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Go Set a Watchman: Reading the Artwork


Go Set a Watchman Us and UK cover designs

Arguably the most hotly-anticipated novel in 2015, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, had both its UK and US jackets revealed to the world this week… swiftly followed by the world’s opinions.


My initial thought was how beautiful and restrained they were. Then I thought about the thinking behind their design – because, as a book cover designer, I’m used to seeing the process from start to finish, and I’ve heard enough discussions of why we should go one way or another to make a (somewhat) educated guess as to why HarperCollins in the US and Penguin Random House in the UK came up with these particular designs.


At face value, both jackets use strong and bright typography with a simple illustration style to create an immediate effect, but let me take a (massive) guess at the design brief and the discussion behind it:


What is the most important information we need to communicate?


Firstly, author (obviously, “Harper Lee” will be large).


Then, To Kill a Mockingbird.


And finally, the title.


Both covers appear to have this hierarchy: they are essentially the same brief with different outcomes. Simply put, they are aimed at those who love (and those who have heard of) To Kill a Mockingbird.


The blue US jacket (designed by Jarrod Taylor) is a love letter to the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird – from the typeface used, to the pictorial style. The name of Harper Lee stands prominent (notice that on the original edition her name is on one line and is much smaller).


Of course there is the “Author of” line across the top, but the entire cover is To Kill a Mockingbird, just 20 years on from the original story’s timeframe. There sits the tree, a little older now, with far fewer leaves and without the beautiful vibrancy of the green. Instead the ones that remain are gold; perhaps Scout returns in autumn, or it’s a suggestion of her age, or of Atticus’s age – he is in his “golden years” after all.


The background of rich blue-green with its hints of purple contrasts with the bold orange of the UK cover. Perhaps another allusion to age? Is it dusk? It suggests the literal return of Scout (out of the blue?) to her past, as the train rumbles towards us and the tree.


It is, as with most hardbacks of popular authors, aimed directly at the core audience of Harper Lee fans and, I believe, has been designed with the sole purpose of being a companion to the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.


By contrast, the UK jacket (designed by Glenn O’Neill) is a standalone and isn’t relying on a previous design. Instead it interprets the brief in a much simpler way – be bold, bright, direct and rely less on narrative.


This cover, with its rich orange texture and striking typography, is designed to draw you in and hold your attention. At first I thought the use of the branch and bird (the tree is a recurring theme on many To Kill a Mockingbird covers over the years) was little more than a decorative element with a nod to the first novel. However, it is in fact a necessity: it acts as a device to separate the equally sized and spaced author and title typography.


The bird and branch were never going to be enough of a connection to To Kill a Mockingbird, so the title of the original novel appears in ghostly form. The decision to give equal prominence to the title and author name is new to me, though I’ve been asked many times to change the ratio of type sizes.


Subtle may be the wrong word, but the designer has made a concerted effort to reduce the type’s impact and has done this by matching the drop shadow colour behind the book’s title and italicising the letters. The effect gives the appearance of Go Set a Watchman casting a shadow across the cover; notice how the placement of each letter within To Kill a Mockingbird almost lines up with the white letters above it. The shadow is not behind the type, it lies in front – a hint at Scout’s return to Maycomb perhaps? Whether intentional or not, it’s a beautifully subtle gesture towards the novel that came before.


The font used appears art deco – a style born in the 1920s and 30s – which for a novel set in the 50s is interesting. Perhaps it’s another link to the past, or perhaps it just looked good… or maybe the editor liked it. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things.


Both jackets use nostalgia as a key aspect of their design, paying respect to a novel which is on every “Books to read before you die” list. And these books will sit nicely alongside your edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.


Whatever you think, whether you agree with me or not, the designer of these covers will have given a lot of time, effort and thought to the creation of something that not only looked good, but also that embodies the importance of this book – and at paperback stage the process may start all over again, as the publishers look to hook in new readers.


All of which may come as a surprise to those who believe the publishers could have written “The New Harper Lee Novel” in Times New Roman on a piece of white card and still have a bestseller on their hands.


This was originally published for the Guardian Books Blog on Friday 27th March 2015, you can find it here.