The covers of Entangled Life, Pine and Verge on a background of changing colours
The covers of Entangled Life, Pine and Verge on a background of changing colours

When should you judge a book by its cover? When it is offering something innovative, beautiful, creative and extraordinary. This year may have been a strange one, but 2020 was nevertheless a boon time for cover design. Here, designers from across Penguin Random House choose their favourite covers of the year, and explain how they came to be in a crucial reminder that books are made up of far more than just words.

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

Chosen by Ros Otoo, Studio Manager at Vintage 

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a story told over the course of a day and a night in the height of summer in Seoul and features an image taken by Italian photographer Marta Bevacqua on the front. The picture shows a perfectly placed shaft of sunlight cutting through the subject’s eye and down the length of her face. Her vacant expression is arresting, intriguing and provides just a little hint of the disorienting nature of the story within the book.

Pine by Francine Toon

Chosen by Beci Kelly, Senior Designer at Transworld

I wanted to create a surreal and dreamlike image that at a glance looks almost plausible, but on second reflection is clearly off-kilter and intriguing. I knew I wanted to use the forest itself, but it needed to have an ethereal and tantalising feel to it, to match the delicate writing but also to reference the looming feeling of an otherworldly presence which is constant in the narrative. I think what seems to resonate with people about this cover is its simplicity, but also its peculiar and ominous feel. 

In terms of the full jacket design process, I had to consider the entire package as a piece of course. For the back cover I decided to continue the eerie tone and include a dead hare; hanging and ready to be skinned, as this is a continuous motif that we see in connection to Lauren’s father (who kills them) throughout the story – which on occasion disturbs Lauren and makes her see her father in another, rather unnerving light.

The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood

Chosen by Rosie Palmer, Senior Designer at Vintage

I worked on the cover Julia Connolly, she found the image and I designed the type and layout. Together we developed the colour palette and ended up with a playful and striking cover. I love the play on the word hungover, hanging over the edge and echoing the woman lying on the diving board.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Chosen by Emma Grey Gelder, Senior Designer at Cornerstone

I think this is one of my all-time favourite covers to work on in my 10 years at PRH! This cover was embroided by an artist named Chloe Giordano. Then I had the piece photographed and also the back of the embroidery was photographed so we could use this on the reverse of the jacket to make it look like it had been stitched through the paper.

V2 by Robert Harris

Chosen by Glenn O’Neill, Associate Art Director at Cornerstone

V2 is a jacket that I regard fondly, not least as it was completed just before the first lockdown in March. 

The book is a compelling work by one of our most popular and brilliant authors. It’s also a book jacket designer's dream, with a short, sharp, graphic title being incorporated into an atmospheric rocket launch scene. The design involved arranging a model casting for the characters, a fascinating visit to Angels Costumes in Hendon for the period styling, then a photoshoot near Putney Bridge. The project also necessitated a visit to The London Metropolitan Archives in Farringdon to source the London WW2 bomb damage maps that appear on the endpapers.

Altogether, it's a project that reminds me of more liberated times pre-Covid.

Epitaphs for Underdogs by Andrew Szepessy

Chosen by Matt Broughton, Senior Designer at Vintage

Epitaphs is a modern classic. A Dystopian Hungarian netherworld packed with grotesques – emaciated wretches, birdmen, bedspring-swallowers. The characters came first – influenced by Moholy-Nagy, another great Hungarian. The lettering was chosen for its structure – akin to the prison setting – which evoked slivers of light in the dark. In style, the cover is purposely anachronistic, but this chimes neatly with the writing. It was a pleasure to work on. 

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Chosen by Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Vintage

The brief was to create a cover of exquisite beauty, appealing to readers of natural history, literary memoir, philosophy and science. This was a book that offers a completely new vision of the living world – subterranean, mysterious, otherworldly, miraculous, infinitely complex and majestic. I spotted Job Wouter’s murals on Iinstagram. He had been painting animal and plant specimens.

I commissioned the artwork, where I envisaged the mushrooms on the cover, glowing in bright colours against a dark background, their roots entanged with the author and title lettering. Job brought the right kind of poetic magic to the mushroom. It feels fresh and original.

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

The cover of Joyce Carol Oates' Night Sleep Death Stars

Chosen by Richard Bravery, Art Director at Penguin General

I first saw this cover back in June and six months on it’s still just as annoyingly pleasing to the eye. Annoying because it’s one of those designs you can’t help but wish you had designed yourself.

The cover, designed by Jamie Keenan, is deceptively simple, and the more you look at it the more you see and the more it rewards you. On the face of it repetition and harmony are at the heart of the design – 7 rows of words with equal letters that harmonise with the space creating an almost perfect square for each letter. But the real beauty is in its craft and the imperfections – the woven ribbons of paper seem to speak for the lives and narratives of the family in the book, their characters and flaws are borne out in the dents and folds of the paper, and the heavy shadows tell you this is a book with huge emotional heart and depth. The final result is a tactile, intrinsically human, beautifully balanced, imperfectly perfect, envy inducing design.

Braised Pork by An Yu

Chosen by Henry Petrides, Senior Designer, Cornerstone

When I first saw this book it was sitting on a colleague’s desk, and once I’d picked it up I could not stop turning it around in my hands. I remember thinking it looked like it had been sliced from another world, or like a wedge of some strange monochrome cake. 

Special editions seem to be growing in popularity, and a Foyles edition of An Yu’s Braised Pork was a standout example for me this year. The alignment of the stencilled sprayed edges with the minimal black and white illustration gives the jacket such an arresting confidence and physical presence. I also love the clash of the oversized floral silhouettes with the lurid and unapologetic splash of red. 

After a year when the opportunity to browse bookshops has been so limited, I’ve definitely missed printed books. Discovering details such as endpapers and finishes provide an additional layer to the artwork, beyond a thumbnail on a screen.

Ottolenghi FLAVOUR by Yotam Ottolenghi

Chosen by Loulou Clark, Art Director at Ebury 

I think it’s easy to over-complicate design in attempt to stand out against all the fabulous covers in the market but contemporary design for me, is at its most successful when its confidently understated. This also happens to translate beautifully to a clear thumbnail online, which this year more so than ever has been crucial. Flavour does this incredibly well, whilst also being a beautifully tactile object to own as a physical book. The finishes on this is are stunning – textured matt laminate, debossing, embossing and raised spot UV. The perfect example of the production elevating the design to another level. Just try to resist stroking this cover!

Read more: 'We really set the bar high': on designing Ottolenghi’s FLAVOUR

Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis

Chosen by Kris Potter, Senior Designer at Vintage

Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis was a great project to work on, the idea of an alternate universe paired with the title provided an opportunity to be playful and it was fun to explore the different ways to visualise this. With the eclipse on the half jacket the reader can view the two ‘universes’ and interact with the cover, choosing to reveal the full sun of a brighter future beneath.

Letters from Lockdown, with a foreword by Evan Davis

Chosen by Kishan Rajani, Middleweight Designer at Vintage

This was one of the first covers I designed joining PRH, and I love this cover as a representation/celebration of British people.  

I designed this cover using British typeface ITC Johnson, and taking inspiration from the Union jack to create a clean and approachable cover that stands to represent British people and their shared experience of the pandemic.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

The cover of Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

Chosen by Ceara Elliot, Senior Designer at Cornerstone

With so many fab covers designed this year, I found it an impossible task to pick just one. However, a favourite of mine is Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch, designed by Rachel Willey. It always stops me in my tracks, which I think is a big achievement in the book cover world. The contrast and abrupt interruption of wolf meeting rainbow is so alluring and strangely beautiful. I also just love the abnormality of the whole package, it’s refreshing to see type twisting and turning. Its smooth, three-dimensional and somehow hypnotic quality always invites me to stop, stare and be inspired.

Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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