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Good Book Design: “Trust Your Gut”

Written by in Features

Good Books Well Printed?

Yes, Please.

Penguin Books Executive Creative Director, Paul Buckley, Weighs In
On the Art & Commerce of the Printed Book
“People who look for formulas are people that I cannot distance myself from quick enough. People who do not have their own intuitive sense of what is good and what is not, sadden the hell out of me.” — Paul Buckley, Penguin Books

For the past few years those in the publishing arena have been bemoaning the demise of print, claiming e-devices will take over. Thankfully that hasn’t happened, and it likely never will. According to an article in the March 2 issue of Forbes, “ebooks make up only an estimated 23% of the $35 billion dollar industry–and Pew Research reports that just 4% of Americans are e-book only.” People still like the tactile qualities of books and they put their money on it.

Penguin Books creative director, Paul Buckley, says, “Originally there was reason to worry, but that worry is a thing of the past. It has become clear that most titles will sell in both mediums, and neither will destroy the other. Print lives another day!”



Cover design: Paul Buckley.

There are many factors leading to a successful book, marketing, shelf presence, good cover design, and of course, content. But what makes a successful cover design and what is the role of design and paper selection in the book buying decision? I asked Buckley to weigh in.

What do you think is a good indicator of a successful book cover? Is there a formula you can track? 

I’d rather hang out in a leper colony. If a book did not sell well, it is very hard to know if the cover missed the mark. I simply have to trust my gut, while at the same time being open to what others are telling me. If a book sold very well, then my thinking is, “well the jacket didn’t hurt it.” Other than that, DISTINCTION over the same ole would be as close to a formula as I might want to mull over.



Cover design: Buckley; Illustration: Shout (Alessandro Gottardo);
printed on Neenah Paper.

How big of a role is design and typography in the success of a book? 

How big of a role does what you wear to a work meeting, to a wedding, or to a party play in the success of how you are perceived? Wear clown shoes with a cape to a wedding, and see how it goes. Actually, you’d probably be wildly popular! There is your personality (the book’s content), there are your clothes (the book’s jacket), and there are what people say and think about you (marketing and buzz). All three need to work in harmony to broadcast to any particular crowd, “hey you… let’s make small talk over by the cheese dip and see how it goes.”


Jacket design: Buckley; inside cover photo: Agustín Víctor Casasola (1874–1928), courtesy of the Casasola Archive, Fototeca Nacional del INAH, Mexico.

Do you think the success of a book is largely due to its cover design, or is that no longer the case with people now browsing books online? 

I would be the Kanye West of book cover design if I thought the success of the books I work on are due “largely” to my visual genius. I don’t wanna be Kanye. I wanna be Pharrell Williams. Let’s all be happy and work together, and create and share in the success. A book is a hugely collaborative effort, but if a book does well, it is mostly due to the author’s written words.


Cover art and designs: Buckley

Can you give me some examples of successful Penguin book covers and why some do better than others? 

Many of our Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions do very well. They have sold many times over in a huge array of packaging during their lifetimes, so we go out of our way to package them in a way they’ve not been seen before. We hope to make you laugh out loud, or blush on the subway, or find something so amazing you take the time to look at all its tiny thoughtful details.

We give them gorgeous production details—uncoated stock, French Flaps, rough fronts, tops stains and foils if that might be called for. We want to not only sell you a book, but we want to offer you a beautiful object, and people respond to that—everybody likes beautiful things.


In recent years, it seems that hand-lettering has become the design du jour on book covers. Has that always been the case, and is it often the best design solution when trying to communicate a book’s essence at a glance? 

Everything has a pendulum. We’ve been doing covers digitally for a long time, so we’ve all spent a good bunch of years exploring all the new vector fonts that have popped up daily from so many beautiful type houses and designers. And for the last five years, every designer (and illustrator) has been trying their own handwriting on their covers, when it feels right. Sometimes it really does feel add a much needed human touch that helps convey an author’s voice. Like fancy hand-lettering, this rougher, any-man-style of scrawl has its place and is just another tool in the tool box. Funny thing is, though it looks easy, and I see some do it so well and so fast, it takes me far longer to do that sort of thing than to explore a title set in an enormous variety of fonts, until one starts to talk to me.

Want to Learn More? To read how paper color and texture can add value and brand distinction to your brand communications. Go to: Color & Texture in High Value Print

What role do you think paper plays in the book-buying decision?

Production values are hugely important. Do you want a matte black, or do you want a super shiny lacquer black? The same color with two insanely different looks, both great for different applications. The tone of the book and the cover that is created will, money permitting, dictate the type of paper that should be used—be it matte, glossy, or an uncoated sheet. Would a sheet with some tooth be nice in this case? God is in the details and every little choice and application leads down the road to the end result; and we all want the end result to sing. In order for that to happen, well thought-out decisions must be made.


Jacket design: Buckley; photography: Johny Hoppy Hopkins/Getty Images

Do you think having so many different book formats (digital and print), in the long run will help book publishing? 

I do. Unlike having to take 45 minutes trying to wade through all the cough medicines in a drug store, I think a few different options on how you want your reading material is a beautiful thing.