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Point/Counterpoint: Retro vs. Modern

What is truly hip in contemporary book design?

Trends can be very polarizing topics of discussion for designers, and the current fashions in book design are no exception. A seemingly age-old debate has worn on between the camp that believes good design means inventing new solutions to the same problems and the camp that reveres history as its guide in the pursuit of timelessness.

A recent article on The New Republic‘s website ignited just such a discourse amongst designers, readers and font lovers who all respond differently to a current publishing trend that utilizes styles favored in the 1970s to represent contemporary titles, exemplified by Lena Dunham’s forthcoming and much-discussed book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl.  We wanted to know what the ADC community would contribute to the conversation, and whether it might be ok after all, in matters of design, to judge a book by its cover. So we asked:

If it were up to you, would the retro trend in book cover design be just a blip on the radar, or do you think the minimalistic, text-heavy covers of the 70s are here to stay?  

Reyman_JamesBy James Reyman, Creative Director, New York, USA

There is plenty of room for retro solutions to book cover design assignments. However, it should make sense to go in that direction. If a designer is assigned a book on nightclubs and drink recipes from the 1950s, perhaps a retro type treatment might be very appealing. If I took that approach, I would probably attempt to add contemporary elements to it so it did not actually look like a book that was designed in the 1950s. It would be a sort of take on the 1950s.

The most notable and interesting book cover designs for me have to ultimately be a product of their time (just like designers and other artists). The best book jackets from the 1920s don’t look like book jackets from the 1960s. A contemporary book by a contemporary author who, let’s say, is changing people’s perceptions of women, should get a contemporary cover, not a design that is an homage to book jackets of the 1970s.

“The best book jackets from the 1920s don’t look like book jackets from the 1960s.”

Retro elements can certainly add to a contemporary solution. It’s a critical element of design history. Design typically moves along an evolutionary timeline with an occasional revolutionary element in there. Typefaces have evolved that same way. Contemporary typefaces can have elements of type styles from different periods just like book jackets can. They are evolving. The “trendiest” of book covers have the shortest shelf life, but they can certainly add to the conversation of design and help stimulate change. The hip solutions tend to challenge accepted tenets of design.

We are in the midst of a typographic renaissance and it’s an exciting time to be a designer and use these faces. There are so many contemporary type designs with good structure, solid lines and versatility that we really don’t need to use the older typefaces anymore. Design is a craft and an art form and will ultimately move forward. All design evolves.



 By Jaclyn Christy Gerbenskey, Design and Visual Communication Student, Milwaukee, USA

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. It’s why sales for vinyl records are at an all time high and the vintage clothing industry continues to grow, both in selling authentic garments from the past and inspired pieces of the present. Design is no different in borrowing ideas from another era that have been proven to work, and when done well, the results can be astonishingly refreshing. The modern book cover is many things these days, but it’s not often minimal. It’s a small canvas for a lot of information, and even more difficult to represent the content within while also appealing to the targeted demographic. Stacked against others on a shelf or a website, half of the battle is just standing out. Good design will always stand out, but good design that’s unexpected is what will drive somebody to pick up the book to satisfy their curiosity.

“Everything old is new again.”

To pay tribute to vintage design in a sea of contemporary covers may seem like the easy way out in accomplishing this, but it’s a gamble to strip the cover so minimally that it disregards the modern formula and instead relies on how consumers respond to a dated aesthetic. With any gamble, you win some and lose some. Some will see unoriginality in paying homage, while others find genuineness and comfort in its type treatment and simple imagery. 

To abandon a design idea or aesthetic that’s old simply because it’s old would stagnate the growth of design. With the option to bring in subtle but contemporary design elements like a modern color palette or vector instead of hand drawn illustration, a nostalgically infused book cover can retain familiarity while not being mistaken for something of that era. Everything old is new again, and retro book cover design is a trend worth keeping around for that reason. 


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