Case Study: Designing Covers for Academic Publishing

Header image showing portions of three book cover designs (shown in full in the body of the article below)

For eight years, I’ve specialized in designing books for Academic Publishing. When I pursued book cover design, I thought I would be creating art for the newest novels, or even better, repackaging old favorites. This is of course an exciting corner of book design, but I quickly learned the field is incredibly diverse and varied.

I entered the Academic Nonfiction space when Columbia University Press hired me right out of college as an Assistant Designer. I wasn’t quite sure what University Presses were (I went to an art school without one), let alone the design potential of academic nonfiction. I started to realize this corner of book design was often overlooked. Arguably, I think it can be the most difficult to approach, resulting in some of the most exciting and unusual outcomes. The topics can be hyper specific, other times extremely wide and varied, both presenting unique challenges. Accuracy is key, and when the topics may seem lofty or academic, publishers often try marketing to a wider audience.

A recent cover I designed for Rutgers University Press acts as a perfect case study for this challenge. I was approached to design The Reimagined PhD, a book about how PhD programs, long thought to serve only as training grounds for professors, are now pivoting to prepare PhD candidates for a wider range of careers. Rutgers wanted the book to feel modern, accessible, and topical so that it would appeal to a more millennial audience. My wonderful Art Director Jennifer Blanc-Tal gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, as long as it was typographically driven and abstract.

This direction sounds liberating, but it can be difficult to come up with an abstract all-type direction for broad topics, let alone multiple ideas to choose from, without art or photography provided. You have to be resourceful when looking for inspiration to achieve variety.

I followed their direction of keeping it modern, but I angled toward a midcentury feel as a nod to the two dimensions of PhD programs. Like midcentury design, PhD programs have more traditional frameworks but are undergoing more contemporary transitions.

I increasingly find myself returning to my first class design class in art school where I learned the fundamental elements of design: line, shape, color, form, texture, space. It’s incredible how often my design thinking relies on these basic elements, not fancy Photoshop tricks or complicated illustrations. I love seeing contemporary book covers trend back to these basic elements, while still keeping designs fresh and vibrant. I see so many books in bookstores now stripped back to these basics, letting the contrast, movement, and negative space pull you in.

I started choosing color palettes to get things rolling. Often when I’m on a tight deadline and want to present multiple options, I’ll pull from an inspiration folder I keep and use the color palette tool in InDesign to pull swatches that are harmonious.

swatch of five coloured squares in pale shades
swatch of five coloured squares in black, greys and yellow
swatch of five coloured squares in bright shades

Once I settle on a few color palettes, I brainstorm abstract shape configurations and start playing with simple shapes: triangles, squares, lines, etc. I’ll sometimes seek inspiration from stock art online or abstract paintings. Sometimes you can use stock images directly, or pull the shape combinations from these old paintings. However, it’s rare you can use them directly as there is usually not a one-size-fits-all approach to cover design. For one design I found this image:

abstract triangle background in memphis style

And pulled the shapes and colors to create one that fit with the type to create this design:

I used this approach on several options for them to choose from, playing with shape and color to configure a design that fit the mood, but also considering the need to frame the typography in a way that is legible.

Since I used simple elements on the cover, I played with multiple typefaces, combing sans serifs with scripts or slab serifs for variety, paying close attention to hierarchy. This gives the typography a tempo, moving your eye through the title, subtitle, and multiple author names without getting lost in the information.

The publisher and author chose this design in the end:

I love the vibrant color palette with contrasting warm and cool colors of this one. The triangles also reminded me of navigation system icons, the different angles pointing in different directions, just as the subtitle implies the world of PhD’s must be navigated in a new light.

So next time you’re in a book store, linger longer in the nonfiction section. Sure the latest thriller will have edgy photography, the most anticipated literary fiction may have a moody illustration. But contemporary academic nonfiction can illustrate complex topics in some incredibly clever and beautiful ways.

Jordan Wannemacher is a Book Designer based in the NYC area. She currently runs her own studio which has designing work for Penguin Random House, W.W. Norton, and most notably, the recent Oprah book. She is the recipient of the AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers Award and has multiple accolades from the NY Book Show. Jordan also runs a popular monthly column for the book-centric publication Spine Magazine

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