Earlier this month, London-based book jacket designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan led a packed auditorium—with a healthy share of New York-based book jacket designers—on a funny, self-deprecating guided tour of their “Twenty Immutable Theories of Cover Design.” Reading tag-team style from a script, Keenan and Gray recalled their meeting in 1997, when they both worked at Random House UK. A new boss gave them the heave-ho the following year, which led them to establish freelance operations (Gray works under the name gray318) in a shared East End studio where, as Gray said, “work on the theories began.”
Each theory had a catchy name and was explained by a mock-technical summary. But the point of the evening was to see these theories illustrated by Keenan and Gray’s cover designs, which introducer John Gall described as “expressive, compelling … and almost always brilliant.” The friends elaborated on their ideas and told the stories behind jackets they created for books on both sides of the Atlantic. (That is, when they could bring those stories to mind. “I can’t remember what this book is about,” Gray said, looking at one image. “There’s a boy in it.”)
The pair began with “Face Theory,” which points to how designers rely on the human (or inhuman) physiognomy to interest readers—it’s “the first and most direct point of communication,” said Keenan. His covers for the paperback of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (above), a tight close-up of a fearful child, or Victor Lavalle’s The Ecstatic, a demonic countenance sticking out its tongue, backed up his point.
Another notable tenet was “Encapsulation Theory,” in which type and image combine into “one new signal,” said Gray. The theory could be exemplified by his covers for Backstory (above), Ken Auletta’s investigation of print media—the paper of record folded origami-style into an eagle with the title in Times typeface on its breast—or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a hand hennaed with hand-lettering.
In “Method Theory,” the designer enters the environment of the book fully, as when Keenan rendered James Gleick’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything as “FSTR JMS GLCK” in black type on a yellow background.
But best of all was “Turd theory.” Whereas a picture of one turd elicits repulsion, a pattern of multicolored turds, they proposed, evokes attraction. Which explains how Gray added brightly colored collage covers to a series of potentially glum-looking Penguin Central European Classics (such as The Elephant, above) and made them utterly delightful.
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