From the Designer’s Desk Special Edition: University Press Book Design, On the type-only jacket

Our Designers Talk Book Covers


“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the popular adage goes. But, as humans, we often do just that. In this edition of From the Designer’s Desk, and as part of the 2015 AAUP blog tour, our Yale University Press book designers (Nancy Ovedovitz, Design Director; James Johnson, Senior Designer; Sonia Shannon, Senior Designer; and Mary Valencia, Senior Designer) discuss the design and creation of type-only book covers.

University Press Week was proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter a week “in recognition of the impact, both here and abroad, of American university presses on culture and scholarship.” To read more about the history and past events of AAUP, follow this link:


I’ve been thinking about, and looking at, type-only book jackets a lot lately. We wind up designing them quite a bit, and often find it the most difficult to do successfully. The subject matter we publish is diverse, and includes titles about philosophy, politics, history, technology, law, science, economics, literature.

Some titles beg for photos, some are just right with a well-designed type jacket. I’m especially partial to typography where the characters work together to make the title a unit, an element in itself. Sometimes a winding swash can literally connect parts of the title, and, by extension, the ideas contained in them.

There are always a few books that give us an idea so amorphous that no straightforward illustration can express it. They demand a conceptual jacket, a graphic representation. There are a lot of wonderful conceptual book jackets out there; I admire many, but that isn’t how I’ve always thought about jacket design. I’ve been designing books for close to 40 years; early on, if we got to use 3 colors, it was exciting, and a photograph or illustration was really great. In some ways, I’m returning to that simpler time, trying to grasp an essence instead of announce the idea loudly.


Among the myriad challenges a bookjacket designer faces is the project that corners itself into being the “all type” solution. In many instances it’s the book’s esoteric nature that prevents a compelling image to be the visual messenger. So the solution lies in the author’s words: and with some play/experimentation on the part of the designer: a path may emerge. It may arise from working with fonts and typography that are historically appropriate or that can convey some element of the book’s argument. Or color. And with so many digital fonts to work with and the ease in which to stylize the fonts, the type font is often a good starting point. Yet in many cases I stay with the fonts I found work best: Gill Sans, Caslon, Fournier, even Helvetica!


I remember I once asked at a jacket meeting, “What do you want on the jacket?” and the reply was, “No design, just type.”

I love typography. Working with letterforms to convey a book’s essence, for me, is the ultimate challenge.

Here are a few examples of my work (Database of Dreams by Rebecca Lemov was designed by Thomas Starr for YUP).


It may be true we all really judge books by their covers.

Book designers, I believe, know that the first impression, at least, has got to be a good one.

The book cover conveys all the crucial information but also aspires to that special something, which evokes the contents.

Covers without images, all-type covers, present my greatest challenge.

With no art, the letterforms and colors need to be in just the right proportions and mood.

Here are a few of mine that come closest.

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