The Evolution of the Book Cover


“Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity.” (Chip Kidd)

After watching Chip Kidd’s most entertaining TED talk on book design, I began to wonder if we “pixel pushers” and “Digital Denizens” are any less creative than the “Ink Sniffers” and “Page Turner” types. Chip’s creative genius is obviously without parallel, but I shudder to imagine a digital world of books devoid of the same level of creative genius.

I like to look at this as a classic case of evolution. In the early days of the web, we creative types rued the lack freedom to be creative. Anyone remember those ugly gif banners? Then came the Cambrian explosion of Flash….we were finally getting there. The early 2000s saw some amazingly creative uses of technology. The movie industry was onto this pretty quickly. Take a look at  and , 2 classics of this era. Why don’t we apply these promotional concepts to books? Of course this evolution has not stopped and Flash is now dead. Long live HTML5!

Today we are probably in the Pre-Cambrian period of eBook design and have only basic primitives a our disposal. But necessity is the mother of invention. Though it is a frustrating time in the digital book space if you come from the creative fold, there is hope if you look at your book as an app….let me illustrate.

Book Spine = App Icon, Book Cover Thumbnail

The book spine is probably one of the most neglected aspects of book design, but incidentally the most important factor when it comes to getting noticed in a book store. You can draw a direct parallel to this in the digital world to the app icon; it’s the first impression a browser gets of your app or book on the store.

Just like a book spine, we have very little real estate to pack a lot of information. Designing a good app icon is really an art and the key is in keeping it simple and minimalist. Icons are meant to be graphical so packing them with text render them meaningless and crowded. Here’s a great article on designing good app icons:

Designing a great icon is super critical if you want to get noticed on the app store and regurgitating a book cover as an app icon is probably the worst thing you could do.

Book Cover Front =  App Screenshots + App Description

In the video above, Chip illustrates an incident where his graphic design lecturer highlighted the importance of not treating the audience like morons because they deserve better. If you look at it, the app store screenshots we see today seem to be treating us like morons. It’s about time we do something creative with that space than just show screenshots of the app. Maybe we should think of this space as a book cover?

Back Cover = App reviews section

Do book reviews influence your buying decision? I’m not sure about books, but they sure do for apps. And unlike book dust jackets which only come with glowing reviews, here you are talking about the brickbats as well. That’s like having a dynamic back cover with real-time reviews.


So there you go. It is possible to retain the essence of a book cover in a digital book. Who knows, if the powers that be at Amazons and Apple decide, we can expect a better canvas to give the audience a taste of what to expect.

It’s true that there’s no comparison to the delight of holding a physical book and smelling it, the comfort of the thingy-ness. Smelling, holding or licking your iPad is not going to get you anywhere, but I don’t agree with the subtle statement that digital stuff lacks humanity, that it’s cold, machine like or lacks imagination and creativity. Why blame the medium? We all work within constraints, just like dead-tree book designers.

But what I can say with some level of conviction is that, 15 years from now, I probably will not be shedding nostalgic tears about those wonderful app icons I used to design. Why? Because there’s always something better.