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Evolution of book covers reflect aesthetics of their day

People say to not judge a book by its cover, but everything from the font in the title to the texture of the binding plays a significant role in deciding whether or not a book is worth delving into.

Since the beginning of print, covers have reflected the design trends and technologies of their day. Many people base their thoughts and ideas about a book off of what they see on the cover, making the look of a book just as important as the contents inside.

In Emily Thomason’s undergraduate years, she spent an entire semester looking into the evolution of books during the medieval period. From her studies, she learned books, and more specifically manuscripts, were made with the nicest materials possible.

“Back then, they wanted something that looked beautiful but also functional,” Thomason, a graduate student studying art history, said. “The material of the time was something that had more of a longevity and something that would last.”

In the 13th and 14th centuries, books were made out of sheepskin and calfskin parchment. They were mostly bound in leather, sometimes with beautiful gold and ivory covers. Today, the design of a book cover is no less important than back then.

“I think in the past few decades, there’s been a push for books that are well-designed,” Thomason said. “You know that if you see a book that isn’t designed well on the outside, then you’re less likely to pick it up.”

Thomason wants to look at a book cover and have some sort of idea of what she’s going to read. If she can tell the author and their agent really thought about a novel cover, Thomason would be intrigued.

“It’s interesting, because I also think of books in an artisanal way. I think some book covers are more about material,” Thomason said. “I really love leather-bound books that are sometimes colorful. I think maybe in more terms of the novel, I expect the colors to tell me somewhat of the content. Maybe that’s why I tend to grab more blue books, because I think it’ll be more of a calm and relaxing read.”

As nice as it may be to check out books at the local bookstore, books have become less tangible. Book marketing of the time has turned to social media where it targets a visually driven audience.

“I think social media and advertising go hand in hand,” Thomason said. “The covers are so important, especially on ads on social media, because if the cover isn’t visually appealing, you’re just gonna scroll right by it.”

Like Thomason, Miriam Intrator, a special collections librarian at Alden Library, finds social media to be a helpful tool in marketing books. Intrator herself has learned a lot in terms of the history of books through social media and can see how one might be drawn to a certain cover through a photo on Instagram.

“You can see all kinds of beautiful, interesting and weird things on Instagram,” Intrator said. “But everybody likes something different, so a cover that catches my eye, you’re not even gonna notice.”

Intrator doesn’t pay as much attention to the current covers of the day, but she’s aware that students tend to lean more toward books with boldly illustrated and dazzling covers. 

“I know that students tend to react to covers that are really colorful with a lot of gold or silver,” Intrator said. “The more colorful ones, some are very simple and some are much more in-depth.”

Despite the general acceptance of bright and modern covers, Intrator believes whatever is most eye-catching is really up to the individual. For some people, it’s smooth, perfect and beautiful leather, but for others it’s something much more illustrated. 

Intrator herself is interested in everything that has to do with the history of the book. She’s always on the lookout for bindings that are not yet represented in the library’s collection.

“I haven’t found a burlap binding here, but I’d really like to have one so people can see that aspect of books,” Intrator said. “There’s still book makers and bookbinders who are making very deluxe, unbelievable bindings. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of that because they tend to be very expensive.”

Dori Griffin, an assistant professor of graphic design, believes book covers usually respond to design trends at the time of their publication.

“Detailed illustrations and ornate lettering were popular during the Victorian period,” Griffin said. “Geometric patterns, architectural shapes and streamlined typography found their way to many books’ covers during the art deco period, and flat vector graphics and bold, clean typography are common design strategies today.”

As a reader and designer, book covers are important to Griffin. She will often find herself picking up a book because the cover intrigues her.

“I enjoy covers that tell the beginning of a story, because this makes me curious to find out what happens next,” Griffin said. “Of course, after that, it's up to the story inside the book to keep me turning pages.”


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