Putting Some Spine Into Design

Adapted from dot-font: Talking About Design (Mark Batty Publisher)

By John D. Berry

Nobody notices how the spines of book covers are designed, yet those are usually the first thing we see on a bookshelf.

Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in a bookstore we judge most of them first by their spines. For most new books—not the ones lying out on tables or prominently displayed with their covers out, but the ones lining the shelves—the spine is all we see. The beautiful, dramatic cover, upon which great effort and sometimes even expense may have been lavished, never gets seen if a browsing bookbuyer doesn’t reach out and pull the book oV the shelf to take a look.

You might expect, given this cruel dynamic of the marketplace, that book publishers, and the designers of dustjackets and paperback covers for those publishers, would devote a lot of attention to what the spine looks like. But it seems to be the rare designer who gives the question much thought at all.

The spine of this comprehensive Italian dictionary from 1949 is striking and easy to read when the book is standing up, and stands out even on its side.

Standing Up and Standing Out

As a book designer who is also a bookbuyer and a reader, I’ve thought about this a lot—and in the course of my professional life I’ve been able to put some of my thoughts into action. I know that when I scan the shelves of my favorite bookstores, it’s the simplest, most dramatic, and most legible book spines that stand out.

Obviously, since most books are shelved vertically, the ideal direction for the type on the spine is horizontal, so that the words are the right way up when viewed by the browser’s eye. And if the book is fat, the spine is wider and there’s more space for the designer to work with. Sometimes the designer can use some of that space to frame the title and the author’s name.

But few books are thick enough to allow this kind of spacious display. In most cases, the type is turned at right angles to the viewer’s eye, in order to run along the vertical spine. In North America, the normal direction is from top to bottom; in Europe, it’s usually bottom to top. (This means that in North America, in a pile of books stacked face up, all the titles are easy to read; in Europe, it’s the pile of books stacked face down, with no front covers visible at all, where the titles on the spines are easy to read. Two different logics. The biggest practical effect is that readers browsing the shelves in a European bookstore crick their necks to the left, while those in North America crick theirs to the right.)

Since the type is not aligned with the way we see, it has to be even clearer than it would otherwise have to be. Crowded, cramped type gets lost in the clutter. No matter what the front cover looks like, capital letters make the best use of the narrow spine (no ascenders or descenders to extrude into the limited space). A little extra space between the letters—even more than you’d give them in a horizontal line—helps them stand out and be read.

Crisp letterforms (in this case, Big Caslon caps), if they’re not too cramped, can stand out even when they fill the space on the spine.

Clarity in Complexity

Most of what I’m going to show is my own work, since that’s easiest and perhaps most honest. But one example I’d like to include is the spine of a trade paperback edition of Virtual Unrealities, a collection of short stories by science-fiction writer Alfred Bester (published by Vintage Books). The designer, Evan Gaffney, uses the space in a unique way. The intrusions of amorphous blue photographic details in strict rectangles, and the swirling clock-face image, reflect the design of the front cover (and the back); they also tie this book in with others in the uniform series of Bester reprints, each of which features a different dominant color. The complexity of this spine draws a browser’s eye in; the well-spaced type of the author’s name and the title make it clear what this is. (Even the letterspacing of the subtitle, in caps and lowercase—which would normally not be a good idea—works here, given the size and the vertical nature of the spine.)

Clear typography within a complex composition is hard to pull off, but it works on this Vintage paperback.

Clarity and simplicity tend to stand out and be effective. But which element is most important? Which should be emphasized? You have to think about what will catch the browser’s eye—the title, the name of the author, the publisher’s logo, or something else entirely. In the case of the Alfred Bester book, it’s Bester’s name that will sell the book; he’s known as one of the classic writers of science fiction. In the case of a book I designed for the University of Washington Press, Answering Chief Seattle, by Albert Furtwangler, the author’s name was not well known, but the subject—Chief Seattle—is famous in the Pacific Northwest, and a title like Answering Chief Seattle ought to pique the intended reader’s interest. So, in my design, the title is what stands out.

If the title is what’s important, emphasize it.

Using Space

In one of my early book designs, a sequence of poetic prose by Sam Hamill about following in the footsteps of the haiku master Basho (published by Broken Moon Press), my cover design was bold and simple, but on the spine I was timid, and I hadn’t thought enough about what a book spine had to do. I chose very small type, and set it within the empty space of the spine. The type got lost there, rather than standing out against its ground.

Title and author’s name disappear when they’re too small.

Years later, in a volume of collected poems for White Pine Press, I got to give Sam Hamill a much more inviting spine. I knew that some readers of poetry would seek out books by Hamill, so his name had to stand out; but I also wanted to attract others, so the most striking emphasis (white type on a dark blue background) was given over to the intriguing title, Destination Zero.

Sometimes neither the author’s name nor the book’s title is a guaranteed reader magnet. Poet Arthur Sze is well respected among certain circles of poetry readers, but he’s hardly a household name. And the title of this book for Copper Canyon Press, The Redshifting Web, is a particularly awkward combination of words to do anything with on a book cover or spine. But I had an attractive piece of artwork that lent itself to being wrapped around from the front cover onto the spine, giving a natural division to the area of the spine. So instead of running a simple author/title line down a blank spine, I chose to blow up Sze’s single-syllable last name large enough to dominate the top section, then I reduced the title until it fit within the artwork. The point was to be intriguing enough to make browsers stop and pull the book off the shelf.

Too Colorful?

Color is an important factor in book spines, but contrast is a more important one. The most “typographic” colors are black and white, and I usually try to stick to those two for the type. The best second color is one that’s light enough not to drown out black type, but dark enough that you can reverse out white type and still read it. Sometimes using a color combination from the front cover, or even from the artwork, is effective. It’s easy to get carried away, though. On the spine of Jane Miller’s Memory at These Speeds (Copper Canyon), I made the mistake of using a blue for the author’s name against a dark orangey-red, with a light yellowish orange for the title. The title stands out, but the blue and the red fight each other, in an electric effect, and Miller’s name is hard to read.

Spine Space, the Final Frontier

Capital letters aren’t the only possibility for a book spine. And even though italics, on a North American top-to-bottom spine, slant down, even farther away from the browser’s horizontal orientation, sometimes they can be very effective. For Eleanor Wilner’s collection Reversing the Spell (Copper Canyon), I thought the title itself would draw the most attention, so I made it prominent. The spine was wide enough that I could give the author’s name horizontally, in contrast.

The same technique of combining vertical and horizontal type worked on the spine of the first complete edition of Thomas McGrath’s book-length poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend (Copper Canyon). I probably played down McGrath’s name too much (I should have used a contrasting or complementary typeface that was stronger, for his name), but the title stands out (the small caps are not faked; the typeface actually has “small caps” that are nearly as tall as the capital letters) and the spine was wide enough that I could use a cropped version of the very personal, very inviting photo of the author. You don’t often get to use a person’s face on a book spine.

The opposite problem comes when you’ve got a very narrow spine, for a very thin book. Heather Allen’s Leaving a Shadow was one of the shortest books I’ve ever designed, an almost archetypal “slim volume of poems” (again, for Copper Canyon Press). The cover was a duotone, in black and silver, of a photograph with type against it. On the spine, there was no room for anything fancy; I simply used all the space, and all the variations at my disposal, setting the author’s name in black and the title in white, both in letterspaced caps in a crisp typeface, against a pure silver background.

Details, Details

Why spend so much time thinking about a subject that almost no one, including book designers, gives much thought to? Because this, like so many neglected details of design, actually has a big impact on which items in the marketplace get noticed, and then bought. The spines of books ought to be pleasing, so that bookbuyers can stand to have them on their shelves once they’ve read them; but the first thing a book’s spine has to do, in the real world, is attract that reader.

By focusing on this, I’ve been trying to deliver a small wake-up call to book designers and publishers, and also to shed a little light, for readers, on something that affects them daily but that they’ve probably never really noticed. Design really is everywhere.

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Excerpted with permission from dot-font: Talking About Design (Mark Batty Publisher) by John D. Berry. Copyright © 2007 Mark Batty Publisher.