An illustration of several brightly coloured Penguin paperback spines lined up
An illustration of several brightly coloured Penguin paperback spines lined up

We learn early not to judge books by their covers, but what about their spines? When it comes to how a book looks and feels, it’s easy to forget about the thought that has gone into making a book stand out in its permanent home – your bookshelf. So we spoke to experts from across Penguin Random House about what makes a good book backbone.

'Aim for one wow factor'

Amy Musgrave
Designer at Cornerstone

Spines can have a big impact. I love those covers where the artwork wraps around onto the spine, but they’re a lot more difficult to do because your concentration is getting the artwork right so the front cover. If you’ve chosen something that doesn’t have the room to wrap around the spine, you’ve got to find something different – but complementary – to the front.

The spine has to have something about it that is going to pop on the shelf. Either that’s going to be a colour background or the way that the type goes. I think the main thing with the spine is that there’s one wow factor about it.

Recently, I designed Hawk by James Patterson. It’s the latest in his YA series Maximum Ride. The rest of the book is black, but it’s got a bright yellow spine and that’s allowed the type to be quite big and bold and arty. There’s nothing crazy intricate about it, but sometimes the simpler stuff works better for tying it all together.  With it, we reissued the previous six Maximum Ride books as well. Now, when they’re all together as a set they’re all these really bold colours as a block. It all flowed together.

'Penguin made the blueprint'

Thomas Birkhead
Archivist at the Penguin Archives

Originally, spines weren’t really that much of a consideration because just having a bunch of hardback books meant that you were a cultured person, and so it didn’t really matter what it said on the spines or if you could read it. The lettering was generally always horizontal. But with the rise of paperbacks - and Penguin was a big thing for this - the lettering started going vertically rather than horizontally and the publishers started to pay a little more attention to the design of them.

The Penguin paperback got the set up very clearly: the colour denoted what genre it was, and you’ve got the number of where it would sit in the main series, the Penguin colophon and the title and the author. So that was kind of the blueprint, and it’s held up if only as how to do them right, because it just does exactly what you need it to.

Things changed, and you start to get more design emphasis on spines. In the 1960s and Seventies, Penguin were doing sci-fi titles with wraparound cover images. Whenever I see the sliver of the image I’ll always hoik it off the shelf to see the full picture. But something like the Penguin Poetry Paperbacks have always stood out for me because they have that beautiful patterning carried through to the spine carried through to the covers. That kind of thing is always nice.

'It has to convince you to pull the book off the shelf'

Anna Billson
Art Director, Penguin Random House Children’s

The main thing to think about with the spine is the three key bits of information: the author and the illustrator, the title, the imprint logo, very clearly. The spine needs to work on its own, so that thin strip - which can be very thin with some children’s books - has to work super hard because it has to catch your eye. That’s why with children’s books, we also look to include some illustrative element on the spine. Something that just catches your eye, to convince you to pull the book off the shelf, because it makes you think, ‘Ooh I wanna see more of that’. For a kid, you’ve got to have something sparky and exciting to make them pull it off. Otherwise if you’ve got rows and rows of the same kind of spines, why are they going to pick one book over the other?

Children love lining up their spines and getting them all in order. Some series we put numbers on the spine, not all. Others, we’ll make sure the colour of the spine for every single book is different. If you looked at a massive series like Wimpy Kid, each of those books has its own distinct colour. That’s also really helpful when parents are buying for kids, because they might not know the titles but they’ll think, “oh, they’ve got the yellow one but they’ve not got the blue one”.

'There’s not much more satisfying than a selection of a nicely put-together spines'

Luke Bird
External designer, Vintage

The biggest challenge is the spine’s width, but that can also be a joy. Spines vary hugely, from chunky 55mm hardback tomes to skinny 4mm pocket-sized paperbacks. A really wide spine might give more freedom to experiment. Could the text run horizontally, rather than vertically? Could a border, decoration, icon or element from the front cover be brought onto the spine, to help it stand out on a busy shelf?

A skinny spine presents the opposite problem: too little space to allow much freedom. Is the text going to big enough to read? What can be done to enhance legibility if the type has to be really small? Keeping it very clean and simple is probably the best bet, here. 

There’s not much more satisfying to a bibliophile than a selection of a nicely put-together spines from a series, sitting proudly “spine-out” on your shelf. But with a range of sizes in the series, creating something “future proof” that will work for years to come as the series grows is not always easy.

Personally, I am a sucker for the consistency of a well-designed series design. Probably no surprises, here, but the spines of David Pearson’s design for the Penguin Great Ideas series, Coralie Bickford Smith’s metallic F. Scott Fitzgerald series and Pentagram’s Faber Poetry look all spring to mind. They look even better in a set than they do on their own.

'You can create a visual story'

Marianne Issa El Khoury
Designer, Transworld

One of the joys of designing a spine is finding ways to modify and reinterpret the front cover onto the spine; to create something that is different enough but gives enough visual cues to be linked to the front. This can be done by reversing the colours from the front, or adjusting a pattern. Changing elements just enough that it complements the aesthetic of the front while still being different.

A designer can even create a visual story through the design of the whole cover (from back cover, spine and front cover). If the front cover has elements that denote time or a portion of a character’s journey, the designer can be playful and depict the next portion of the journey on the spine and the last portion on the back. Making the reader discover something new with every glance of the jacket.

You know you have done your job right the longer someone holds and looks at a book.

The Penguin Student Design Award aims to discover and nurture the next generation of design and illustration talent. Experience a real cover design brief first-hand with our 2021 titles from Benjamin Zephaniah, Meera Syal and David Wallace Wells. Submissions close on 23rd March.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Tim Lane / Penguin


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