Friday, 25 August 2017

Let's talk about book spine design!

Good morning! Today I want to briefly discuss some examples of good and poor book design, specifically focusing on book spines.

Book spines! Book spines are important because they do the job of a cover where a cover isn't visible. All books can't be placed face up. There's simply not enough space. And so it falls to the book spine to represent the book, to give it individuality amongst a sea of others on a bookshelf. At its most basic its function is to stand out, to catch the eye. A good book spine should give the reader some inclination as to the character of the book. A spine is potentially the first and only part of a book a reader will encounter.

We can say covers and spines do not matter as much when foreknowledge is present. You've read about a book, your favourite author has a new release, you've been recommended a title by your friend - you know what you want. But when I go into a bookshop I'm not there solely to pick up what I'm already aware of, but to discover new things. That involves browsing, looking at covers, reading blurbs, flicking through to see interior art. In comics, there is vast potential for spines; with pages and pages of art to help illustrate them, images ready to snipped and grabbed, ready-made colour schemes to draw from, all of which can be used to put together a sharp, attractive spine. But spine design (and book design in general) remains a vastly neglected area in comics. Part of this is due to a push-back mentality against 'selling.' The idea that the work should magically stand for (and sell) itself. That marketing and packaging is a gimmick to which one shouldn't lower themselves. Personally, I think it's a disservice to your work if you don't give every aspect of it equal care and consideration. Some of it is also laziness, and some of it is, as ever, down to financial constraints. Perhaps, too, book design has become somewhat of a neglected area as online and digital sales have flourished and print floundered. I understand, yes, but also these are excuses.

Anyway, let's cast about my shelves and discuss some good and bad examples of spine design.


I love how cohesive and punchy these Parasyte spines are. There's a lot of elements at work here and yet the spine doesn't look busy or overly crammed, largely thanks to the black which both breaks up the coloured facets and grounds the whole spine. Let's breakdown the 4 main features that make this such an excellent spine:
  1. the title itself- or the font: it's unique, not simply a standard typeface but one created to tie in with what the book is about. The uneven letters and scratchy bits give it a visual interest of its own.
  2. the colours: the full set of books looks impressive, but each volume has it's own vibrant shade. They are not dull. What's interesting about the  Parasyte spine is that it has clear sections, blocked against the black background, the contrast of which makes the colours pop more.
  3. layout/design/spacing: this is the 'sectioning' I was referring to. There's the half oblong on top, the image, the title, vol number, author name, and a second half-oblong containing the publisher logo. All are balanced beautifully. That's a lot of information but it's clearly laid out in a way that looks good and also tells the reader something about the feel of this book.
  4. the image: Parasyte contains some incredibly strong, arresting art, and it seems common sense to put some of that on the spine. The weirdness of Hitoshi Iwaaki's drawings are a benefit, using the visceral liet motif of eyes to great effect. A head bulging with numerous eyes; eyes peering out from an outstretched hand; a misshapen, looping face that is all eyeball. How can you not be drawn to it?
A mention for Gon here, which has a solid, effective spine format. The earthy colour scheme fits in with the natural/prehistoric theme. The 'O' in the tile is neatly punctuated with Gon's footprint, the kind of small detail that makes a difference. Lastly, the colour images pull the whole thing together. Although this is a more 'open' design than the Parasyte spines, you can see there's still a clear approach to layout, which is stuck to throughout: publisher logo, image excerpt, title, volume number, author name.


Many manga often have the lead character/s feature on the spine, from floating heads, upper body shots to full body drawings.  These Cross Game spines utilise colour nicely, with the lively green/orange theme played out not only across the whole set but on each book. Again, the title is stylised and includes a four-leaf clover, and Mitsuru Adachi's superb illustrations decorate the bottom. Cross Game is very much a character piece and that's something you can quickly glean from looking at these people. The illustrations here are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.


This Azumanga Daioh omnibus is one of my absolute favourites. The cover is a wraparound, with the cast of characters walking along together from back cover to spine to front cover. Placement is key, so that it's spread in a way that those 3 still work if viewed separately. The spine gives you a full look at 2 of the characters, both with differing expressions. If we're talking about what we can tell from a spine, here we can tell this is about school girls (the uniform) contrasting personalities, and friendship. I love, too, that the title is placed in a little 'speech' balloon at the top. It's not a big balloon, but being at the top (and being the only text) helps.

Yotsuba's spines are good because of Youstuba! She's there on every one. A small, but complete presence, always engaged in some activity or mood which is relayed to the reader. I like how cleverly the exclamation mark (Yotusba's full title is 'Yotsuba & !') is incorporated into the title design here, with the volume number in the dot, and how Kiyohiko Azuma's name is similarly bubbled off. Bubbling can make busier spines appear less so. The whole spine here is very clean, more so with the green and maroon juxtaposed against the white background.


You can see Marvel taking on the talking head/character image on these digest-sized Runaways editions. The blue is different, though not especially outstanding. It works nicely with the red and white of the Marvel logo, but not with the images- it's vying with them a bit. These spines are a good and common example of 'attention facets' misaligned logos, mismatched shades of blue, and no thought of how books will look as a set. Consistency is key.


These Sunny volumes are sparse and elegant. And rather boring. The dots of colour on the title/numbers are lovely, but as a whole it's not engaging enough. These books could be about anything, which is fine, but at the same time they're not making me want to pick them up off the shelf, so it doesn't really matter what they're about.


I took some group shots to show how little an impression these spines make. The only one that's got a bit of a kick to it here is Simone Lia's 'Please God, Find Me a Husband!' That's down to the brightness of the colours: the black, white, and pink all playing off one another, and the bubbling of the title.


Simply making your title/font big doesn't do anything. 'Essex County' What? What about it? A lot of nondescript fonts here. I'm bored. A waste of all that thick space.


Spine design gets trickier with slimmer spines. I think the Nailbiter ones aren't too bad. The splashed colour is supposed to emulate a blood splatter, and breaking it up with a spot of white for the title provides a contrast.


Papercutz do a basic job with their English editions of Ariol. Colour goes a long way here, couple with the spot shot of Ariol.


NBM. These are thin, but -_- boy, are they horrible. Better font choice, better colouring choices could elevate these significantly.


First Second do a nice job here, wisely sticking with Jillian Tamaki's colours and gorgeous art which does much of the work. The title gives you a sufficient inkling as to subject matter, doubly reinforced by that hazy, purple image of a girl nonchalantly riding a bike, and the floating flower seeds.

The little, sparkly cat on the 'SuperMutant Magic Academy' spine is a nice touch, but on its own, not enough.


These Alien omnibus spines are a monstrosity. Is the 'omnibus' necessary? Why not replace it with an image instead? If you're not going to put effort in, at least don't slide backwards. *Maintain consistency with your trade dress.* Always. Those numbers and logos are all over the damn place. It makes me shudder.

*This piece was originally written for my August 1-hour writing challenge on Patreon

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