The Best Book Covers of 2012, As Chosen by Our Favorite Book Cover Designers


2012 was a great year for books — and maybe even a better one for book covers. We were so overwhelmed by the number of great ones that we couldn’t rally our thoughts to any kind of end-of-year list — so we figured we’d go to the experts (book jacket designers, of course) and ask what they thought. After the jump, feast your eyes on the favorite book cover designs of the year from a few rock star book cover designers, and let us know which ones are your favorites in the comments.

Coralie Bickford-Smith

During this year I found that these covers were never far from my thoughts when working on my own concepts, having burned themselves into my mind’s eye with their inventive use of imagery.

The Yellow World , designed by Gray 318

The Yellow World defies cover logic by removing the information we rely on to choose a book. This could be seen as just a gimmick but its brave approach is a reflection of its author’s attitude to his decade-long battle with cancer.

The Ralph Ellison series, designed by Cardon Webb

This Ralph Ellison series is just a perfect use of form, colour and typography. It looks so easy but it takes an expert eye to make it work and I still aspire to handle white space in such a confident manner.

The Flame Alphabet , designed by Peter Mendelsund

The three dimensional quality of the The Flame Alphabet‘s cover is just a brilliant realisation of craft that is rare and beautifully executed.

Smut, designed by Henry Sene Yee

Lastly, Smut just makes me laugh, and the humorous use of inanimate objects is probably the best way to get me to pick up a book!

Peter Mendelsund

Men in Space , designed by John Gall

John Gall for Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space (Vintage Books). John Gall is a master of many types of design: he makes many of his amazing jackets by hand, and is an accomplished collagist… but, for me, his true genius is on display in the type-on-a-photo school of design as seen above. He does a beautiful job here of representing the disoriented anomie of McCarthy’s writing. And his design scheme works brilliantly cross-platform! (Increasingly important)

NW , designed by Darren Haggar

Simple, simple, simple. Confident, and beautiful. What more needs be said? NW by Zadie Smith, designed by Darren Haggar, art director at Penguin Press with Tal Goretsky, art director of Scribner’s. Publisher is also to be congratulated here on allowing less to be more.

Watergate , designed by Paul Sahre

Paul Sahre, my number one favorite living book designer, gets at the heart of the matter here with this sinister, ingenuous cover for Thomas Mallon’s Watergate. This jacket takes beautiful advantage of the drama inherent in book jackets wrapping on top of, and hiding, the books themselves. On the jacket is a phone receiver, beautifully stylized and die cut, and on the book, the metallic silver bug. (Full disclosure: this book was designed for Pantheon Books, which is one of the houses I also art direct. I thought about not including Paul’s jacket on this list for this reason, but it’s too damned good to leave out.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four , designed by David Pearson

Technically, this one is 2013, but it’s to be printed, JUST OVER THE LINE, in the first week of 2013. So screw it: David Pearson’s magnificently cheeky 1984, for Penguin UK. The abstract beauty of redaction. Black foil covering the title and author name. This is the 1984 I want on my shelf forever.

Hawthorn & Child , designed by Tom Darracott

While we are in Britain: Really impressed by this cover by Tom Darracott for Hawthorn & Child, for Granta Books. It is simply so bizarre and compelling. What the hell does it mean? What even is it? Who cares!

Christopher King

Christopher Brian King is a graphic designer and illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is the art director of Melville House, an independent literary publisher. His work has been featured in the 50 Books/50 Covers exhibition and in numerous publications including Print magazine.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, designed by Paul Sahre and Erik Carter; published by New Directions

This is the most arresting cover I saw this year. The stark color scheme and distorted type are at once elegant and transgressive, and the book feels both classic and brand new at the same time.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti , designed by Oliver Munday; published by Knopf

Here Oliver Munday says the most with the barest minimum of elements. Every detail in the typography is perfect, but I especially love the clever and understated illustration.

Twilight of the Elites , designed by Ben Wiseman; published by Crown

As a designer it’s so hard to reach outside the clichéd imagery of the subject matter at hand and come up with a cover illustration that’s surprising yet immediately comprehensible. But Ben Wiseman always makes it look easy.

Marvel Comics, the Untold Story , designed by Dan Cassaro; published by Harper

A simple idea that works because the execution is so flawless. Dan Cassaro, the lettering genius behind Young Jerks, gets it exactly right, down to the pen-and-ink linework and blown-up half-tone pattern.

Occupy! , designed by Kelli Anderson, published by Verso

A cover so perfectly iconic of our peculiar moment in history that it’s destined to become the “Keep Calm and Carry On” of 2062. It’s been on continuous display at every bookstore in New York since its release and I imagine we’ll be seeing it for a long time to come.

Jennifer Wang

The Flame Alphabet , designed by Peter Mendelsund

Every time I saw this in the bookstore, I thought “Damn that’s good”. Striking, colorful, playful, well crafted and deceptively simple; this cover is painfully fantastic.

The Shadow of Night , designed by Tal Goretsky

This cover does a great job of catching your eye and luring you in with its lush composition and wonderful use of color and distinctive type. Although it looks good when viewed on a computer screen, it is really augmented when seen on a bookshelf; taking advantage of printing effects at its disposal without being cheesy.

Lost at Sea , by Jon Ronson, designed by Matt Dorfman

This book gives me a chuckle whenever I see it; it’s a witty, solid, graphic. I love seeing simple covers like this one that really show how important concepts are to design over shiny effects and trendy tropes.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version , Philip Pullman, designed by Alison Forner

It’s definitely the stuff of fairy tales but not exactly ones that make you rest easy at night. The integration of type with the birds works well to invoke a sense of claustrophobia and tension in the cover. Creeptastic in the best way.

John Gall

Building Stories , designed by Chris Ware

This is almost not a book cover since it is actually the cover of a box that contains the various sized books, pamphlets, a newspaper and other folded and bound items that, taken as a whole, comprise Chris Ware’s latest graphic novel. Still, the way he manipulates that “cover” rectangle is masterful piece of graphic design.

Swimming Studies , designed by Leanne Shapton

Jacket and case design. The prosaic made iconic. A piece of minimalist art located in the sports section of your local bookstore.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, designed by David Pearson

As Penguin keeps finding new ways to repackage the classics, David Pearson keeps finding new ways to recontextualize book cover design history. This version of 1984 is his most brilliant yet.

The Flame Alphabet , designed by Peter Mendelsund

A complex book with a straightforward cover. The execution is what makes it special. The subtle dimensionality, beautiful colors, and perfectly placed type make you want to stare at it forever. Also a reminder of how rarely we see abstract covers in this age of literal minded cover design.

All Men are Liars , designed by Jason Booher

I like how this cover has fun with the title in a literal yet artful way. This could have ended up clever and joke-y, instead we get a clever, elegant, kinetic, odd and fantastic.

Barbara deWilde

Wonder , designed by Tad Carpenter

Without having read a word, I feel like I know the main character: curious, young, with a mystery in his life.

Black Box, designed by Jon Gray

This very modern publication of science fiction was serialized and published over nine days through The New Yorker’s Twitter account. Jon Gray’s design takes a title and an idea that could be perceived as very cold and opaque and makes it energetic and human.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, designed by David Pearson

This original series design by Jan Tschichold is a never-ending source of inspired covers. David Pearson’s wonderful new Orwell cover is the latest triumph.

In Cold Blood , designed by Megan Wilson.

This landscape when paired with the title becomes a large space where unspeakable things can happen. Chilling.

Invisible Man, designed by Cardon Webb

Cardon Webb’s design is an inspired redesign of a classic novel. This cover uses the visual language of 1940s jazz record sleeves which gives a fresh new voice to the work. Ellison was a musician and a sculptor before he became a writer.

Doogie Horner

Who Could That be at This Hour? , cover art by Seth, designed by Gail Doobinin

I like this cover for a few reasons. First of all, the designer had an interesting challenge, since this is the first book in a new series; it needs to distinguish itself from Snicket’s previous collection, A Series of Unfortunate Events, while also creating an identity template for the rest of the books. The book is a YA novel and a mystery, two genres that have a lot of difficult-to-avoid tropes, but I think Seth embraces them in a fresh way. He has to make the violence seem appropriate for kids, but not so cartoonish that the noir feel is completely lost. Also the book has a cool gold sticker on the jacket, and the trim feels solid in your hand.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore , designed by Rodrigo Corrall

Glow in the dark ink usually looks gimmicky, but on this cover it seems inevitable. The handwriting feels personal in the same way learning a character’s name in the title is personal.

Lionel Asbo: State of England , designed by Peter Mendelsund

I exerted tremendous will-power to not fill my entire list with Peter Mendelsund covers. I like that this is a fresh spin on the old tabloid paper idea. I can’t put my finger on one thing that elevates it above other tabloid-inspired designs I’ve seen a hundred times, I think it’s just the accumulation of little touches and the careful consideration of every element on the cover. I like how he balances such heavy, loud elements. It’s hard to mimic ugly design without creating ugly design.

Dead Man Upright , designed by Christopher King

Once again, I’ve chosen a cover that I admire because of the way it takes a visual cliche — a blood-spatter—and presents it in a fresh way. Crime novels are hard to design because the visual signifiers of the genre are limited to the world of violence — guns, bullets, blood, dimly lit alleys — but the writing is often more complex than that. Very few mystery novels are about a guy wearing a fedora, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at bad cover designs. Anyhow, I’ve never seen a blood spatter used this way, and I like the restrained confidence of the illustration and type layout.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities , designed by Paul Sahre

I’m not sure what I like about this cover. If I could explain it, I’m sure I’d be a better designer.

Gabriele Wilson

The Fifty Year Sword , designed by Peter Mendelsund

The Flame Alphabet , designed by Peter Mendelsund

The Oliver Sacks paperback set, designed by Cardon Webb

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore , designed by Rodrigo Corrall

Polpo , designed by Praline