Iranian posters in Farsi are among the most beautiful posters I’ve ever seen. Now that accolade applies to Iran’s book covers and jackets. What a legacy. Below in Part I is an excerpt from the essay I contributed to a new book published in Iran, VITRINE: A Collection of Essays on the History of Book Cover Design in Iran & A Selection of 35 Years of Contemporary Iranian Book Cover Designs (Mirdashti Publication), coordinated by Parisa Tashakori and Majid Kashani. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tomorrow in Part II, Tashakori answers questions about the project.
Not being able to read or understand Farsi puts me at a slight disadvantage in writing this essay. I have no idea what the book covers and jackets in this exhibition are saying. But the truth is, I do not want to.
It is liberating being an outsider, not knowing the language and alphabet; it allows me to see the work more clearly as art, free from the prejudices that I routinely impose when critically analyzing English—or French, German and Italian—book covers, where I’m fluent, if not in the language, in the alphabet. Functionality is inevitably the deciding factor in any honest critique of graphic design—aesthetics are essential but not at the expense of function. It is impossible to evaluate this design in relation to its content—and for all I know, these wonderful, indeed beautiful-looking covers are completely inappropriate for the subjects they are illustrating. I don’t, however, have a problem with that.
Not understanding the language gives me license to appreciate the work more ethereally. Other than knowing these are designed as book covers, I am free to accept the work as exotic artifacts that draw upon signs, symbols and letterforms, all of which are blissfully alien to my comprehension. I can simply appreciate the work for how it appears to my senses. While the most superficial response to design is whether it is pleasing to the eye, book cover and jacket design is akin to a flower in bloom, created as much for eye appeal as anything intellectual.
The covers in this [book] are varied and fresh (like those aforementioned flowers). In many cases they are like nothing I’ve seen in Western design, while in others they are more or less consistent with the conventions with which I am familiar. Aside from the difference in our alphabets, some would fit nicely on the shelves of any Barnes & Noble, America’s leading bookseller. While others would be more difficult to sell to a mass Western audience because of the “Ten-Foot” rule: A jacket must attract the book consumer’s eye from ten feet away.
In addition to the variety of formal and stylistic approaches—say, the difference between what I call raucous handlettering and strict Constructivist modernism, is the degree to which experimental approaches seem to flourish. The designers seem not to be limited by whatever constraints Farsi lettering imposes, which appears to me to be just as versatile as the Roman alphabetic counterpart.
These covers also evoke the sense of stagecraft. Some, presumably keeping with the Persian miniature tradition, are little dramas. Some bridge the tragic and comic in a kind of iconographic “dance macabre.” Whereas, others make abstraction out of reality, which is one of the joys of superb graphic and scenic design. Of course, the content—plot, story, tale—of the books encased in these designs is the actual main event. The covers and jackets are but the scenery. Yet often a good play is made great through its sets. I have no idea whether these designs enhance their respective contents, but for someone who does not speak or understand Farsi, they are nonetheless successful at pulling me in—and that’s what every cover and jacket, regardless of written language, must do through its visual language.
Typography is one of the most vital keys to successful design—and Print’s all-new Typography & Lettering Awards is here to celebrate it. But this isn’t just a competition for classic type designers: We’re looking for projects that feature great uses of type by any designer. We’re looking for handlettered work. And, of course, we’re also looking for original typefaces built from the ground up.
Enter today for a chance to have your work judged by Paul Shaw and Jessica Hische, and for a chance to be featured in Print magazine, and more.