One of my mentors in the publishing industry used to explain the importance of cover design by saying that if you can get someone to pick up a book in a bookstore, half your job is already done. Bookstore browsers can actually be convinced to purchase books they have never heard of if the cover design in sufficiently enticing. (This is the analogue version of what netizens like to call “discoverability.”) Conversely, an unattractive cover design can have the opposite effect: a reader might be dissuaded from purchasing a book they are otherwise interested in. (Both have happened to me on multiple occasions.)
Recent conversations about text-only book designs led me to revisit one of my favourite book covers of the past two decades: Dan Mogford’s design for Peter Silverton’s Filthy English: The How Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing.
As might be apparent from Silverton’s title and subtitle, his book is an ethnographic and linguistic examination of the ways in which English speakers have employed profanity throughout history. Mogford’s cheeky cover design appears on the 2010 U.K. paperback reprint edition, published by Portobello Books.
What is most impressive – and arguably boldest – about this design has nothing to do with the words that appear and everything to do with the ones that don’t. In short, neither the title nor the author’s name is to be found on this all-text cover. What we have instead is a group of naughty words that are clearly distinguishable despite the purposely ineffective symbols standing in place of key letters.
Leaving the title and author off the front cover impels a reader confronted with this volume on a bookstore table to do what my mentor suggested was of the highest importance: physically pick the book up to find out what it’s all about. Why is this sepia-toned paperback swearing at me from among all the (presumably) more polite paperbacks surrounding it? (The approach also works as a subliminal nudge to encourage booksellers to place the book on the shelf face out for maximum effect.)
Once a reader picks up the book and discovers what it’s on about, that reader is likely to be either charmed or offended. But here’s the thing: even browsers who see the book on a table and react with offence are likely to be curious enough to investigate. And voilà: half the job is done.
Add to that the aesthetic choices Mogford has made – the old-fashioned text design and faded edges that call to mind an antiquarian volume or a flyer on the wall in an oldey-timey saloon; the differing fonts and colours that render what might have been an incoherent jumble of letters and symbols into a perfectly readable textual collage – and you have a masterpiece of design work that is as attractive as it is funny and provocative.
It’s so attractive, in fact, that I bought a poster-sized version that now graces the wall of my living room and serves as a useful conversation piece for visiting family and friends. Never let it be said that book design doesn’t matter.