Design nerd corner: Go Set a Watchman

The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” clearly never applied to a designer. That’s not to say if a book cover is bad or uses an ugly typeface I’ll completely write it off and never read it, but if I’m shelf reading or browsing? You better believe that ugly covers get passed over without so much as a second glance at the inside flap. Conversely, I’ll be much more inclined to buy a previously unread book if I’m greatly impressed by the cover design. So when the bookernet is all abuzz about the highly anticipated prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird gets official artwork? You best believe I have thoughts.

So lets start off with both versions side by side:

UK version is on the left, US on the right.

UK version is on the left, US on the right.

I want to preface this by saying that I do like both versions. I think that both had a lot of thought and effort put into them and remind us of To Kill a Mockingbird. And both versions are very different approaches to that overall feeling of nostalgia. That being said, let’s dive into the critique.

Let’s start with the version I have the most thoughts on, the UK version:

UKGoSetaWatchmanOverall I like it. I think the designers took a bit of a risk by using a more modern typographic treatment than what we think of when we envision the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird. The bird and branch silhouette is a subtle touch that draws our eye to “Harper Lee,” which in conjunction with each other should be more than enough visual recognition to jog our brains into figuring out “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But then we undo all of that subtlety with the pseudo-shadow TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD text. I think I get what they were going for. They wanted to make “To Kill a Mockingbird” a shadow to visually symbolize that this is a prequel. But the skewing of the text is too sleight for me to tell if this was deliberate. I keep looking at the text and getting confused about the direction of the lighting to create this “shadow.” I understand skewing it too much would make the text illegible, defeating the purpose, but there has to be a middle ground between just italicizing it and making the text non-readable.

One other thing that irks me about this cover is how equidistant everything is. HARPER LEE is about the same distance from GO SET A which is the same distance from WATCHMAN and to make matters worse, the size of that space is about the same size of the type. In essence, you can divide the cover into six equal rows, which visually makes it rather boring.

To summarize: typeface choice and background + bird are great, the addition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is clunky and draws attention away from the other elements.

And now the US version:

USGoSEtaWatchmanThis design is a stark contrast to the more modern UK version. Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t “get” at first how this related to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Everyone was saying that it was reminiscent of the original cover and silly me over here didn’t know what the original book cover looked like, having only ever seen the ugly purple cover that was on all my school and library copies (sidebar, holy crap, I did not realize how many different covers of To Kill a Mockingbird exist.) However, after doing a little bit of research I immediately understood the callback.

I have to say, I like how toned down the “BY AUTHOR OF TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” is in this one, although that might mainly be because of my dislike of how the UK version treated it. I like how the tree seems to be a tree with newly budded leaves, implying its prequel status as To Kill a Mockingbird’s tree is fully grown. Everything is updated fro that original cover. The typeface has undergone a few changes (the type is more connected, whereas the original had a lot more gaps between vertical and horizontal portions of type). The background is no longer a flat color, instead having a grain texture and soft vignette giving it an added sense of depth. The hierarchy is clear with HARPER LEE given the most typographic importance and GO SET A WATCHMAN is secondary.

All that being said, I think that this was a very safe cover. It feels less its own thing and moreso an exercise in updating old book covers for modern times. Don’t get me wrong, I think it works a lot better than the UK edition, but the UK edition took more risks. It tried to do something new and although I might not think it fully succeeded, I have to applaud it for its attempt.

So. The final verdict. Which do I like better? Well… both, really. Technically, I feel that the US edition gets more things right and works overall with only minor flaws. But I have to admire the boldness of the UK edition. It took risks, some of them didn’t pay off, but it made the cover something completely new, not just a rehash of a classic design. Maybe if I had more nostalgic feelings towards the original cover I would appreciate the new one more. But I applaud both design teams for creating two different and creative book covers that cater to older fans and a more modern audience.