Designing a Book Cover (or the long history of text on paths)

Note: I will be speaking at the Data Visualization Society (DVS) Fireside Chat on Typography for Data Visualization on Wednesday June 24th.

After two years, my book Visualizing with Text is getting close to publication. Finally, it is time to design the cover! About a year ago, I designed a placeholder “cover image”. It was procrastination: I should have been writing content, researching, tracking down copyrights and preparing images.

The initial place holder image I decided should be something that indicated both the history of representations that manipulated text and the modern, new visualizations that I was creating inspired by some of these historic images. The book has a lot of different visualizations, so I thought of a potential collage, perhaps focusing on a set of images from just one or two techniques. I’d always received strong positive feedback every time I showed text-on-a-path for social media visualization, so I focused on that technique. Furthermore, showing conversational text as text-on-a-path has a long history, so there were lots of fun images available to use ranging from medieval paintings and comics through to my visualizations. Then I made a quick placeholder image with some text, images and an axis:

The placeholder book cover.

With the interior of the book submitted in April, it became time to focus on other aspects of the book, such as endorsements, cleaning up images, cleaning up code, and the real cover! One of the early reviewers of a draft version of the book was John D. Berry, a typographer and designer I’d met at a conference during my PhD. John graciously offered to create the cover and I jumped at the opportunity to work with him – I really like John’s modernist design sensibilities in his portfolio and I like the opportunity to collaborate with other designers with expertise in areas that far surpass my own. We would need to follow the publisher’s template, given the book is one in the AK Peters Visualization Series edited by Tamara Munzner (which I am honoured to be a part of).

AK Peters Visualization Series

John created many different book covers for consideration, some based on content from the book, some based on contemporary typographic art, and some using historic images. John recommended an abstract approach, suggestive of the interior content, using large images, so that it might stand-out both on a shelf in a bookstore and on-line in a browser. That matched with my own preferences for high-contrast, clean modernist designs.

Potential book covers.

I really liked some of the covers based on contemporary typographic art. But we didn’t have much time, nor did we have budget to get license rights for one of these, so we decided to explore the historic image route.

I had provided John with a few dozen historic text-on-path/spoken text images, plus a few variants of my text on path visualizations of social media and news headlines. Historic images included late-Gothic scenes with banderoles (a scroll extending from a character indicating spoken text), such as the monks (above left), colorful paintings, and many examples in block-books from the mid-1400’s:

There are very many examples of text on path over centuries.

I’ve also used comic book examples a number of times in my analysis: as comic artists expressively use type, twisting it along paths, varying font styles and so on. Looking backwards in comics, there are great examples of text at all angles in bubbles in the work of early caricaturists such as Thomas Rowlandson, such as the example I’d used in my placeholder, as well as the hundreds of others that Rowlandson produced. John explored the Rowlandson images and found these emotional characters:

Rowlandson’s characters strong reactions!

At one point, I riffed on one of John’s designs and the above original design to create an over the top collage: many different examples of text on path, many different time periods; then pasted over top maps from many times periods. My mockup stretched across both covers. But, there’s some aspects in cover design that it doesn’t really address: at the end of it all, it needs to be meaningful at a postage stamp size for the person browsing books online. The trouble with big collages is that they invite long viewing but don’t necessarily provide a quick answer at a glance. More effort is required to decode the mix of elements, separate foreground from background, and so on. In design, a poor result can be a good thing – it means we don’t want to explore further in that direction.

Over the top collage

John went in a different direction, discarding the strictly linear layout, taking into account all the required design elements, and came up with a much stronger design. Each image is much more tightly cropped, retaining just enough of each. It plays with the spoken Gothic / Georgian text rising from the bottom, going though the title box, wherein it transforms into the new, colorized social media text emanating above. The title box “Visualizing with Text” transforms the input (historic representations of spoken text) into output (new visualizations of social media text). Much like how I put typography to work in my book, John put the title block to work.

As the x-axis can disappear, now the bottom portion of the book is free to express something different, in this case, a new visualization from in the book viewing the stems of root words, a kind of foundational language inspection underlying the speakers above. Perhaps Rowlandson’s two fearful characters should be afraid of both the title and the foundations.

Close to final cover.

Readers may also notice that John changed the font in the title. The prior books in the series use ITC American Typewriter, a font that hints at typewriters, which, in turn, hints at the monospaced fonts prevalent in computer code (and thus books about computer science). John and I wanted something punchier. The challenge with many typewriter fonts is that they tend to be fairly lightweight: note how it’s difficult to get Courier to standout on a slide with mixed fonts. John instead recommended Dattilo, a newer, heavier weight font with a typewriter feel (“dattilografia” is Italian for “typewriting”) i.e. the same spirit of typewriter but heavy.

Overall, we end up with a meaningful punchy cover, that hopefully engages the casual web viewer when browsing a book website. Maybe they will judge this book by its cover?

About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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