In late 2015, Pottermore announced the launch of a new batch of Harry Potter book covers – but only for the ebook versions.
What’s interesting is that the designer, Olly Moss, made these new digital covers look old and tactile. Personally I love them. But even putting my subjective tastes aside, there’s so much to talk about that I’ll be splitting this topic in two. This first post will cover Design, or how these book covers look the way they do. In the second post, I’ll discuss Target Market, or why these design choices were made in the first place.
Moss made a deliberate choice to capture the warmth and nostalgia of traditional literature. Think yellowed paper, Charles Dickens, the smell of old libraries, crackling fireplaces, and ripping good yarns. How was this effect achieved?
1. General Tone
Simplicity of Design
There are no high-res photographs here. No bevelled edges to text. No gradients. Even the illustrations are simple, with a very limited color palette. The result is a subconscious allusion to a time when the printing press was still in its primitive stages, and incapable of the feats we take for granted today.
Generally, your choices for typeface include Serif and Sans-Serif (for practical purposes, I also like to include Slab Serif and Script typefaces). On the whole, Serif typefaces convey tradition, while Sans-Serif typefaces have a modern feel. The choice here is clear: Serif equals tradition. Note also the use of Caps to give a certain heft to the text, and the dropping of Caps for less important words like ‘of’ and ‘the’. It’s a minor detail, but a nice visual contrast and the mark of a pro. Finally, note the centered alignment. Again, this lends a stateliness and balance to the text that conveys tradition.
Each book cover is dominated by one particular hue, for example green, purple, orange, or teal, and colors are analogous rather than complementary. Again, this alludes to the limitations of an earlier printing press. The color values are very dark, which conjures the illusion of a bygone era, before electricity – a time of mystery, magic and traditional tales, all of which are vital elements in the series.
Textured overlays and grunge effects simulate buffing and wear. This gives the impression of a real, highly-tactile book cover – a nice irony for eBook covers! It’s an effective and differentiating choice. When so many contemporary book covers place an emphasis on crisp, clean lines, all those textures are a welcome feast for the eyes.
And, of course, there’s the tradition element again. These actually look like old book covers … with one minor deviation.
The illustrations do convey old-world charm through textured brush strokes and a limited palette, but there’s also the touch of the modern designer in there. Check out the simplified, geometric hands in Goblet of Fire below, and the slightly angled lines on the cup:
That’s not a traditional-looking illustration. Retro, yes. But not traditional. It’s just enough to grab our attention.
Content & Symbolism
These covers have some great examples of visual puzzle-solving.
1. Chamber of Secrets
The most obvious thing here is the sinuous, snake-like silhouette in green and black. Not only is it a bold, eye-catching shape, but it references the subterranean Chamber of Secrets AND the monster that lives within. As if this isn’t enough, we can see poor Harry, alone in the dark, deep in the belly of the beast. This cover is saturated in symbolism.
2. Order of the Phoenix
Here’s a perfect example of negative space, where what’s ‘missing’ from one image creates a new shape, and a new object. In this case, it’s not just a clever puzzle; it actually gives the impression of a giant phoenix rising from the depths of Hogwarts Castle. For those who know the book, that’s a great piece of visual storytelling too.
3. Half-Blood Prince
This one also offers a nice homage to the original covers, in which Dumbledore stands in a swirling vortex of conjured fire. In addition, Moss manages to reference the Potions Book that plays such an important role in the story.
While each cover is unique in terms of the illustration, they undoubtedly work as a collection thanks to unity of design. How is this unity achieved?
The textual overlay for each cover is identical, with the exception of the title itself, which is of styled identically. The colored and numbered disc at the bottom is another node of repetition. With series’ design, each cover needs to be individual enough to capture interest, but clearly part of a cohesive whole through repetition of design elements. Achieving this balance is crucial.
HSV (Hue, Saturation, Value)
While the hue of each cover is different (ie. green, purple, orange), the saturation of each is similar. The only possible exception to this is perhaps the Order of the Phoenix – that bird is crazy bright! The color values (what might be thought of as the ‘grayscale’ values) are also similar, and generally sit towards the black end of the scale. This, too, creates unity.
Okay, so that gives a brief overview of the design choices, and how they combined to achieve a strong emotional impact. In Part 2, I’ll be talking about why this path was chosen. This might seem backwards – you identify your target before shooting for it, right? – but we needed some design context first.
These are very special books, after all, with many cover iterations, and that opens up a whole lot of interesting questions about target market.