Friday Book Design Blog: Verso Radical Thinkers

Jonathan Gibbs

verso two books Friday Book Design Blog: Verso Radical Thinkers
How to market ‘theory’ – that strange monstrous genre of quasi-philosophical, quasi-social-scientific, quasi-lit-critical writing that crawled from the continent in the second half of the last century? Verso know how to do it. Their list ‘Radical Thinkers’ is chock full of heavyweight names, from Adorno to Foucault to Žižek to… well, you’d have to say there aren’t many women on that list, but no matter.

In any case, the series used to look pretty impressive, in a foreboding kind of way: plain coloured covers with those all-important names writ large; a not particularly lovely V for Verso logo; and a big curly bracket to make it look, you know, theoretical (and that privileged, in its very function, that awful thing: the explanatory subtitle – they’re still there, in the new design, but less oppressively so). In terms of making you think highly of yourself for picking them up, they certainly did the job, but they didn’t exactly encourage you to do so in the first place.

verso old design Friday Book Design Blog: Verso Radical Thinkers

Then, in 2009, they changed tack, handing the covers of subsequent series over to Andy Pressman at Rumors Studio in America – Pressman has since designed 60 books in the series, and is now art director at the publisher to boot, so they must like him.

His redesign is a complete overhaul, ditching the changes background colours for a single, simple cream background (on lovely, very strokeable textured paper), minimising the textual elements and introducing a geometric element, unique to each cover.

The author name, title and publisher name – in fact all the text on front and back, bar that Verso ‘V’ – are now set in DTL Fleischman, giving it an eminently unruffled air. The title and that V are given a different colour depending on the series – similar to the Penguin Great Ideas, though there each book was given a far more flamboyant individual design. Here, there is a design response to the content, but it is a highly reserved, even oblique one, using only simple, elegantly thin black lines, often very sparingly indeed.

Guy Debord’s ‘Panegyric’, for instance, lifts the title on a platform atop a pole (“panegyric : n. a formal public commendation; euology”), while Sartre’s ‘War Diaries’ show a paper plane. The wit, where it is there, is subtle enough to flatter you when you spot the connection, but not overt enough to try to grab your attention. Water Benjamin’s ‘The Origin of German Tragic Drama’ is a map of Germany… and a comically sad face.

verso two more Friday Book Design Blog: Verso Radical Thinkers

Pressman says, of the illustrations, that they “aren’t meant to explicitly explain the book’s content, especially since I’m not in a position to unpack most of these texts for the average reader. So instead they’re oblique.

“The act of reading each design is similar to the act of reading the text, where the content doesn’t always immediately offer itself to the reader. Sometimes the reader is required to work a little… If anything it unclarifies — it opts for the poetic over the declarative.”

As a whole, though, it definitely does grab the attention – especially when you think of the sections of bookshops where you might conceivably see them on display. Better this than another photo of a frowning intellectual.

Pressman says that he wanted “to get away from graphic design’s tendency to conflate the ‘radical’ with the aggressive,” which seems absolutely spot on, and that his brief from Verso was to develop the market for the books beyond the habitual ‘theory’ buyer.

I’d say it’s a complete success, and in some strange parallel world sells as well as Great Ideas. Maybe one day.

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