Design Inspiration: Inside 10 Brilliant Book Covers by Oliver Munday

Growing up in Washington DC, Oliver Munday was privy to libraries—especially those of his grandparents. Books as objects just had a mystique. And it’s a mystique that continued to hold Munday as he discovered graphic design in high school and pursued it at MICA afterward. While there, for every project he was assigned, he tended to develop a book or booklet to go with it—and so it was a fitting project when, in Ellen Lupton’s typography class, he was assigned to take a long poem and set it across a number of signatures … and create a cover for it.

“I remember I did something very minimal on brown paper, and to hold it in your hand and to kind of flip through it was really, really rewarding, and almost kind of magical,” he recalls.

Following school, Munday spent time at Alfred A. Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux before going solo.

“If you love books, it’s amazing to get to think about what they look like and have control over that,” he says. “And so there’s something really exciting about thinking or imagining a reader interacting with it, taking something from it, being enticed by it in the way that you might be as a reader wandering the store. Just being attached to literature, I think, is the sort of crucial point.”

Today, that literary attachment extends to his day job at The Atlantic, where works as a design director focused mainly on the print magazine, and also interviews authors and pens the occasional essay.

He took the magazine to new bookish heights alongside creative director Peter Mendelsund—and here, Munday looks back on 10 of his covers from over the years.

“I just kept thinking about the ‘H’ letterform as a kind of simple way to build a composition, and that’s sort of where that idea came from. And then it was about picking out certain scenes or objects or instances in the text, and arranging them on the cover in a way that felt kind of spooky and beautiful and strange, like the book itself is.”

As for Munday’s handlettering on the cover, “It’s an easy way to bring a kind of casual humanity to something. That’s often the case that you’re working on a cover and everything’s too rigid and digital, and it’s like, Oh, something is missing here. There’s a kind of a softness or a gesture that is needed. And I think oftentimes that helps, because it is the human inscribed on a cover.”

“His poetry and prose were very surrealist and strange and beautiful and kind of collage-like. And I think for that one, ‘The Shutters,’ I wanted to make The Shutters as a title as sort of evocative as possible, and so it was imagining seeing something from shutters or through shutters, and what that means—kind of the way that a form or an image is divided up into these planes. [The image is] actually the author himself, a very low-, low-quality image of him as a young man. I think sometimes it’s interesting and it’s apt to bring the author in. Obviously it doesn’t work with contemporary authors very often, but for this one it felt appropriate. And also, no one knows what this person looks like. You don’t risk anything.”

“That was [part of] a series of Solzhenitsyn’s books, which led up to the fallout from the Russian Revolution. And Solzhenitsyn has a very complicated and famous relationship to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. And I think I had always wanted to do a Constructivist kind of cover series—sort of a dream. And I mean, that was the aesthetic spirit of a lot of the revolutionary period; the fervor, everything, the energy. And so while, in the end, Solzhenitsyn became very critical of communism and wrote The Gulag Archipelago, that was kind of a raging indictment of all of that. There was something about using that in a way across several covers that I thought would just be fun. It was a selfish choice, to be honest. It’s just one of my favorite periods of design and design history, so I couldn’t help myself.”

“I love this novel so much, and it was a very hard to design because of that. And there were a lot of outtakes. But in the end, it was a case of the editor and the publisher at New Directions, they knew the kind of tone that they wanted to strike. They knew what it should convey, and it took me a while to get there, but in the end, I think that they were absolutely right. It has a sort of sly sexiness. There’s a sort of innocence about it. The lined paper speaks to the schooling aspect of it—it’s set at a boarding school in Switzerland. And just the days of that kind of rigid hierarchical schedule and the things that you learn as a young person. It is so dark and funny, too, and very, very, very kind of cutting. And so, yeah, it was a tough one to try to design—because I just liked it so much, I wanted it to be right.”

As for the typeface, “It felt period-specific to when the book came out, maybe, but it had a kind of character and kind of almost shabby elegance to it that just seemed right to me.”

“I tried a bunch of versions, and in the end, the editor really wanted something that just felt like an object that was pretty. And that’s sometimes the job. It doesn’t have to be overwrought or too cerebral all the time. So I pulled a lot of reference material from various types of Japanese patterns and just made something that felt striking and pretty. It’s sort of simple; feels weird to say it, but …”

“So I am a huge Nietzsche fan, and this is a super-duper challenge because he is such an iconoclast—just, who doesn’t cite him in one way or another, oftentimes in the wrong way? How do you present this figure that looms so large in all kinds of Western thought? That was pretty daunting. I wanted to try to do something where it was like, ‘This is Nietzsche, but it’s a different vantage point on Nietzsche.’ Sort of like you’re seeing a different side of him or something. And so it was this idea of showing him sort of through something else, or revealing part of him when the other part was blocked or covered.

“One of his declarations from Ecce Homo, which is ‘I am dynamite’—ironic or not, that was where the title came from for the book. And so it was a risk not putting it on the cover, but I think that photo of him is iconic enough that it could carry it. And so using the ‘I’ form, that little slender rectangle, as a kind of simplified stick of dynamite, or just simply the ‘I,’ was very interesting. And just seeing a sliver of his face clearly while seeing everything else sort of mediated by the red, it felt mysterious, and I felt like it would pique the reader’s interest in the right way.”

“So that’s another [Ahmed] Bouanani book. That’s a sort of companion to The Shutters, and it’s set in a hospital, and the patient at the center of the narrative is kind of having this hallucinatory experience. And it’s very sort of collage-like, surreal, weaves in a lot of memory and just kind of disparate imagery. So I wanted to make … a collage that not only sort of spoke to the style of the book, but also something that could be an emblem for the character. And I just love this kind of almost grasping hand with the hospital bracelet, and all of the things that that could symbolize—the sort of reaching for something, the pain, the urge, all of it in the form of the hand. So it seemed like it was interpretive enough to do the visual heavy lifting, so to speak. And it was a bit like building the collage with elements from these fever dreams.”

“McBride writes in such an interesting way. Her sentences, they are partial sentences, they’re stunted sentences. She builds this interesting rhythm through a kind of incompleteness, and there are these gaps, which are intentional. And I knew that I wanted to try to make an image in that way, and bring in some beauty, but in a kind of fragmented and sort of gap-ridden composition, in a similar way to how the sentences function.

“It felt right. It was like, OK, this is the thing’s heart. You think about the literary form and the style, the composition, all of the things. And often, I resort to a visual analogy to try to make sense of it. And so if I was just to take this cover and make it black and white, that would be a pretty good depiction of how the language functions, and how the beauty of the writing comes through, despite the missing bits, and despite that intentionally jarring gaps.”

“This is a kind of classic French novel set during the resistance. And at the center of it is a love story, and that’s what they wanted to focus on with the paperback [Munday also worked on the hardcover]. And so I was thinking about that—the love story, the connection, the yearning and all of that, and this idea of these kind of suspended arms reaching for one another, and the way that those might resemble the gesture of reaching or hanging or flying a kite. There’s something really beautiful about that to me. And I wanted to bring in a kind of looseness with the type that felt open and flowing in a way around the black-and-white silhouetted arms.”

“This book is so, so, so interesting, and I think so long overdue. It talks about white flight in the way that it exists in the American imagination … and the ways in which white families and communities fled once Black families moved into neighborhoods. It caused all of this kind of geographic dislocation, but this book imagined the role of literature in that sort of context, and the ways in which white writers have avoided talking about Black [people], or any sort of person of color that may exist in the setting in which they’re writing, and how that is a very intentional blind spot that occurs and recurs throughout American literature. …

“I wanted [the cover] to be really spare and just striking, and almost haunting in its simplicity. And often, I think that that relies on one small tweak to a preexisting and simple either icon or shape. And so for this, it was the directional arrows, it was one simple move—the addition of kind of a rectangle that made one of them a house. I think you could read it in a number of ways, which is also why I like it. Nothing is one thing. And I think it’s good when you allow for that kind of ambiguity. You could read this as a house in motion, you could read it as a house hiding, but any way you read it, I think there is something that pulls directly from the notion of the failures of these various white writers and the reality of what white flight has done to American cities, in a very, very simple way.

“I worked through a lot of different versions before I landed there, and it might’ve been the last one I made—which happens often.”