Magnum Contact Sheets: Design # 2 – The Jacket

For the next part in our Life Cycle of a Book series, Design Director Johanna Neurath looks at jacket design and the development of the jacket for our new Autumn title Magnum Contact Sheets.

Amazon thumbnails

The book jacket or cover, that single, simple printed sheet of paper: its primary function is to $€££. It needs to earn back the considerable investment everyone has made in planning, organizing, thinking about and realizing the book in its final physical form. There’s a hell of a lot riding on it. We all have to feel confident we’ve got it right.

Trying to get everyone (the author, the sales people, the marketing people, the editors, the publisher) behind the design – without its looking like it’s been designed by committee – is no mean feat.

Newbie designers often assume this is the best part of the job. Where you can play, let your imagination run free, show off your inDesign and Photoshop wizardry. And where you’ll win the greatest praise and accolades for the genius creative solutions you’re bound to come up with. That can be so, yes. But there can also be totally tortuous frustration for everyone involved as we inch towards a final resolution.

To be a jacket designer (and to keep smiling and coming into work every day), you need an almost zen buddhist-like mastery of your emotions and to be able to practise detachment. No matter how many years you’ve been in the game, no matter how professional your attitude, having design after design rejected is pretty disheartening.

And. They. Will. Be. Rejected.

When I was a newbie designer myself, fresh out of college, struggling to resolve my very first jacket design that had been batted around and around, going nowhere for weeks, my boss said to me “Design one option for the Sales Director, one for the author and one for yourself.”

Brilliant! That was REALLY helpful!

All three approaches came out looking very different. They all got shown in the jacket meeting. The option I had designed for the sales director had all the right sales messages but wasn’t attractive enough. The one I designed for the author ended up getting approved (and actually is still in print today so I must have got something right). But the one I designed for myself was (in-my-22-years-old-and-not-so-humble opinion) the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and definitely looked the best. However it was immediately rejected because it didn’t ‘talk to the right audience’ for the book. That episode taught me a lot. For starters: how to be a bit less full of myself and how to see further than the end of my own nose.

Talking to the right audience is really important. There’s no point in designing for someone who is heavily into baroque architecture if you are selling a book about guerrilla knitting to take a rather surreal example. But you get my point?

As well as talking in a visual language that’s appropriate to the readership, each jacket has to be a kind of shorthand, an icon or symbol for the idea of the book. There are so many things that have to be thought about… Of course what the design looks like at actual size, but also does it feel good in the hand when you get the book home? Would you want it on your own table or desk? Does it work as a poster and as a postage stamp? Look at the screen grab from Amazon at the top of this page: a good design is distinctive and distinguishable when seen tiny, even though you may not be able to read the type at that size. It may also need to work hugely enlarged, projected on a screen or blown up as a printed poster – where any flaws in the letterspacing or imagery would get magnified beyond all proportion.

The best jacket or cover designs look effortless – one doesn’t question them, they simply feel right. They need to seduce, intrigue and inform at fifty paces and stand close scrutiny at fifty millimetres.

In September 2010 we had a sort of dry run for the Magnum Contact Sheets jacket. Victoria and Stuart from Smith Design had already designed about 40 interior pages to bind into four blank dummy books so we could pitch the idea at the Frankfurt bookfair that October. Each year we go to the bookfair looking for international publishers to translate the text and join us on the first print run of all our key titles.  We did pretty well with this one and Magnum Contact Sheets will also publish in French, Dutch, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean at the same time as the English edition.

Magnum Contact Sheets Frankfurt Dummy

Early version of the Frankfurt dummy jacket design.

As usual we had spent loads of design time on the insides, and the jacket design was a somewhat last-minute affair. Luckily the dummy jacket doesn’t have to work in the same way as the final jacket does. It won’t be seen in a bookshop or online – it’s only seen by the other publishers we are showing the dummy to. I’d say 8 times out of 10 the design will change for the real thing.

Essentially that big red design is what we took to the Frankfurt bookfair – with a tweak or two that I did at the last minute. I put our logo on. And I changed the type since I definitely wanted the word “MAGNUM” to be in the same typeface as our earlier Magnum Magnum book. The display font used in Magnum Magnum is called Akzidenz Grotesk and it has a very distinctive capital G. (Which looks great big.) I thought it would be a good idea to have some kind of visual nod to the earlier book – we had sold lots of Foreign language editions as well as many T&H English copies. But still, I knew this design wouldn’t be *the one*.

To generalize, there are two basic approaches that will get you a jacket approved. You can ‘sell the sizzle and not the bacon’. Or you can produce a design that ‘does what it says on the tin’. A good design may do both. I didn’t think this design did either.

OK, so back to the drawing board. I was pretty sure the solution would be typographic as the dummy jacket, but we simply needed a more distinguished and desirable version.

But where to begin?

visual reference

Visual reference/research

We start by thinking about photography archives and the physical containers prints are kept in. Sophie Wright from Magnum sends over some images of the shelves at their London office… I spend some enjoyable time researching coloured masking tape, archival print boxes, glacine paper bags etc. etc. (stationery freak that I am). Stuart and Vic look at old logos and graphics from Ilford, Agfa and Kodak paper boxes and film packets.

Smith come back with LOADS of things to look at. They have been busy! Two different PDFs with various design approaches to look through and consider.

First roughs PDF A

Well. Not right. None of them. Far too much to read. I liked the typography though. (Even though I’m missing my Akzidenz Grotesk ‘G’. Must remember to tell them to use it!). But most look far too retro and not at all related to now – and to be frank none of them really truly get me going.

First Roughs PDF B

Here Smith had started thinking about the various editions we had mentioned right at the start of the project. There would be a ‘trade’ edition available in regular bookshops and then there would be various special editions with prints in.

I called Smith up on the phone. ‘No. Try again. These aren’t working. The typo is too retro. What’s all that text on there? No one’s going to read all that! Can you try again please and let’s just concentrate on the regular edition for now. I’m not quite sure what to suggest – you could try playing more with the idea of a box?’

I like the idea of a box. Or a packet. Intriguing – you’ll want to know what’s inside… (Definitely more in line with a selling the sizzle rather than the bacon!) This is going to be a pretty expensive book. We can afford to be sophisticated with the design solution.

The box and packet concept isn’t an original idea. It’s been done for some photography books before of course. By Taschen for their Marilyn special edition and by Phaidon for Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. I was hoping we’d be able to realize ours differently and end up with something elegant, clean and modern around the book.

Taschen and Phaidon examples

Smith send over some more designs. I take a look and show them to Commissioning Editor Andrew. We both think progress had been made and there is a germ of something in some of the second roughs. I pick the phone up again. ‘Hello – can you talk? I think we’re getting there with the colours. Yellow and Red are good, makes me think of Kodak.’

More Roughs

Some of the second roughs.

‘Please will you use Akzidenz Grotesk for the nice “G”? And I’d love to see a version that has a big Magnum down the side, a bit like the original Magnum Magnum cover. However I don’t think we can have the title sideways. Our MD has a real aversion to that. Any chance of having revises by Wednesday in time for the jacket meeting?’

Vic said that she really hated the capital ‘M’ of Akzidenz Grotesk and she vastly preferred the M of the font she’d used (Interstate – based on the US road signage), but OK if it was that much of a thing she’d switch typefaces. And yes she’d see what she could do in time for the meeting…

It’s now well into March – we are waaaaay behind schedule. As well as catalogue deadlines, the London Bookfair is coming up. All the foreign publishers who have committed to the book and are well under way translating their text for the insides will be in town asking to see where we are with the jacket. And just as importantly our own sales team needs a convincing design to start talking the T&H edition into the bookshops and get advance orders. The pressure is on.

The phone rings. It’s Victoria:

‘Hi Johanna. I’ve had an idea. The yellow and red label is a real sticker. The big Magnum lettering could be printed in a glossy varnish and the rest of the jacket is matt. But I DO need some text for the label. It’s going to look far too empty with just the title.’

Me: ‘Ooh that sounds good. I love the idea of playing with different textures. A real sticker might be too expensive though – it’s handwork… The bindery will have to stick them all on – and stick them all on in the right place… and it’s going to be a big print run! But I guess we could print it as though it was a label? And the gloss will differentiate it enough.

For the text… What about nerdy copy about the printing specification of the book in tiny type so it echoes the technical details one gets on photographic paper boxes, you know paper weight, paper finishes and all that…?  I’ll ask Andrew to bash something out and email it over…’

Next day this arrives and the phone goes again:

Magnum Contact Sheet label roughs

‘Hi there… So the label wraps round the back and spine… And I did some others just in case… Remember what you see as darker type and the label will be glossy and the background is matt. What do you think of having the label at an angle? And are you sure about the red and yellow – doesn’t it look a bit too bright and McDonaldsy?’

Phew! Something to show in the jacket meeting!

I presented these three and some of the earlier retro ones… Sometimes it helps to throw a red herring or two into the mix, the theory being that if you show some designs that can be rejected, people feel like they have a choice and you are more likely to get the one you DO want to go through. (Dangerous tactics though…. In the past I have been caught out by this – the red herring getting approved!) However I am feeling a little desperate here – the situation needs resolving, and resolving fast!

Brown paper version not liked. Too brown. (And kraft paper is so 2008/2009 – what’s it going to look like in 2016?) Pale grey version not liked… too wishy-washy! But there was an appreciative “Ahhh” from Christian our Sales and Marketing Director, when the computer screen opened up the dark grey and black design.


So with a little tinkering nearly there (I didn’t like the label on an angle – felt kind of cheap. And I liked the idea of it wrapping around the book at the bottom, like a sealed box of photopaper. And the colours weren’t quite there. The matt grey/black needed to be darker and the yellow not so brash but more orangey and warmer)


Magnum Contact Sheets jacket presentation

The jacket meeting committee like it and it gets the OK. Sadie from Production is on the case trying to find some nice uncoated paper that will be soft and touchy feely – and a good contrast to the glossy yellow and red label and shiny black lettering.

PDFs get emailed to foreign publishers with a message that we are thinking of this, but it’s not for sure since Magnum and Kristen Lubben haven’t seen it yet – much of the design relies on the finishing and the play between the textures. We’ll need trial proofs before we present the idea to Magnum.

There’s no time for the real proofs to be done on the right paper before the London Bookfair, (it takes time to source the stuff) so we do some quick digital proofs to wrap around the dummies and display them on the stand. They are nasty plasticky feeling things but will have to do to convey the idea…

The Americans love it. ‘It’s like a box of photopaper! Cool!’ Most of the other publishers are reserving judgment until they see the trial proofs.  But the Germans aren’t convinced it’s right for them. Can’t we try something a bit brighter? And they send us this for our perusal:

Hmmm… Now I don’t normally shy away from colour but this makes me realize how attached I’ve become to our smart black design…

We’ve still a while to wait for those trial proofs. People around the building start getting impatient and I hear comments I can’t ignore: ‘What if they don’t look any good when they get here? What will we do then?’ Time is running out!

A back-up plan?

OK – we need a Plan B. If the black doesn’t look as good as we are imagining, we can’t simply turn the background white. White will get filthy in the bookshops and on people’s shelves once they get the book home. Perhaps we DO need to try some designs that aren’t purely typographic? After all, the book IS full of the most amazing images.

Back to the drawing board.
Magnum Contact Sheet jacket with images No 1

OK what about these?

I do love that Elliot Erwitt contact sheet – makes me smile big time, and the Muhammed Ali with that wonderfully expressive chinagraph marking is great! But no….

plan B again

Or these?

NO. Unresolved. Even though the top row pressed some of the right buttons. The contact sheet is by Bruno Barbey and depicts the Paris student riots in 1968. One gets the feeling that the book is full of excitement and historical events. But all of them are a mess visually. The label definitely doesn’t work with the contact sheets – two separate ideas that don’t hang together. Try again.

It’s nearly the end of April now. Smith are finally taking a well earned holiday, all their hard work on the insides completed. And the paper for the whole print run has been ordered and is making it’s way to the printers – we should have had the jacket resolved long, long ago.

Where. Are. Those. Proofs!?

May 5th. It’s 9pm. I’m STILL at the computer pushing things around on screen in desperation. I have Andrew Sanigar and the Chairman and the Sales and Marketing Director breathing down my neck. We are all hungry and bad tempered. Very.

Magnum diagonal options

Hmmm… Maybe this has something? The diagonal makes it very dynamic and it does look exciting. But does it make a £95.00 book or is it a great paperback design? Let’s go home and sleep on it.

Next morning I don’t know what to think. Nor does Andrew, nor does Christian our Sales and Marketing Director. We’ve temporarily lost our judgment. Christian shows the Plan B to a few colleagues in the sales department. It’s very hard to be objective about something that’s so subjective. One can’t let personal opinions cloud the judgment whether something will sell the book or not.

Emergency meeting called. All the members of the jacket meeting committee are in our conference room. The two jackets are placed at the far end of the room face-out in our busy-looking bookshelves. We stand back to assess the situation. Everyone still prefers the black one. But we’ve still got to wait until next week for those proofs to be absolutely sure!

THE TRIAL PROOFS HAVE ARRIVED! They look smart and sophisticated and when I trim and fold one, and wrap it around the huge dummy it definitely looks and feels ‘right’. Just right!


Phew! Relief and delight descends upon 181A High Holborn! Now all we’ve got to do is sort out those special editions….






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