What We See When We Read

I wrote this post for a previous project which consisted in creating a collection of book covers. The ideas written here are very relevant to the project I am currently working on and the book I based it off is still an inspiration to my practice.

Elephant Days

“What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? The collection of fragmented images on a page — a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so — and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved — or reviled — literary figures.”

During my research, I came across Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read, which seemed to be quite relevant for my project. And it was.
This is a very interesting book, particularly for avid readers, which was truly useful for the development of my book cover designs. While reading it, I’d often take notes of key points I wanted to remind…

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>>> Penguin Style <<<

Following decades of the renown iconic black, white and orange covers, with their simple, almost academic style, the most recent Penguin publications have proved to be something completely different – often illustrated and always exciting.

Previous winners of the Penguin Student Design Awards seem to have a strong use of typography and composition, as well as illustration and style. Most have joined back and front covers, or back covers which somehow refer and link to the image on the front, creating a sense of coherence and wholeness.

Much like the back cover, the spine of a book must also be thought of, as when books sit on shelves, that is the only side which remains visible. Previous entries to this competition show spines which have some kind of element that makes them different and more appealing than your average book spine. This is specially true of the Fiction and Children’s book covers.

From what I can tell, the Non-Fiction entries and winners appear to have very neutral colours and are definitely not as bright and colourful as the examples in the Fiction and Children’s categories. This made me think that it may be better to use a monochrome or neutral palette when designing my cover.


I resorted to Pinterest to find some inspiration and examples of successful cover designs. I created a folder in which I would save any interesting covers I would find. You can click the video below to watch me naviagte through it or you can open the folder, which is constantly being updated with new examples, and navigate through it yourself.

Again, the Non-Fiction covers would generally be less colourful than the Fiction ones, usually in black & white or using minimal palettes.

I found a few examples of A Brief History of Time that looked very different from other existing covers, which you can see below. I think the first one is successful in depicting the passage of time; while the minimalism of the second is certainly very appealing – it makes the book less likely to be thought of as “heavy”.

I found it interesting that both of these examples also had a very soothing palette of colours, with sort of pastel tones. Even though I liked this and thought it made the covers look appealing, I did not think it made much sense, as the colours don’t really refer to anything discussed in the book.

The Penguin Brief

I am always looking for opportunities and projects which allow me to explore my work and style within a commercial, “industry-appealing” perspective. That said, I thought the Penguin Brief was more suitable for me.

From the options available in this brief, I selected “A Brief History of Time”, by Stephen Hawking, as my book of choice. Though I usually prefer to work with Fiction books, I thought it could be more interesting and challenging to illustrate a Non-Fiction work this time.

I have never actually read “A Brief History of Time”, but I am familiar with it and I saw this brief as an opportunity to learn more about a fascinating subject.

The Brief

In “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking attempts to explain a range of subjects in cosmology, including the Big Bang, black holes and light cones, to the non-specialist reader. The book became a bestseller and sold more than 10 million copies.  It was also on the London ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into more than 35 languages.

We are looking for a cover design that breaks boundaries in the way that the book did when it was published 30 years ago, in 1988. It should not look like a textbook you read at school! This is a revolutionary science book with popular appeal. If you can get your hands on a copy of the book in order to get a sense of the narrative and concepts this will only help to inspire your design. The cover should feel timeless, confident and appeal to a whole new generation of readers.

We are looking for a striking cover design that is well executed, has an imaginative concept and clearly places the book for its market. While all elements of the jacket need to work together as a cohesive whole, remember that the front cover must be effective on its own and be eye-catching within a crowded bookshop setting. It also needs to be able to work onscreen for digital retailers such as Amazon.

The winning design will need to:

  • have an imaginative concept and original interpretation of the brief
  • be competently executed with strong use of typography
  • appeal to a contemporary readership
  • show a good understanding of the marketplace
  • have a point of difference from the other book covers it is competing against

Aware that I would not have time to read “A Brief History of Time” in time for this brief, I looked up a few summaries, videos and documentaries that could help me grasp a sense of what theories are discussed in this book:

I then thought it best to quickly search what kind of covers had already been done for this specific book.

Apart from a couple of recent examples, these covers seemed quite boring, to be honest. Being a Non-Fiction book, I suppose it is less likely to be illustrated which, to me, makes it less appealing. The most common colours used here are black and blue, and the title is usually printed in big or bold letters. Images often depict Stephen Hawking himself or circular elements, such as planets or stars, or figures which refer to black holes.

I found the most recent examples (the main featured cover and the one on the lower left corner) very nice. Both depict a circular form which I believe is meant to represent a black hole. They are both simpler and more colourful than the traditional covers of this book, which I found more engaging.


Most covers of “A Brief History of Time” are very bold, dull and dark. Given the fact that this is a book which deals with complex theories, I do not think the existing covers for it are very successful. They contribute to the identification of this book as “heavy”, which does not make it appealing to the public.

This book was not written for academics, but rather for everyone, even those with no understanding of science theories. Thus, I think it is important to make it more appealing to young people, as it could make them interested in following a career in Physics or Cosmology.

Instead of focusing on reflecting its complexity, we should be trying to reflect how interesting it is. Thus, I intend to get away from the style often used in the existing covers and do something which feels lighter and less ‘cramped’.
I propose to create an illustrated cover that is simple – perhaps even minimal, yet interesting. It should be engaging but not contain too much information, and the illustrated style ought to appeal to a younger audience.

Drawing Spaces / Telling Stories

After reading through the different briefs we were given for this project, I chose the one I felt I could relate the most with – Drawing Spaces / Telling Stories.

“Drawings made in situ, unlike documentary photography, capture minutes and hours as opposed to fractions of a second. Drawing on location allows artists and illustrators to closely study a subject from a first person perspective and to develop a better understanding of a place or the people in it from spending time there, looking and recording. This project asks you to tell a story (interpret this in your own way) of a location or a person through visual means.”

The brief provided us with a list of texts, works and artists that may be relevant to the subject and practice of this project. As per usual, I started out by researching the artists listed. Some of them I knew already, others were new to me. Still, all seemed to add something relevant to my research.

Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers is widely known as an illustrator of newspaper columns, though she also illustrates books and bookcovers. She is also known for her drawings of cities, particularly London and New York, and as a “reportage” artist, drawing directly from life. Rogers’ work is represented in many permanent collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, and her drawings of New York and London have been exhibited at the Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank.

George Shaw

George Shaw is an English contemporary artist who is noted for his suburban subject matter. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French humanist photographer, considered a master of candid photography, and an early user of 35 mm film. He pioneered the genre of street photography, and viewed photography as capturing a decisive moment. His work has previously influenced many photographers.

David Rayson

David Rayson was born in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands and studied at Maidstone College of Art in Kent, the University of Bristol and undertook postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in London.

Francis Alys

Francis Alÿs is a Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist. His work emerges in the interdisciplinary space of art, architecture, and social practice.

Alÿs contrasts geological and technological time through land-based and social practice that examine individual memory and collective mythology. Alÿs frequently engages rumor as a central theme in his practice, disseminating ephemeral, practice-based works through word-of-mouth and storytelling.

Eve Arnold 

Eve Arnold was an American photojournalist. She was the first woman to join Magnum Photos agency in 1951, and became a full member in 1957.

She held characteristically trenchant views on the minority – and at times marginalised – status of female photojournalists, while being acutely aware of the role played by female stars as well as by unrecorded women the world over. Arnold not only befriended many of her subjects, including such greats as Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Isabella Rossellini and Dietrich, but increasingly wrote about them as well as photographing them.

Leah Fusco

Leah Fusco explores ideas in relation to landscape, people and time through contemporary illustration practice. Drawing on geographic and historic subject matter, she is interested in past, present and future stories that observe the shaping of communities by physical environment. More broadly, Leah is concerned with developing methods for visual storytelling through documentary narrative, with a focus on the role of drawing as a means of recording experience and readings of place.

Alongside her practice, Leah has lectured at several institutions, including University for the Creative Arts, Norwich University of the Arts, Falmouth University, Kingston University and the Royal College of Art.

Laura Oldfield Ford

Laura Oldfield is a British artist, writer and psychogeographer. Her work, in ballpoint pen, acrylic paintand spray paint, is politically motivated and focuses on British urban areas. Laura publishes a blog entitled Savage Messiahwhich was also the name of the zine she published from 2005 to 2009.

Jeremy Deller 

Jeremy Deller is an English conceptual, video and installation artist. Much of Deller’s work is collaborative and has a strong political aspect. He won the Turner Prize in 2004, and in 2010 was awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA).

Deller is known for his Battle of Orgreave (2001), a reenactment of the actual Battle of Orgreave, which occurred during the UK miners’ strike in 1984, and for theWe’re Here Because We’re Here (2016). From 2007 to 2011, Deller served as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery.

Though I quite like photography, I tend to consider drawings more relevant to my projects, as that is often how I do my illustrations. Jeremy Deller’s animation caught my interest – I am thinking of doing more of those, as they seem to add some “life” to my drawings.