Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Design Award 2013 (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

Jonathan Gibbs
Friday HayleyWarnham 300x215 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Design Award 2013 (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

The winning Adult category entry by Hayley Warnham

Back with Penguin, a perennial preoccuption of this blog – not to discuss a book they are publishing though, but a couple they are not. Yes, on Wednesday night the winners of their twin annual student design awards were announced. In the competition entrants must produce a fully-specced cover design for a particular book. This year the Adult and Children’s categories were themed around Raymond Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep and Kenneth Grahame’s equally classic – and, for all its pastoral idylls, equally violent – The Wind in the Willows. Both are books that attract a certain kind of cover, and so both are ripe for all the experimentation that young blood can bring.

The competition is open to Art and Design students only, and this year attracted just shy of 1,400 entries across the two categories, from a total of 130 colleges in the UK and abroad. Entrants have free rein to interpret the book as they wish, so long as they include a small amount of specified cover copy, and are encouraged to design ‘a new cover for a new generation, avoiding the obvious clichés’ (hmm, so presumably the unobvious clichés are just fine…).

friday Barley Doran 300x229 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Design Award 2013 (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

Designs for The Big Sleep by Sam Barley (left) and David Doran (right)

First, the adult category. Well, I must admit it’s an age since I’ve read this particular Chandler – it’s not one I have the house, and they’re books I do tend to reach for as ‘comfort reading’ – but then with Chandler it’s not so much about the subject matter as the effortless style.

Of the ten shortlisted entries, three of them pick up on a central plot hook of the novel, which is the pornography business, by incorporating camera imagery into their design. (It’s only writing this blog post  that I notice quite how much Louis Welsh references Chandler’s book in her brilliant piece of contemporary noir, also turning on pornography, The Cutting Room)

Looking at the covers with cameras, it’s strange to think that, for this generation of designers (and the coming generations of readers) the ‘photography’ aspect of the story is now just as ‘retro’ as the hat, the non-automatic pistol… and even the cigarettes. In general, the ten covers do go big on the retro features of the book, with guns, cigarettes and matches much in evidence. In any case, one of these photography-referencing covers is that of the eventual winner, Hayley Warnham, of the Royal College of Art, who has produced a vaguely middle-European collage in which a camera takes the place of a human head, with a single eye staring manically out through the lens.

It’s a great cover: I like the limited colour palette, and the triangles on front and back, and the collage is certainly striking, but I do think it rather misses the Chandler style. There’s something sinister and Orwellian about Warnham’s cover, and whatever else he is, Chandler’s ‘knight errant’ private dick Philip Marlowe is never sinister, and to have him staring out at us – if that’s him – feels all wrong. I once interviewed James Ellroy and remember hearing him dismiss Chandler out of hand as eminently soft-boiled – and this, brilliantly hard-boiled cover to me looks more suitable to the other great American noir novelist (and Ellroy’s preferred one) Dashiell Hammett.

Friday Emily Nash The Big Sleep 300x216 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Design Award 2013 (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

Emily Nash's design for The Big Sleep

My favourite of the shortlisted ten is one that missed out on any of the prizes or commendations – but hey, if I’m not allowed to push my personal opinions on this blog, then what’s it for? My personal pick is by Emily Nash (University of the West of England) and is based around a grid of nine playing cards (referencing a casino that also plays a role in the famously convoluted plot), some of them face down, some of them turned over to show a revolver dripping orchid petals (another image from the book) which, if you look close enough, are made of pinstripe suit material.

I love the grid aspect, with the idea the partly turned-over cards echo how the plot is gradually revealed during the book, and I’d say it deals superbly with the distribution of the necessary bits of text. Also, although this isn’t specified in the competition, the design lends itself very well to rolling out over a whole series of books. You can just image that grid being repeated and varied, with different patterns of cards turned over – or perhaps not cards at all, perhaps something else. It looks, to me, absolutely ready to go to press – though of course it’s possible that it’s too reminiscent of already existing covers, I don’t know.

Looking over the whole ten (links below) the overall level is incredibly high – I also really like two entries from the clearly vibrant Falmouth University: Sam Barley’s very 60s paperback-look illustration of a photographer under his black cloth, and David Doran’s nicely contemporary ash tray city.

To be honest, I think the quality in the Children’s competition is more variable – which makes me wonder if, seeing as the entries were split reasonably equally between the two categories, designing children’s books might not actually be harder than adult ones.

In terms of a winner, however, I think the judges got it spot on (i.e. I agree with them). The Wind in the Willows is a tricky book to design for – the perils of whimsy are great, and I’m not sure I can think of an actual cover for it that I actively like.

Friday Vicky Mills Cover Spine and Back 300x191 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Design Award 2013 (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame)

The winning entry in the Children's category, by Vicky Mills

So kudos to Vicky Mills (Coventry University) for her delightful, eye-catching and thoroughly amusing cover, that you can imagine appealing to kids and adults alike. It’s based around a simple but entirely characteristic illustration of Toad – in which he’s posed as if for a police mugshot (following his arrest for reckless driving), with the height scale to the right and the book’s title band becoming the name plate arrestees have to hold up.

Kids will like the drawing, with the adorably bemused expression on Toad’s face, even if they don’t get the arrest business. Adults will like the visual pun. And design geeks will like the reference to Penguin design history, with the adaptation of the Tschichold grid and the Gill Sans bold type.

So, well done to all the shortlistees, and well done to Penguin for organising the competition – with cash prizes for first, second and third place in each category, and a four week work placement for the two winners, working with the relevant art directors. Previous winners have gone on to have work appear for Penguin, and other big name publishers, and it’s cheering to think we have such talent brewing for the future.

See all the shortlists here (Adult category) and here (Children’s).

  • Cathi Stevenson

    I like your favourite too. It’s always been my dream to design a cover for Penguin. Some day. Some day.

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