04 Sep The Shrinking Covers of Books and Albums

I just got the cover art for my forthcoming book, From Animal House to Our House: a Love Story, and it’s great. Despite the old adage, “you can’t judge a book by . . .,” probably no single factor affects a book’s reception more than the book cover. This applies even to the tiny thumbnail images that must represent our books online. If you’ve tried to find a good photo of yourself for your Facebook page, you know what I’m talking about. Shrinking any image to that small a size presents all kinds of problems. I sent in a photo of myself to a publication not long ago and thought it looked fine until I saw it in print — thumbnail size. Whereas I looked like I had the start of a smile in the large, original photo, I looked kind of dour and thoroughly unsmiling in the thumbnail version. The shrunken photo had lost all of the subtlety found in the large one.

If you’re old enough to remember vinyl record albums before they became collector’s items, then you remember their glorious one-foot-square cover art. Record albums covers, with liner notes on the back, mimicked books. This was most clear in the gatefold design that allowed you to open the album like a book, offering many pages of text, photos, and lyrics. Back in the heyday of record albums (1966-80), you’d get a book of notes and lyrics, a photo spread, maybe even individual loose photos, and sometimes a poster. All of that changed with the advent of the CD in the 1990s, when album art shrunk to a 4 x 4″ size. Designers and producers still tried to give buyers a booklet of lyrics in many albums, but those little booklets got lost easily and their miniscule print was hard to read.

The art changed too. It had to because the small format demanded a more striking image that could be seen well — and vividly — at a glance. This was just one step away from the ubiquitous thumnail that now stands in for cover art on albums, books, and everything else. The online environment demands miniaturaization. Recently, when I put my first e-book on Amazon, I had to reconfigure the cover art several time to get it right and still it didn’t look right because I couldn’t include the full image of the portrait I used — it had to be headshots but the headshots didn’t convey the full atmosphere of the photo. It’s likely that we’re going to have to post alternative covers for our books online because the online environment just can’t capture what a full-sized book cover can. A book that has a lot of text on the cover, like the one for From Animal House to Our House, kind of loses definition as a thumbnail.

The point here is that the book — the physical artifact that we’ve lived with and revered for many centuries — has lost its place as an influential model of design. The computer is the new frame for all things visual. Soon it may be “hand-helds,” like phones, that dominate design. I don’t derive any pleasure from squinting at my smart phone’s tiny screen. It’s like trying to view the world through a peephole. This will change, of course. Phone screens will become a bit bigger and graphic formatting will be designed especially for those small screens. But there’s not a lot of joy in images that small. And what are you going to do with, say, a graphic novel on your smart phone? I guess we’ll figure it out. One possibility is that, along with your download, you get an extra — a big, sumptious version of the cover art, which then you can feed into your big screen TV.

Click on this thumbnail for a bigger image.