A Cover With Spin
Review by Slavka Sverakova

Source - Issue 15 - Summer - 1998 - Click for Contents

Issue 15 Summer 1998
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I have assumed that: (i) there was a clear brief for the design, (ii) the McCann-Erickson agency offered alternatives, (iii) the client selected this design as a sign of approval. If I turn to the observer some contradictions become obvious:

it is a sunset at the West of Ireland
it is like a firemen's handbook
it is threatening
it makes you reject the Agreement
it dictates to you to agree
the figures are about to fall
it is discomforting
it puts me off
it is not inviting

My small and random sample illustrates that expectancies give rise to perceptions (Hochberg 1978), but above all it suggests the design's low control over the recipient. That a cover may act like a referent is not surprising, since we expect it to convey the subject and its treatment. A cover is expected to interpret in visual terms the essential quality and spirit of authors' work.

The cover presents two adults and two children watching a sunset, standing on the summit of a hill or a rock, near the sea. The ground they stand on acts as a part of the black plate for typographical elements - three horizontal lines and one at a slight ascending angle. The dominant colour accord is black - yellow, some reds and purples towards the top. Unless a subversion is intended a cover for a historically significant text ought to be sympathetic to its purpose. When an anomaly occurs people usually manage to ask why and find a reason.

I have worked out four such anomalies.

Hidden Accountability

There is no copyright entry, nor the name of the designer (or agency), nor the source of the image. This cannot be an oversight. Any professional would assess the value of such a commission to their business. Regardless of any stated motivation neglect of copyright and authorship adds up to avoidance of accountability.

Conflict Between The Purpose & Delivery

The cover informs the reader that this is The Agreement, which one should read carefully to make one's decision. The main word (title) is rendered in pale yellow on black, the two other lines in similar type in white, the last line in white scribbled italics. The slippage from information to expressive values occurs both in the rhythm of letters and in the colours. 'The Agreement' marches across the page, dipping its last letters in the sand. The type is severe, the colours suggestive of danger. After all, yellow and black is on the sign for the danger of nuclear radiation and for the possible computer crash in the year 2000 (2000 Bug, a current TV ad). In nature it is a recognised warning signal e.g. wasps. While the title embodies sign of danger, the recognition of individual's responsibility is relegated to a casual memo, something like an afterthought. A conflict is thus apparent between the proposal of agreement as a better choice than violence and agreement as danger, and also between the apparent value of democracy and the casual treatment of an individual's work for it.

The Insecure Family

The two adults and two children presented in flat black silhouettes may or may not be a nuclear biological family. They may or may not be residents in this part of the world. They are presented as two males, two females, white and young.

The two male silhouettes have profiles, which serve both the function of intensified gender identification and by facing in each other's direction, as a balancing visual relationship, working against the main pull to the right. This pull is forged by two descending curves. One follows the ground as a sharp edge on the hot sky, the other circumscribes the composition of the group and also dips towards the right edge of the cover. The two curves intersect outside the paper reinforcing the asymmetrical pull (which is further accentuated by the glimpse of beach behind the last two letters of the Agreement - optically weakening the horizontal).

The image is incapable both of stronger characterisation of the persons and of providing security for the 'family' real or imagined. The ground on which they stand is fragile and descending.

Generating Further Insecurity & Fear

The silhouettes are virtually trapped on the page, not much air above the tallest of them (itself an archetypal patriarchal norm) - they have to compete for space with the typography and the rather apocalyptic sky. The ground is insecure, the decision making rendered casual. The idea of flat black figures on the ground of a hot sky is a meme (R. Dawkins) well established in designs for horror stories and science fiction. All such designs I have seen, strangulated any possibility of real success in ordinary life. No surprise - the idiom was originally developed in the late middle ages (Helis of Bosch, Temptations by Grunewaid, Apocalypse by Durer etc.) as a critique of morals by reference to higher authority. The nineteenth century translated these concerns into the desolate wounded individual facing the enormous forces of nature and fate. Any of these associations would increase the cover's power to generate negative feelings. The higher authority, however, in this case is fear.

During the Twentieth century the device has escaped into the popular culture.

All the problems raised by the cover point to a case of critical impotence by the designer or the client, or both.

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