Judging a Designer by His Covers

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Some of today’s most striking, original book covers are being designed by Peter Mendelsund. He’s done book jackets for Stieg Larsson, Ben Marcus, and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as new editions for Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Calvino. All of Mendelsund’s covers look very different from each other — and from anything else on the shelf. He avoids genre clichés not only for creative reasons, but as simple business sense. “I think the best bet that any book jacket has of getting your attention is by being different from everything else around it,” he tells Kurt Andersen.

See a slideshow of his covers below.

Mendelsund’s designs always start from a close reading of the book. For example, he recently redesigned the covers of Kafka’s novels. Instead of the grim, mostly black covers we’re familiar with, Mendelsund chose bright colors and playful designs. “They’re funny books, in their own way,” he says, recalling anecdotes of Kafta reading The Metamorphosis aloud and laughing. “My hope was, if you make playful and exuberant covers, people will bring that to a reading of the books.”

Even though his job involves reading books and coming up with images from his reading, Mendelsund says he had never really thought about what happens in his mind as those images are forming. How does a reader transform words on the page into mental pictures? And how is it that we feel so sure we know what characters look like, when often an author only gives us the sketchiest of descriptions? Those questions led Mendelsund to write a book of his own, What We See When We Read, which distills his research into the neuroscience of reading. He also has a new collection of his first decade as a book jacket designer, Cover.

Slideshow: Mendelsund's Covers

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Peter Mendelsund has created cover designs for books ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His new book, Cover, collects some of his most famous designs and explains how they came to be.

( Peter Mendelsund )

An early version of Mendelsund’s cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (with a translation based on its original Swedish title, The Man Who Hated Women).

( Peter Mendelsund )

Another draft of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features a white-on-white cover with a bright splash of blood, hinting to readers that they have picked up a crime novel. That blood splatter is a sort of design shorthand, says Mendelsund: “You could put a puppy on a cover and splatter it with blood and you have a crime novel.”

( Peter Mendelsund )

Knopf’s Editor in Chief, Sonny Mheta, wanted the book’s cover to avoid tired crime imagery. Mendelsund offered up an abstract dragon motif in the muted tones of a tattoo. Mendelsund initially favored the softer colors in this design, but writes that “brighter colors won the day.”

( Peter Mendelsund )

The final design of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Mendelsund says this bright cover is a departure from the usual signifiers of a crime novel: no murder weapon, no damsel in distress, and no blood.

( Peter Mendelsund )

Mendelsund’s cover for Franz Kafka’s Letter to Felice. He hopes his simple, unusual designs help readers to consider Kafka’s novel in a new light: “My hope was that if you make sort of funny, playful, and exuberant Kafka covers that people will bring that attitude towards a reading of the books.” 

( Peter Mendelsund )

Mendelsund originally intended to feature paper birds on the cover of The Flame Alphabet, echoing the birds that appear in the novel. When Mendesund flipped his cut-ups over, he realized their shape mirrored the flames of the novel’s title. 

( Peter Mendelsund )

When designing this cover for Ulysses, Mendelsund was struck by James Joyce’s description of the color green — from the “snotgreen sea” to “green flashing eyes.”

( Peter Mendelsund )

The design for The Republic was partially inspired by a quote from the book: “Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.”

( Peter Mendelsund )