print design qualities that cannot be replicated in an e-book.

Why You Should Care

  1. If you design print books for a living and want to remain relevant, look for design solutions that cannot be incorporated into a digital product. Play to the strengths of print.
  2. Use graphic elements to make the reader look once and then do a double take. These can include contrasting a gloss coating against a dull coating, or making a design element appear black and white until you look closely and see its subtle coloration.
  3. Use the tools of design (type, positive and negative space, contrast) to reflect the meaning of the title and the content of the book. Don’t just design a “pretty” cover. Make it relevant. It’s harder to do, but it can make the reader love your print book.

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