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Cover practice: Threadneedle

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

I've started a little project of practicing my cover design thinking, by challenging myself to come up with alternate designs for recent books.

I love reading contemporary children's and YA but a lot of the personal work I've done is for classics (e.g. A Little Princess) or modern classics (like Northern Lights).

One reason for that is that a book already having a great cover is a big factor in what I pick to read. The impetus to redesign isn't there when a book already has a great cover!

But it can be a great challenge - seeing one successful design solution and yet being able to work out another seems like great exercise. There's always more than one approach to a book cover; perhaps as many right answers as there are good cover designers.

The first book I'm going to talk about is one I haven't even read, but which caught my eye. It's by debut Welsh novelist Cari Thomas and is called Threadneedle.

Here is the blurb:

Within the boroughs of London, nestled among its streets, hides another city, filled with magic.

Magic is the first sin. It must be bound.

Ever since Anna can remember, her aunt has warned her of the dangers of magic. She has taught her to fear how it twists and knots and turns into something dark and deadly.

It was, after all, magic that killed her parents and left her in her aunt’s care. It’s why she has been protected from the magical world and, in one year’s time, what little magic she has will be bound. She will join her aunt alongside the other Binders who believe magic is a sin not to be used, but denied. Only one more year and she will be free of the curse of magic, her aunt’s teachings and the disappointment of the little she is capable of.

Nothing – and no one – could change her mind before then. Could it?

It's certainly an example of a book which already has a successful cover

This is the cover for both the UK and US hardback release and was designed by Andrew Davis at HarperCollins. The paperback publishes in 2022 and hasn't had a cover released yet.

It's clear what elements the design team have decided to highlight from this synopsis. The idea of thread magic and binding is evoked with knots and embroidery, and the London setting is asserted firmly with the Palace of Westminster. We also see motifs of roses, moths and the moon which I presume has some specific resonance in the book and here are useful in adding in the crucial touches of fantasy and femininity. Those motifs with the colour palette and the drop of blood gives this a strongly gothic fairytale vibe.

So a great cover: signalling very clearly the handful of factors that will work hardest at pulling the right crowd, and bringing them together in a way that is cohesive and pretty. It matches the conventions of its shelf-mates while also having its own identity.

What really makes this cover though it the needle and thread sitting across the cover. I've used the exact same device myself before and I think it's what takes this from a pretty but relatively anonymous cover to being one that looks significant.

If there's one thing I wonder about, it's the title treatment. Not the letter shapes or embroidery texture, but rather the splitting of the word. I have to stress this isn't a critique of the original cover. I have the luxury of thinking here without the full constraints of real commercial cover design. Who knows what was pitched and rejected, and what very good reasons there might have been for that rejection in the actual process?

But here's my thinking and why I would have suggested a different approach to getting this title on the cover:

Threadneedle is a good title. Threadneedle Street is the name of a very well-known and historied street in London, and thus in one word we see the major elements of this novel brought together: thread and London.

Whether or not one recognises the word as a place name it's a mysterious and evocative sounding portmanteau word. This kind of 'portmanteau title' is very popular in children's fantasy, especially 9-12 right now (Frostheart, Everdark, Nevermore, Harklights etc), perhaps to the point of getting pretty over-saturated and the approach losing its efficacy. But this is a YA, and further stands out by dint of being a. a real name and b. made up of constituent parts that come from outside a fairly generic set of whimsical/magical/fantasyish words.

I go into this in detail because I kind of think all of that good stuff is lost if you graphically split the word in two.

Now long words of/in titles are of course a common challenge in book cover design.The problem with them is, that if the title is a long single word, and you try to get that word onto a cover in a single line, the lettering has to be small. And that's the last thing you want on a cover. Titles need to be legible at thumbnail size.

There are various tricks to working with a long title. E.g.:

But they're a bit limited in where they can solve your problem. Putting a title into an arc or bridge shape tends to make it look quirky and younger (Wranglestone is a YA zombie apocalypse story but I think the title treatment here pulls it younger). Same with putting them on a curve like Ghostcloud. It works for the 9-12 whimsical fantasy that this book is, but it's not going to work for, like, gothic romance.

A diagonal slant is great in that as well as giving you a bit more room to work with, a slant to the text can actually add a lot of dynamism and energy to a cover and to very versatile effect. I've used it a diagonal slant to lean into quirky humour, confrontational punky horror, wistfulness etc. But you can't always do it and more to the point, it also doesn't free up that much much room.

So options for getting long words onto a single line are limited and often splitting the title is a better approach than letting a title treatment look cramped or contrived to fit the space.

The problem here is that splitting Threadneedle as Thread/needle visually breaks the word up into its constituent words. It visually turns the title from the intriguing, evocative, informative Threadneedle into the duller title Thread Needle.

So between those two obstacles, what to do? My suggestion would be to split the title up more.

I'm interested in taking what I think of as 'the Rosewater approach' after one of the best covers of the last few years, designed by Charlotte Stroomer for Tade Thompson's brilliant SF novel.

Here it is alongside a couple of other examples of the approach:

This approach isn't remotely available to all single-word titles. It relies on the word in question diving well; not necessarily evenly but something you can work with (e.g. Betty has an odd number of letter leaving a space at the end, but that's good because it leaves space for the byline and pull-quote).

It relies on the segments of words not getting confusing in an unwanted way. E.g. if you tried this approach with the title like, say, Therapist, you'd be diving the word THE/RAP/IST, so your graphic treatment would be adding in a confusing and unwanted ambiguity to the way you read the word.

This treatment of a word also does something to titles which isn't helpful in all cases - but can be a boon:

Even assuming a word which woks broken apart, and assuming a good graphic treatment of that word, the treatment is always going to introduce a little obstacle in the reading, a moment of hesitation on the browser's part in how to break down the word. If you were seeing any of the covers above for the first time, I bet you found you were a half-second slower to take in the word and the meaning than if that word was written more conventionally.

That's the kind of thing that covers designers habitually shy away from. You want your title to be clear and instantly readable. But well-managed, this little touch of opaqueness can benefit a cover. It makes a title a little bit alien, a little bit mysterious. In Rosewater's case the simple act of breaking up the word like this is enough to pull away from the domestic/sweet associations of the word itself and hint at something stranger and grander. With Annihilation the uncomfortable association of the word is backed up by the way the word is itself kind of broken down, stripped bare.

Those vibes wouldn't be right for Threadneedle of course, but I think word-splitting can also give you an alluringly mysterious vibe, an exclusivity, a sophistication,and those are appealing and relevant qualities to bring to bear on a YA witchy fantasy.

So let's see if there's any mileage in this thought.

First a quick sketch to check whether the title Threadneedle breaks down okay and doesn't get too confusing:

Good. One might want to use little graphic tricks to assist the flow and readibility of the word but there's no big inherent obstacles to the eye.

So let's get a basic version of that together digitally:

Typeface-wise, I actually started out with Clarendon. That is the typeface used by the City of London (where Threadneedle Street is located) on its street signs and it's one of the fonts iconic of London. However, in the title I ended up hand-manipulating the letters beyond all recognition of that font, finding that this London association was outweighed by other needs, principally the need to look fantasyish/fairytaleish/feminine in the lettering, and to use flourishes to help direct the eye to read the word appropriately.

The byline and tagline are in a Clarendon-esque font called Village Plain, but as I've opted for upper/lowercase rather than just uppercase lettering that City of London signs use, again it loses that strong association with London. Here too the need for a particular vibe has taken precedence.

With the proof-of-concept holding up it's time to start adjusting in more detail to make sure everything is assisting in the overall look and flow.

You can see I'm starting to look at the sizing of individual letters and letter-blocks. I'm finding the word reads better if it's not too top-heavy; if the 'THR' sits a little left-aligned in comparison to the 'EAD' so it's clear how the eye should travel through the letters.

I've moved the tagline to be inside the hollow of the second D. It's a great tagline and giving its placement more graphic flourish draws attention. Being contained by the letter shape also relates back to the idea of being 'bound' of course. This also frees up space for the pull-quote to go at the top.

Next, here's my first go at playing with imagery, going first to the 'London' well:

This a very quick, rough go, but it's enough to see that there's nothing down this road for me. There's a good design in something like this, but not for this book.

The overall effect of the angular buildings alongside the angular letters just make the books feel adult and even non-fiction in vibe. And now we've hopefully pulled the title back to reading as a single word, if you recognise 'Threadneedle' as a London place name, it's all London and there's nothing else going on. Something along these lines might be a good cover for one of those 'a biography of a place' type history books but not this YA witchy fantasy.

So I have to consider: is 'London' an essential note, imagery-wise? The existing cover includes it and I have to assume this is considered an important angle by the marketing/design departments. I don't have their insight but it does make sense to me. It sounds like the author has brought a lot of enjoyable authenticity and specificity of setting to the novel so it's a real point of appeal and distinction from its shelf-mates.

However I think at least for the sake of the exercise I can go on without it. In a real design process, this would be the point where you'd appeal to the insight of touch colleagues to get a steer on how essential 'London' was on the cover.

Left to judge for myself, I feel that since I feel I've strengthened the geographical association of the title treatment (by making it clear it's one word, not 'Thread Needle'), that might be enough London without needing imagery.

So for my next go, I've swapped out the London stuff for some witchy spot illustrations that seem in the right territory for the book. There's some moths and moons, an anatomically correct heart for romance-but-gothy. The illustrative style is youthful and sophisticated, perfect for YA.

The illustration set is in a very limited palette of charcoal, gold and white, which I've picked up across the cover.

Much better. The delicate lines and rounded shapes of the illustrations contrast well with the lettering, letting the latter stand out.

I like the gothicness, which works for a teenage, witchy vibe. But I think perhaps it's leaning a bit too much into that and that's also perhaps leaving the mood a bit too generic rather than feeling attached to a specific novel.

So finally, for now, I've had a look at bringing in another colour:

These aren't anywhere near final versions of a cover. I think we're really still in the 'proof-of-concept' stage; perhaps at the end of that phase of design. All the elements are present and working as choices.

The next stage would be to start refining everything to get it all working as hard, neatly and beautifully as possible.

For example, I think the type treatment could still do with work to reach the perfect balance of decorativeness and legibility. Bringing in the illustrative elements has of course changed how it balances and reads, and it needs to be reworked again to suit that.

But generally a strong direction and it's pleasing to see instincts panning out well.


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