Like the various stakeholders in a brand, designers are custodians. We’re tasked with giving it the right face, and every so often giving it a facelift.
The same natural cycle to rebranding any product applies to books. A brand look can get tired over time, sales plateau, writers can go in different directions to reach new audiences. When us designers get the call with the word ‘backlist’ in it, our eyes light up – it’s a chance to do an integrated body of work that you can be proud of.
In January 2015, I repackaged the QI paperbacks for Faber & Faber, and blogged about them. It worked so well they asked me to package their new royal hardback, The Third QI Book of General Ignorance:
To establish a new hardback look that nodded to the paperbacks, I kept the circles reminiscent of the TV sets and broke the images out. We see a T-Rex striding out of the central circle, the Rio Jesus presiding over all whilst Sherlock Holmes investigates the murder committed by a hungry robin beyond. Braver colour around the package rather than a single tone sets the whole thing off nicely. It moved the look on just enough to give the hardback something new, whilst referencing what had gone before.
Following that, Faber swiftly looked at repackaging their Facts series: 1,339 QI Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop, 1,227 QI Facts To Blow Your Socks Off and 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways. Would I do it? Of course. But how would I make it different, again?
The brief was simple:
- Bring in the colour and joy of the new General Ignorance hardback
- Give the FACTS books an identity of their own
- Type led, confident, punchy, grown up
- Simple and graphic, the small format (104 x 170 ) meant nothing too complicated.
Initially, I played with the circles, taking parts of the hardback and paperback looks forward with large, strong type which was intended to be foiled. Perhaps big type was good enough to take it on just far enough:
As always, I threw in quite a few ideas to see if anything would cross over. Some large, simple type experiments seemed appropriate, leading with the all-important logo and perhaps metallic ink for the backgrounds:
Echoing the type style of the B format paperbacks, I looked at using the magnifying glass as device for figures to peek through. It had an intelligent cheek about it which I felt was quite in-keeping with QI at large.
The first route was liked the most, we experimented with colour and layout variations, all around the structure of the circles, even discussing finishes. It was going swimmingly, but something wasn’t quite right.
Donna Payne, Creative Director at Faber and Faber, summarised the feeling between QI and Faber beautifully. Essentially, they felt the covers lacked the punch and confidence of a standalone series. Time was marching on, we were late for the May 2016 print deadline, and the sales force had nothing.
I turned off my email, cleared the decks and spent next the day rendering a single rough which I hoped would knock it out of the park. I started with a blank document, placed the logo slap-bang in the middle and built a new cover look around it. By losing my beloved circles, I had to link it some other way, so I chose trusty old Clarendon to lead a typographic look, centred around the logo. It read as part of the title – in itself a differentiating factor. I chose bright colours for the backgrounds and then started to bring in objects based on the books facts to integrate with the typography – comets passing through, monkeys hanging off and cute little hedgehogs getting shot (yes, I get paid for doing this). After putting the finishing touches to just a single rough, I sent it off and kept everything crossed.
After a couple of days agonising wait, we heard back that QI loved the new look. A home run indeed. It was full steam ahead on the rest of the covers, so I jumped on it. Ten days later, after some minor image issues (each had to be justified by a fact within the book), ably handled by Faber Studio Manager, Paddy Fox, we had three approved covers ready for press:
Here’s what QI thought:
‘These are all absolutely MARVELLOUS! I mean, really exceptionally good fun and truly enticing. A real cut above, no question.’ John Lloyd
‘I’m trembling with excitement, love and every type of happiness. It’s our best cover ever.’ John Mitchinson
And Donna Payne on the secret to branding a series like QI:
“Choose an intelligent designer and arm them with a thorough understanding of the brand and the ambition you have for it. Give them the creative freedom to do it justice, while keeping a dialogue going along the way.”
In book cover design, there aren’t brand guardians or teams of design Oompa-loompas who spend months creating a handbook for you to design by. It’s often crashed into a publishing schedule, and changes as you go. The single thing that made this rebrand work, was everybody being open and working together. We discussed ideas, experimented and listened to each other until a strong look came out of the design mist.
Top rebranding tips
Here are some other things that might help if you have a cover rebrand on the horizon:
- Assess whats gone before, find the core identifiers that the audience respond to.
- At the outset, throw mud at the wall. Include your rejects alongside your lead ideas, you never know what might come out of it.
- Be receptive and listen, put yourself in the clients shoes. Read and re-read emails, speak to them direct.
- Fresh eyes – leave a problem overnight if you can, and come back to it (preferably holding a cup of tea and listening to Miles Davis).
- Get your sources right, with varied content you have to be diligent with image rights.
- Front-load the work, start early and make the best of the time you have – you’ll need it later on.
Mark Ecob is Creative Director of cover design company Mecob Design Ltd, and Associate Art Director at Unbound. After working at Hodder & Stoughton, The Orion Publishing Group and as Art Director for Canongate Books, he set up Mecob and now packages books for everyone from Amazon to your mum. His work has been awarded and exhibited, he teaches young creatives and lectures older ones. If you want a book designed, he’s your man.