The covers of Northern Lights

I realised documenting my own project to design a cover-type image for Northern Lights I have mentioned previous covers a lot without really getting into the patterns. And it's just possible not everyone has the obsessive relationship with both/either Northern Lights and world of book jacket design that I do.

I find it a really interesting case study of approaches to packaging a book, firstly because it's a slightly tricky book to place for those responsible for marketing and secondly because it's been a massively popular and respected book pretty much since publication so great trouble has been taken for each reissue.

Northern Lights was published first in a hardback edition (above, first left) featuring an Alethiometer meticulously illustrated by David Scutt. The illustration itself could not really be improved upon; Scutt really got it dead-on first go. The publisher continued to use this illustration across several subsequent paperbacks and an HDM omnibus (above, far right).

While there is much imagery that is striking in the novel, nothing quite sets the tone of the book like the image of the Alethiometer does: it is mysterious and accessible all at once, fantastical and mechanical. It looks like a logical machine full of meaning but much like Lyra's initial impression we are only able to wonder what it could be for.

I'll admit that original airbrushed setting of the illustration has dated though, and trying to put my personal attachment to the book as an object to one side, I think the round illustration sits awkwardly on the portrait cover when it (and a subtle tagline) are the nly cover elements the balance is strange. That later hardback HDM omnibus used the same illustration to better effect, abalcing it with typography. Meanwhile the paperback editions (the middle two) look a little fussy and dated by today's standards but the bones are good and in the 90s and early 2000s these felt like something very sophisticated compared to other children's book covers. They have been overtaken by the golden age of children's/YA cover design we are now living in.

The paperback, the second from the left above, probably helped popularise the big trend of YA fiction for a while for covers with a Big Circular Symbol of Whatever superimposed over a scene-setting backdrop. The other covers which probably laid down that trend were the British editions of Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen).

If the alethiometer has been a popular subject matter for covers, it's nothing to the appeal of depicting the pair of main character Lyra and armoured bear Iorek (the latter almost always without his armour, intruigingly - perhaps it's too much of a step into fantasy for cover artsist to feel its a detail appropriate to the cover).

I first read the book in that alethiometer-on-purple hardback, but I was first drawn to the book in its paperback packaging, and that was the edition I subsequently spent a whole week's pocket money to own.

Hove library had the hardbacks, but there was a poster of this cover art, presumably publisher-supplied, on the wall of the Children's section of the library when the paperback was newly out, and it was this cover that thereby intrigued me (though it took my friend Emma reading the book and raving about it to finally get me to give it a proper go).

The unusual composition, and the chiaroscuro lighting, that give so little away seemed to speak of something very special, the 'rich casket of wonders' that the glowing pull-quote spaks of made visual. Even at the time, this cover didn't look like any format of book cover I was familiar with. Something about the design too - the left-align of the byline, the slim serif font I'd associate more with grown-up books - seemed to set it apart from the rest of the children's section. The artwork has a deeply atmospheric and utterly mysterious vibe. It works upon the eye the way the very first clause of the novel's text works: 'Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." Just the right amount of information and opacity to be utterly intriguing.

(The fact that Iorek is too proportionally small and carrying a spear I forgive in a heartbeat.)

The next cover along in this Lyra-and-Iorek set is one I am rather less fond of. I should immediately say that it is executed very well by the illustrator (whose name I'm afraid I can't track down). My guess is that the publisher was going for a younger-skewing cover than previously (this redesign followed the alethiometer-featuring one) with the prominance of a rather adorable Iorek.

It conforms very much to the popular big-realistic-digital-illustration-up-top-superimposed-over-setting-establishing-photographic-or-digital-horizon-at-the-bottom (usually seen as part of the aforementioned Big Circular Symbol of Something of Whatever template so popular in YA publishing at the time). It's an effective layout, hence it being used so much. But there's something so much less fascinating about a book that not only obeys such a standard template but also visually lays all its cards on the table. Previous approaches used a few striking details to intrigue the imagination. I can’t work out if this cover doesn’t say enough about the world, or says too much. Maybe it’s simply that it doesn’t say the right things. It implies the action but not the tone of the book. In short, the cover is a good and slick cover for a book, but not this book.

The two covers to the right of the row are a couple of the many Lyra-rides-Iorek themed covers produced over the years (in the international market anyway, curiously never in the UK). The one on the far right is the original American hardback cover image and I like it a lot for much the same reason I like the original UK paperback cover: it chooses an arresting angle and composition and crops close on the subjects so we are left with just a few wonderfully interesting elements and a lot of burning questions about their context.

The other is the Spanish edition, which I am very fond of. It actually shows a lot, in much the way I criticised its left-hand neighbour for, but I feel the beautiful styling makes up for it. Digital illustration makes a book look slick but dull because it’s so standard. I don't know about the Spanish market, but in the UK I know the beautiful and unusual watercolour technique of this cover would make it stand out.

And after this wave, we were back to the alethiometer as central device:

I'm afraid the cover on the far left (which is the UK paperback that came after the above Ioreky one) is another one I intensely dislike. It's not a comment on the designer, Helen Crawford-White, whose other work I really love (her Life Of Pi cover is particularly gorgeous). I may be wrong, but in my mind this was produced as a World Book Day edition that somehow ended up as the standard cover for years, so I wonder Crawford-White was even able to engage in a full design process for this. It doesn't seem up to her usual standards. And on the positive, it does return somewhat to the dialed-back visuals that were lost with its predecessor, the Iorek-is-staring-at-you paperback. At least this cover leaves space to be intrigued.

But to me really nothing else about it works. The animal silhouettes look like clip art and the pointless/generic illustrator fronds coming from the alethiometer date it all horribly to the late 2000s. The title seems bizarrely placed, not centrally on the alethiometer or comfortable on the wider cover. The covers of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass from the same suite fared better at least.

The next cover, second from the left (the US anniversary hardback edition from Knopf) is better executed but still doesn't work for me. The random decorative elements fail to convey very much in terms of tone and since the title of the book in the US is already The Golden Comapss, the imagery fails to add anything the title doesn't already contain. It's quite visually different from its already-discussed neighbour but suffers from the same problem of the imagery looking like it has come from a stock library rather than being bespoke.

The covers to the right and far right of the row feature the woodcut art of John Lawrence and feel thoroughly back on the right track. I think personal nostalgic bias aside, the cover on the far left is the best paperback edition Northern Lights has had in the UK and possibly internationally. Woodcut is a perfect illustrative technique for the series: it conveys an air of bespoke care and craft; it feels timeless and assured just like the text; it stands out from piles of digitally constructed covers. In the physical copy of this edition of Northern Lights, the paper is watercolour-paper textured and the lines are spot foiled in a lovely silver-blue giving the cover a lovely silvery-sheen/matte contrast.

Finishing up with an interesting examples that didn't group into any particular theme...

The first on the left (it's a series anthology cover but depicts elements only from Northern Lights so I'm counting it) is the third cover I really dislike.

Again, oddly, it features the work of someone I really like - Kate Baylay, whose work is gorgeously executed Beardsley-esque wonderfulness. But I find the depiction of the bear here deeply and bafflingly awkward in how it's drawn and placed. The composition generally is weird and hard to read. The decorative elements are OK, they have a touch of art deco/nouveau book embellishments. I just find Iorek uncomfortable to look at.

But I simply adore the next cover along, an American paperback edition. Even more than the Lawrence alethiometer cover. The lockup of the title gives it a weight which most designs have failed to impart (which is odd, since both The Golden Compass and especially Northern Lights are great, evocative titles - I'd make more of them). The lockup feels bespoke and handcrafted which as mentioned above I think is the key to getting this book right visually. It's beautifully framed by what I presume is a detail from a vintage star chart (it looks rather like the amazing mural from the roof of Grand Central station), a stroke of genius in capturing both the cosmic-y science-y tone of the fantasy and the place of myth and animal symbolism. The animal is labelled Ursa Major so we know it's a bear but I think the slightly archaic I'm-drawing-this-from-vague-description nature of old illustrations of exotic animals works particularly well here, as it lends the book an otherworldly and ancient vibe. The colour theme across the cover is handled beautifully, the bold but judicious use of bossing and foiling a triumph. The sequel covers are equally beautifully and thoughtfully handled.

I've included the BBC radio drama cover because I think it shows how a monotone digital montage approach similar to the UK paperback I criticised so fiercely (i.e. the Alethiometer/random swirls/clipart animals one) can actually be executed successfully. It’s possible that none of these elements was drawn specifically for the piece but assembled from a stock library, it's hard to tell. But what is key is that all are carefully chosen and montaged to create an effective and evocative whole. I like the treatment of the title and by-line here very much as well. Though the styling is so different from its American neighbour, they both show how artful typography can take the vast majority of the weight in conveying tone and quality.

Finally , the movie tie-in. One of the better decisions the filmmakers made (and while the film was an enormous disappointment, they did make some) was a nice poster. I have no love for movie tie-in editions of books (unless they were printed by Puffin between 1970 and 1995 anyway) but since this has replaced a lot of diversity in covers for the book in more recent years I'm grateful it's not an ugly poster.

So these are the thoughts I have going into my own design for the book. As I mentioned before, I wanted to steer away from the two main directions taken by previous designers: the Alethiometer and the Lyra-and-Iorek grouping. Because those are great images chosen sensibly by skilled designers. But I feel that there’s not much creative excitement in retreading ground that has already been covered so well.

I want to find another way to produce an image that exhibits what I’ve mentioned as the successful features of a Northern Lights cover: handcrafted, depicting only a few story elements, atmosphere and tone prioritised above literal illustration.

And of course I want to avoid the common features of the covers I don’t believe work: blandly digital, not playing their cards close enough to their chest.

Those conclusions do give me pause because I am engaged in producing an image that is a literal illustration in a way (the setting is distorted and abstracted but still); and it is to be wholly digital…

I still think I am onto something good but these are good stars to guide by. I need to work hard so that even if I’m working digitally I don’t end up with something slick, flat and either airbrushed or vectory in appearance. And I need to work to keep the illustrative elements somewhat obscure. I don’t think the fortress image that dominates the cover gives too much away, but I will think about the treatment of the bear figures and Lyra (for what that’s worth; she’s tiny anyway).

I have a problem with the bear on that UK paperback being too… accessible. He just looks like a polar bear, there’s nothing to hint he’s anything more interesting and ambivalent. Meanwhile some of the cover that show him in full armour give away too much visually, allowing readers to pigeonhole what kind of story element Iorek is before reading. The bear as depicted on the David Wyatt cover strikes the right balance, I think: it has an intriguing hint of weirdness (he’s standing like a man and holding a spear) but there’s no context or movement to pin down exactly what’s going on there. The bear on the original US hardback similarly strikes a good balance. We only see his close-cropped face but the hint of intelligence in his expression and the fact he is being ridden by a girl and a mouse is enough to lend an appropriate unplaceable oddness to him as a story element.

So I think much will hinge on my depiction of the bears. I’ll have to think about that one...