Playing with Visual Cliches: a Cover Story

One of my favorite things to do since I was a young bookworm was to stare at covers and take them in. At first I would simply admire the artwork for it’s color, style, and overall attractiveness. Once I started reading the book, I would slowly go from admiration to discovery as I attempted to puzzle out what moment, or what pieces of the book were represented on that singular graphic representation of the story hidden within the pages. The best ones didn’t give away their secrets too soon and kept me hunting for meaning, adding to the enjoyment of the story.

Fast forward many years and that is why I attempt to invest the covers I design with meaning unique to the story. Not only will that result in a unique cover, but there are clues a reader can connect as they enjoy the book. The most recent cover, Mendacity and Mourning, has several clues spread about it. It would be bad form to give them all away, so I’ll focus on the humor aspect of it.

The book blurb describes it as a “slightly unhinged romantic comedy.” It’s a fresh take on our favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice imbued with humor, and a touch of irreverence. A monkey wrench is thrown in early in the narrative and sets it off on quite the fun detour to happily ever after. J.L. Ashton has taken the reality of Jane Austen’s world that we all know and added a twist of humor to make it her own without going so far out of their known natures as to make them foreign to us.

So how does one illustrate that? By breaking the cardinal rule to avoid cliches. Most of the time this is a good rule to live by, especially if we’re looking to be unique. Still, there is something to be said for using well-known visual references to get a message across. A cliche is a phrase or opinion, or in this case, an image that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. It also has the benefit of requiring very little thought for the person hearing it to understand the meaning. Translating that to visual terms means that a person may not even need to consciously think about what their seeing before their brain reacts. For example, if you see red octagon, you know to stop right away. No thinking needed.

To better explain, here’s how it was applied to Mendacity and Mourning. In this case the humor and romance needed to stand out. So by using a visual cliche, the base of the message is absorbed in a moment, perhaps without awareness, but the differences presented are what then stand out and make you think. So, I recreated a well-known illustration of Onegin which is often reinterpreted by Austen lovers as a scene from Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps it’s Elizabeth and Darcy walking around the paths at Rosings. Perhaps it’s the recently engaged couple lost on the paths near Longbourn. What’s certain is that most fans think it fits their image of Miss Bennet and Mr Darcy.

See the similiarity on the cover? The couple, their stance–you know it’s a romantic moment. You also instinctively know that these two are Elizabeth and Darcy. That mentally leaves you to focus on the differences. The tear, the peacock, the broadsheet title, and the setting. You’ll have to read to know what all that means, but I leave one clue here. “Tomorrow. Elizabeth. Shrubbery.”

The back cover uses the same premise. Here’s a couple of examples of that moment in Pemberley’s gallery when Elizabeth finally realizes what Darcy’s looks had meant and let’s herself admit that he’s hot stuff.

So the cliche is pretty evident when the images are side by side, but the differences are what add a unique flavor to the same old thing. What does it tell you about the story? It’s definitely twisted in that there’s a woman in the portrait and the dynamics have changed with the woman looking at the painting now joined by a man. What does it tell you about the two people viewing the portrait? They are comfortable enough with each other to stand closely together, possibly touching. They seem to be of a like mind with the same reaction to the painting. Might they think she’s hot stuff?

Speaking of cliches, Pride and Prejudice has been associated with peacocks since the famous Hugh Thomson 1894 blue and gold peacock cover. This reference was liberally sprinkled all over the cover and spine. Besides being an obvious reference to Pride and Prejudice, what might that portend?

So, taking a cue from J.L. Ashton I took the reality of Jane Austen’s world that we all know and added a twist of humor without going so far as to make it foreign. At least I hope that’s what is perceived.

Written by Zuki, cover designer for Meryton Press.

Recently published, J.L. Ashton’s Mendacity and Mourning begins it’s blog tour on June 19, 2017.

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4 Responses

  1. Suzan Lauder
    |

    A fascinating look into the process and concepts of the design of a good cover. Thanks, Zuki!

    • zuki
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      Thank you for reading. 🙂

  2. Claudine
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    I loved seeing your process described here. Thanks for sharing!

    • zuki
      |

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂