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Ballet Shoes: antithesis and synthesis

The relationship between title and cover imagery is one with as many successful expressions as there are books, probably, and plenty of unsuccessful ones. The most basic rule for me is one I worked out from first principles long ago but subsequently heard summed up perfectly by Chip Kidd (quoting a lecturer’s advice from his college days):

If ‘apple’ is in the title don’t put an apple on the front cover.

But good as this rule is it also has very raggedy edges. Firstly, how far the semantic field of ‘apple’ extend? If a book was called, ‘The Apple’ would it be acceptable to picture an apple tree? How far away from the title do you have to get before you’re not being a literalist idiot?

Is the problem in the above covers really that they picture the exact concept the title already refers to or that they picture literally a phrase which is actually figurative in its use? After all, I don't mind that covers for The Secret Garden usually picture a secret garden.

Worth thinking about, but in fairness few books have title which are both literal and all-encompassing. Usually the job of the cover designer is to devise imagery which will play interestingly off the title's implications, not simply echo it.

Another point is that there is literal and then there is literal.

There's a lot of information carried in the visual styling as well as subject matter. Two covers for a book called The Apple might picture an apple, but one photographic and one depicted in tapestry. The one that is photographic is a bad cover. The second one is the same subject matter but also gives us the information that the book is set in the Tudor period amongst the wealthy.

Chip Kidd is right in what he says, but then Chip Kidd operates within specific parameters - American, classy, tends towards high-brow - that have inherent qualities that might not apply elsewhere. Almost implicit to his quoting of this rule is that he considers playful irony an essential part of any book cover. That's not something you can always carry across to, for example, mass-market children's publishing.

So there is certainly nuance within the guideline but more to the point it prompts the question: if a direct correlation between title and picture is not the way to go, what is?

Should one go completely the opposite way? Ignore the fact the book is called The Apple and depict the elephant from chapter 9?

Designing a cover is a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis if the book is represented by its title. Your job as a designer is to devise visuals for the cover that will result in the correct form of synthesis with the title.

Case study: Ballet Shoes

To talk through those ideas in practical terms, I'm going to design a new cover for Ballet Shoes, a book that has suffered from says-apple-shows-apple through much of its publication history.

Perhaps it was a victim of its own success; Ballet Shoes was a hit from its publication and became a classic quickly and so maybe there was never the impetus for creating or subverting expectation.

The covers haven’t all been bad but they’ve averaged out at dully serviceable. The best pick an illustration that slightly refocuses away from ballet and on the sisters as characters. The current paperback (far right below) does better than most by at least resigning the obvious ballerina imagery to a background image and having the graphic focus on a nice title treatment. It gets away with putting a ballet dancer on the front of a book called Ballet Shoes because it’s not so much an illustration as a background framing device. I also like those that make the title large and florid. It's not like one has to add anything to the sentiment of 'ballet shoes' after all, but if that's all you think the cover needs to say, simply let the title do it and don't replicate it in pointless depiction.

So, if this is a don't-draw-the-apple case, what's the correct alternative? When a title so precisely names a visual, depicting something with no relationship to that visual can look pretty odd - like you're incorrectly labeling something. ""Ballet shoes!" "No, lady, that's a bicycle.""

It’s important to work in sympathy with the connotations (unless, of course, irony is what is intended). I certainly think that a girly, soft ribbony, even pink look is not out of place within a cover for this book. It's a feminine book, nothing to be ashamed of there.

And if, like the title of The Secret Garden does, the title really comprehensively summed up everything in the book satisfactorily, I would happily put ballerinas all over the cover. But Ballet Shoes, the book is about a lot of things before it is literally about ballet. Dance certainly plays a large role in the girls' lives. But the titular shoes are more of a metafor and a symbol than a plot point; for the particularity of the girl’s world, their relationship with parental heritage, the mix of glamour and pain involved in dance and so on.

Posy, the dancing sister, is not even a protagonist in the sense the other two girls are. We never see life from her point of view. Pauline, the acting sister, is far more prominent and her interest in her chosen artform the most sympathised with. But it is really Petrova who is the main character, whose feelings are the most empathetically rendered and whose journey is followed with the most attention. And she doesn’t want to be an actor or a dancer or even be at stage school. She hates it all. She wants to much about with engines and read the Citroen catalogue and fly aeroplanes when she grows up.

So what is the answer to representing this? Depict Petrova in her oily overalls on the front cover? It's certainly an irony which is central to the book, and so an ironic play between title and image might be appropriate.

Here’s a mock-up of that using one of the book’s interior illustrations (by Ruth Gervis, incidentally, Streatfeild’s sister):

I quite like it but but I don’t find it quite satisfying on a few counts. One is that I feel it is too reactive – it seems to be trying a little hard to be the opposite of what one expects from a book with a super girly reputation, and that makes the book look a little ashamed of itself.

And the image no more accurately depicts the core of the book than the pictures of ballet shoes do. Petrova might be the heart of the story but the book is about all three girls, and their relationship to one another. Streatfeild’s great strength as a writer is how accurately she depicts the way children (or at least girls. I have no experience of being a boy) think and how they talk to each other. Ballet Shoes is very much a story a story about three sisters before it is about anything else at all. In the end their individual ambitions, however grand, are secondary to their bond to each other. A lot of the more thoughtless covers may imply a generic girl-who-wants-to-dance story, but this illustration implies a different-from-all-the-other-bimbos story, and that's no more representative of the book than the former.

The issue is that is is too directly contradictory. And this is the second guideline I have for covers: a cover should not directly contradict the title (except where the intention is to be explicitly ironic).

So what then?

The idea of illustration – particularly Ruth Gervis’s style - led me to thinking about the covers of dress patterns, and then of using such 'found' imagery to illustrate the book.

I immediately thought there was something really strong in this idea, because I feel like I’ve hit upon a subject matter with the right level of antithesis and synthesis with the cover.

Cover imagery should be a lateral step from the title's meaning.

The idea of clothes, particularly pretty girlish clothes, is a short sideways step from the idea of ballet. The illustrations on 30s frock patterns, and the actual illustrations from Ballet Shoes, could be mistaken for each other. Stylistically, these things are in synthesis. And yet the meta-visual layer of using an openly found image adds a modern gloss and interest to otherwise fittingly retro pictures.

And frock patterns are so evocative of the text in question. Ballet Shoes is, as a book, and endless ‘gigantic panic over frocks’ (to quote the excellent Heidi-Thomas-penned TV adaptation). There is an unending conversation within about what the girls need, what they have grown out of, how long it takes to change, how much it all costs, who is is going to make it. It is the lens through which we most acutely experience their refined poverty. The title is even an item of clothing (an expensive one, too).

To this end, I found some lovely and appropriate images of pattern covers and mocked up a couple into covers:

I do like the one on the left -  the pair of knickers adds, to use a favourite John Finnemore phrase, ‘a judicious touch of levity’, though the tone overall may be a little too old for the audience.

The obstacle to this idea quite working is that it is playing with a visual reference that the target audience probably aren’t very familiar with. An eight-year old might know a dress pattern when it’s on their parent’s sewing table and with the name McCall at the top, but probably not this kind of homage.

It might work with, well, work. However in my research I came across another image that suggests a version of the idea I like even more: using a catalogue page. It takes this idea of 'found vintage fashion illustration' as a way of being figurative and meta at once, but resolves the quandaries that come with the pattern-cover iteration.

Because everyone knows a catalogue page when they see one. And while in Ballet Shoes there is certainly a lot of fuss about making the frocks, the greater fuss is always about affording them – so the use of an image that draws attention to cost is all the more thematically relevant. Furthermore while the pattern-cover layout is spot illustration oriented and forces a certain layout if its to be at all readable as the object, a catalogue page has no single focal point and can be dialled back to serve as more of a background illustration to a domination title graphic.

I.e. it says a lot on its own while also allowing space for another graphic element to take the lead.

The image I came across happens to be particularly apt, featuring a grouping of three girls that does just about everything one could wish for in a found illustration standing in for the Fossil sisters: a we see a girl with short dark hair and serious, dreamy eyes; a girl with long blonde hair and a confident bearing; a younger girl with curly hair posing coyly. Most importantly there is a warmth and humour implied in the grouping that sells that family dynamic I talked abut above.

But their place is within a broader, busy wider visual. That also seems to communicate something important about the book. From newspaper adverts for lodgers to bill posters to Citoren catalogues, the more I think about it, the more I realise cheap printed material dominates the book.

I’ve somewhat surprised myself by liking so strongly an openly vintage image for the book, but I realise that there’s no need for a children’s book to be ashamed of its period setting any more than an edition of Wolf Hall would try to conceal its non-contemporary nature from an adult audience. We sometimes assume children want only the immediately relatable or the entirely fantastic, but I know from experience that at least some children have a fascination with the particularity of other times and places. Publishers have given books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz sophisticated not-exactly-illustrated covers, why not another modern children’s classic?

I’ve had a play with the arrangement of the page itself. And the original image would take further editing – e.g. it’s from an American catalogue so I’d carefully take out the $ signs and replace them with £SP symbols.

And the current title treatments are very much stand-ins, I think something texture and hand-wrought would works best, but these fonts gets across the general vibe I’ll be going for.

So that is how I go about working out the relationship between text and image in a cover design.


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