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university washington press book design

A sampling of university press book covers over time. Dates of publication include (from top to bottom, left to right): 1920, 1950, 1958, 1961, 1967, 1991, 1997, 2012, 2015. All book cover images courtesy of the University of Washington Press.

Books occupy an ancient niche in the world of graphic design. Often misunderstood and occasionally maligned, the design of books at university presses holds an important place within the field. With a mission to find, develop and publish worthy scholarship through a rigorous peer-review process, university presses may not create books as glamorous or profitable as those from their commercial counterparts, but they remain reliable beacons in the ever-deepening pool of human knowledge.

The core of scholarly publishing is the monograph, a long-form argument intended for a specialized audience. As a result, these books present their designers with a unique set of challenges. Designers must determine how best to visually convey often esoteric subject matter to both scholars and, increasingly, the general public. Book interiors with dense, complex content must be carefully typeset for optimal comprehension; typographic nuance and variety is welcome, but clarity is paramount. Also, concessions must frequently be made to accommodate tight schedules and lean budgets. However, despite these constraints, scholarly book design has adapted, evolved and thrived, often in parallel with the design work of commercial publishers.

In the first half of the 20th century, book design was often an afterthought due to the complexities of production methods. Dust jackets were still uncommon and considered disposable. However, production artists at commercial presses began to explore new ways to attract the attention of potential readers. Modernists such as Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig explored forms of artistic self-expression previously absent from book cover design, while traditionalists such as William Addison Dwiggins advocated high standards for typography. In particular, the decades following World War II saw an explosion of influential creative output. Thanks to advances in printing techniques, visually rich cover designs became increasingly common, while the countercultural influences of the ’60s and ’70s presented opportunities for designers to experiment with new graphic styles.

As university presses introduced affordable paperback editions and tentatively approached the world of general readership, like their commercial peers, they began to prioritize design. Though the primary markets for most scholarly books were libraries, a compelling cover was becoming increasingly critical to a book’s success in other outlets. In 1965, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) recognized the creative advances taking place in scholarly publishing and initiated a book-design competition, now in its 50th year, judged by respected and established designers.

However, a bias continued to persist that university press book design was somehow inferior to that of commercial publishers. Though scholarly presses often lacked the resources and talent of larger trade houses, many AAUP judges were dismissive of their efforts. In the 1980 AAUP book show catalog, for example, Massimo Vignelli vented, “I find [university press books] extremely depressing and irritating. … Most university presses are cranking out books stereotyped in a range of wacky-sentimental typefaces floating through the pages in a disorderly magma of design styles.”

In the following decades, scholarly presses oscillated stylistically as designers struggled to navigate trends and influences. By the early ’80s, book design took a conservative tack, and as university presses grew and turned increasingly corporate in structure, scholarly covers became particularly staid. Orderly grids and Swiss-style typography percolated throughout, and publishers with an eye on budgets and an ear to author demands were less likely to approve “risky” designs. Then, in the mid-’80s, the proliferation of personal computers enabled a fresh expansion of graphic styles. Suddenly patterns, gradients and textures could be made with the click of a button. Type was stretched and distorted, images were layered and collaged. By the late ‘90s, design had become fragmented by possibility, triggering another conservative contraction as computer-fueled trends ran their course. At the turn of the 21st century, scholarly cover designs again became more formal and literal, relying heavily on photography and stock imagery. In response to an increasingly competitive publishing landscape, designers were pulled in many directions as they balanced the input of well-intentioned authors, editors hoping to attract new writers and marketers with ambitious sales goals.

Recent years have seen a remarkable shift in scholarly book design, as forces affecting the publishing industry and graphic design in general have impacted this fragile field. Economic crises and an unreliable sales market have forced presses to become even more resourceful. The Internet has introduced new ways to share knowledge and creative ideas while gradually improving the visual awareness of the general public. Free and open-source fonts, imagery and software are democratizing access to media and tools while fostering a DIY attitude. Though the times and circumstances continue to change, designers at university presses continue to find ways to effectively connect readers to challenging academic topics through conceptual, innovative and occasionally humorous design solutions. In scholarly publishing, the place of design seems covered. 

University Press Week is November 8–14 this year. Find out more about University Press Week on Twitter: #UPWeek and #ReadUP.