Designing for Digital: A Conversation with Daniel Nayeri

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 8th, 2012

In a discussion of book covers earlier this year on the CCBC-net listserv, Thom Barthelmess, curator of the Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University in Illinois, raised a point that particularly caught my eye: “During a publisher panel at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Symposium this past fall, a publisher rep talked about an increasing focus on what a book cover looks like postage-stamp size on a computer screen, as so many purchasing decisions are made that way. Makes perfect sense, and it had never occurred to me.”

It hadn’t occurred to me, either, but should have. As any regular reader of ShelfTalker knows, I do have some opinions on book jacket design, and these days, I spend a lot of time looking at tiny covers in digital publisher catalogs on Edelweiss. However, I’d never heard anyone in publishing talk about designing covers with an eye for the online market, so I decided to poll a few editors to find out if this is, indeed, on their radar. As you might expect, the results were mixed: some do, some don’t, some are starting to think about it.

Scholastic’s Cheryl Klein said, “We pay a LOT of attention to this, because not just the retailing but the entire publishing WORLD is so much more digital…. Something needs to reproduce well if it’s reduced in size not just for booksellers, but for reviews and roundups and blog posts and articles anywhere online. It’s become even more important for a cover to have an want-to-pick-it-up-from-across-the-room quality, if at all possible (which translates into standing out when seen small, ironically enough). And of course at Scholastic we’ve always thought about this, thanks to our book club flyers and their reproductions of covers.”

Candlewick’s Liz Bicknell said, “This hasn’t been talked about at CWP, to my knowledge. And online legibility isn’t too much of an issue, since usually the title is listed at the side (or beneath) the cover image. When we had a b&w catalog, we thought about how color covers would look when converted to grayscale. But we solved that one by reverting to a full-color catalog.”

Recently, I spoke with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new digital editorial director (and fab YA author) Daniel Nayeri about this topic. At first, we texted about this via Facebook, and a few weeks later, talked on the phone. Our conversation ranged far and wide, and fell somewhere in between an actual interview and chatting over tapas and a beer. I will recount this text exchange/conversation as faithfully as possible, and trust that you will forgive its casual nature:

Elizabeth Bluemle: Hey, Dan, there’s a discussion of cover art on the ccbc listserv, and someone made a comment I found fascinating: that houses are starting to look at how covers look as thumbnails, since so much buying is done online. Does that happen at your house yet?

Daniel Nayeri: Wow. Sympatico. I was just discussing this with a fellow editor. For what it’s worth, we do think about the thumbnail image when considering covers. With that comes a lot of disadvantages, of course. It requires one to emphasize iconic imagery and high contrast composition, certainly. It makes it tougher to fight for covers that feel “cluttered,” or covers that can’t be read from across a room.

Some people downplay the loss of texture in the digital version, such as metallic stock, embossing, or gritty matte, but those people should look at a chocolate bar after it has lost its luster and then try to pretend something like gloss doesn’t make a difference.

On the other hand, if someone wanted to think of the digital version as the primary, then it could have a few advantages as well. We have to pay extra for things like a fifth color (if we wanted a very specific Pantone chip for example, or a neon color). We also pay a little extra for extra hits of white (say if wanted to make a starry sky shine extra bright). I suppose it would be an advantage to have access to those colors without the cost… but honestly, I think the losses outweigh the gains. I’ve seen the interactive covers, and I’ve been promised animated .gifs, but when was the last time someone sat mesmerized by the design quality of a .gif file? I mean, aside from the ones with baby kittehs.

EB: Good point. Is there a way to weight the process toward the positive, the gains?

DN: I think of this issue as culture building vs. culture mining. There was an article/blog post called Hack the Cover by a designer I like, Craig Mod (@craigmod). He began the conversation from a very artistic design perspective. I loved what he was saying. It projected a world I want to come true. I also fear that a more cynical approach to digital cover design would result in a ton of visual spam, culled from data-mining customers. I think both will exist. Certainly, I hope the artfully made stuff wins out.

EB: So how does a publishing house approach designing with the digital image in mind?

DN: The image has to work as a thumbnail. There are a ton of covers that just don’t work. [A cover needs to be] iconographic, has to work as a one-inch by one-inch image. I will say that Hunger Games is the best cover design in the past ten years. You use bold typography, larger fonts, do a little bit less with the cover. This tends to be hard for middle grade series books with a lot of detailed illustrations, showing all three of the spunky protagonists…. I can’t see Hermione when it’s a thumbnail, so I think we’ll start seeing that sea change in middle-grade covers as well.

Another thing [Craig Mod] talked about was the idea of how the cover now permeates the entire work. It used to just be a dust jacket to protect the folio. That’s not the case anymore. It needs to be more of a herald. His idea was that the cover can set the stage. He showed a book where each chapter opener could have been the cover. Modular design. Iconic image of the sun in red ink, and then the font carries through…. You’re reading the book in these little modules. It hearkens back to the idea of illuminated gospels. I think those are really nice.

There are ways great design can impact the way book design goes and I hope it goes that way. It’s all part of the artistic range. There will always be good books and bad books. Even what image you put up is a decision. There is something to that decision. What image of a petticoat you put up is important — one is additive, one is not.

But I think what’s going to happen is that it’s going to be more of a marketing product. With advertising like Amazon and Google Analytics targeting you, if we are looking at that jpeg as a “movie poster” for the book, then the next step is having covers that pitch to a certain audience. There is a world where we could have multiple covers that speak to different audiences. For girls we ‘pinkify’ and for boys we turn it into Maxim Magazine, and that of course is a huge problem. I’d hate if a nuanced story turns into that…. We can all see the worst of possible worlds where we create an ad out of everything.

EB: It is disturbing how advertising has begun to permeate absolutely everything we do. I always think of M.T. Anderson’s eerily prescient novel, Feed.

DN: In the sci-fi story in Straw House [Nayeri’s quartet of novellas, Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow], there’s a term kids call “chameleon marketing,” and that’s what I think of when I think of book covers designed to meet certain needs. In the story, if you walk into a McDonald’s, their product descriptions can change depending on your needs. [In real life,] Target knows that you’re pregnant well before you announce it, because they keep track of purchases like pre-natal vitamins and some other items. They were sending baby catalogs to women who hadn’t even told their families they were pregnant. The fact is, Target doesn’t get to tell me when I announce I’m having a baby. That’s a big part of your life — dude, stop screwing with people’s lives. We don’t want that sort of invasive marketing.

On the other hand, I’ve found a lot of wonderful things when Google serves up an ad. Sometimes I find cool things. But I wouldn’t want it to be used in a way that dehumanizes the author, or the reader, or the book itself. I wouldn’t want everything to go this way. Again, a terrible way to do this would be to pinkify for girls and brutify for boys.

I don’t think books will ever reach that point, because we’re a one-to-one exchange — author to reader —unlike most other products. I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point where we’re shoving books and authors down people’s throats.

EB: What kinds of advantages do you think designing digitally can offer publishers and readers?

DN: One interesting way of targeting book covers to different audiences is with crossover fiction. Finding a cover that is for both kids and for adults is an exceedingly difficult job. There is a world where that kind of targeted approach would work.

A teacher being able to customize annotations for students could be amazing. If it’s done well and doesn’t turn into some internet wall of graffiti but was handled correctly, it could lead to some really good discussions. To me that’s an interesting possibility… there’s promise there.

We’ve also talked about pop-up videos. Kobo is doing cool things. Hyperlinking is neither here nor there. I’ve never been so distracted that I think, I need to go to Wikipedia to look up this thing about whaling before I can watch an ad for a movie I’m going to pay for. We are totally beyond the pale at this point. If pop-ups become that crazy, that would be hateful, too.

That’s the rub. If it doesn’t apply to you, it’s hateful. If it does, it’s wonderful.

EB: I think you’ve just described political campaigns, too.


Many thanks to Dan for his fascinating insights. I learned so much during our conversation, and we were only just able to scratch the surface of the topic. Publishers, authors, readers — what say you about this brave new world of digital design?