Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Random House Design Award 2014 (What a Carve Up, by Jonathan Coe, and The Outsiders, By S.E. Hinton)
This is the second year I’ve covered the Penguin Design Awards (now, of course, the Penguin Random House Design Awards), in which design students are asked to come up with covers for one adult and/or one children’s book in the Penguin and Puffin ranges – in this case Jonathan Coe’s 1980s social satire, and SE Hinton’s 1950s classic, neither of which I’ve actually read, I admit, which might colour some of what follows.
The winner in the adult category was Ellen Rockell (studying Illustration at Norwich University College of the Arts), who produced a witty and dramatic cover that makes the letters of the title and author name out of the walls of the floor plan of a house or flat – perhaps referencing the property boom of the decade in question.
One of the judges, Petra Börner (who joined Rob Ryan as a guest judge and three in-house-ers Jo Prior, Jim Stoddart and John Hamilton) called it “The clear winner… A great concept, striking design, strong colour ways and brilliantly executed”, and it’s hard not to agree. It’s a simply stunning piece of work.
First of all because it simply shouldn’t work – it should be overly busy, and difficult to read, but it ends up as clear as it is dramatic and, indeed, complex.
A second reason for rewarding the piece is the sheer amount of inventiveness and work that went into it. Some design solutions are simple – they come like lightning bolts out of the blue, and take minutes (or, okay, an hour or two) to get on paper, or screen. And there are some on the shortlist that fall into this category – Billy Fenton’s second-placed knives and lips silhouette (rather reminiscent of Noma Bar’s DeLillo covers) or Aleksanders Golubovs’ dot-matrix, either of which would make fine covers in their own right.
But when you discover that Rockell’s floor plan wasn’t something she mocked up with design software. It’s something she built, and photographed, tiny people in doorways and all.
You can see more photos of her work in progress on her tumblr. Bravo, Ellen! That said, there might be the odd professional designer out there grumpily saying: Easy for her, she’s a student… try finding time to do that when you’re working to a publisher’s deadline!
Rockell wins a placement in the Penguin Random House design studio, as well £1,000, so perhaps she’ll learn the lesson first hand.
Of the other shortlisted covers, I really like Abbie Cameron’s videotape design, though it doesn’t quite deal with the differing dimensions of book and tape, and Jo Guthrie’s elegant punk-ish collage. Alex Hill’s cover pulls a similar trick, imposing text on image, but this looks more like an American cover than a British one to me.
The overall quality here is excellent, it must be said. There’s not a single one that would cause you to stumble or frown, were you to see it on a bookshop shelf. Monika Szynkiekewska’s striptease-and-TV collage (top left, below) is cheeky and appealing in an Andrzej Klimowski kind of way, while Paul Garrett’s third-placed piece (top right, below) looks more like it would work as part of a series redesign than a standalone. (And in fact, is this distinction made in the competition rules? Seeing as the books the entrants are designing for are, almost by definition, classics or modern classics, it should be made clear whether it’s a one-off or a series they are designing for. After all, the distinction between these two things, in publishing terms, is massive.)
As for the ‘children’s’ category, well, really we’d have to call this Young Adult – The Outsiders is a book for teens, though I’m not sure how widely read it is. (I know it from the film, but I don’t even really know if people still watch that.)
It’s a tricky book to design for, not least because you get the feeling that 50s is a bit of a lost decade for today’s kids. It’s certainly not as present as it was for those of us that grew up in the 80s, when James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were still iconic figures, on posters on every wayy. The Arctic Monkeys notwithstanding, greased hair and leather jackets are not particularly in right now, and won’t draw many people to the text if used as a marker or motif for the story.
Craig Cox’s winning design is certainly striking – especially when you notice the blood spatter on the comb… which is continued on the spine. (The entries are for full front, back and spine designs, and you can see the whole things on the Penguin site.) For simplicity of design, though, I think I prefer the comb and hair piece by Emily Jefferies (second placed, below left), in which the hair – which is a very nicely worked mix of painterly and digital styles – curls over to dominate the back cover.
However, I don’t envy the judges for this category their job. (Guests for the Children’s prize were Lauren Child and Lucy Mangan.) I don’t count myself a great judge of what might work in the YA market. Is Libby Para’s cute illustration of an anxious looking boy slimped in a corner too cute? Might Mila Spasova’s skull with quiff simply the most commercially strong, simply because it’s the most likely to be picked up and read by boys? Is crossover appeal important? As an adult I suppose the ones I’d be most likely to be ’seen with’ are Cox’s and Tree Abraham’s type-led one, slightly underwhelming though it is.
Again, though, congratulations to all the entrants and shortlistees. This is a great prize, and must mean a lot to the students who take part. Watch the video in which the judges give an insight into what they were looking for, and their responses to the shortlists:
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