Jessica Helfand | Essays

Design Competition as Bake-Off

Cover template from Doubleday design competition.

One of the benefits of living in a college town is getting to know people whose disciplines veer dramatically from my own, scholars who dig deep into worlds I will never inhabit. My friends here include historians of science, philosophers of religion, scholars in psychoanalysis and the law—even an ornithologist.

I know nothing (seriously, nothing) about what they do, only that they do it well. So well, in fact, that they’re all—perhaps not surprisingly—published authors. And I am here to report that without exception, each one of them has approached me to discuss the cover design for their books. In the past year alone, I have had a number of delightful, impromptu, and engaging conversations on topics ranging from the history of frozen blood, to the asceticism of Kierkegaard and Kant, to the aesthetic determinism of evolutionary biology, to law, psychoanalysis, and the unconscious.

These consultations are unpaid, usually take place over a glass of wine, and generally result in some baseline recommendations intended to facilitate more cogent conversations with editors and publishers—and in some cases, with the art directors and designers who are tasked with (and paid for) the actual work. It is with this group of people, and with the author, that the ultimate judgment eventually resides.

So, in the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I have willingly advised, and, I hope, helped to advance conversations about a range of visual ideas relating to a host of subjects well beyond my purview: but I have personally designed none of these books. I liken this to an act of surrogacy, a gesture of stewardship. There is no money changing hands, but my responsibility includes no real deliverable, either. It is fun. It is fast. It hurts no one.

But when Doubleday announces an open design competition for the cover of the next Dan Brown bestseller, my blood pressure starts to spike. Forbes estimates Dan Brown’s net worth to hover somewhere around the $140 million mark, but the “prizes” for the chosen winner appear to offer no compensation—unless you read, as I do, that the halo effect of this achievement is to be found in the presumed parasitic attachment to Brown’s epic social media following, which is also in the millions but includes no dollar amount.

I leave it to others to determine whether the open-to-all competition minimizes the value of design itself (a somewhat rhetorical proposition, but Boaty McBoatface comes to mind). As for the language Doubleday uses to elicit interest in this initiative, one wonders who is actually behind this questionable enterprise. “Using only Modern Art and the word "Origin" as your inspiration, let your creativity flow!” I confess that I found some modest satisfaction in seeing Modern Art capitalized, though one wonders how Doubleday—and Brown, for that matter—define “modern”, let alone “art”. Creativity must be flowing around all of that, as fans all over the world contemplate the cover possibilities. And while we’re on the subject of all that is visual–what of the inevitable topic of the subsequent motion picture rights? Rights, indeed: just whose rights are we talking about, here? The mind reels.

The idea of book design rendered as a global free-for-all likens the act of cover design to a giant bake-off. But books are not brownies, and design, like literature, is not a sweet shop. In an age in which design is shared, made transparent, and increasingly framed by the democracy of technology and increased access, designers—myself included—are happy to share our skills when it makes sense to do so. We do it with our friends, perhaps with our neighbors, our colleagues, our families. I, for one, rather like the consultation over a glass of wine model. But I deplore the public competition model —particularly when a multi-millionaire author is brazenly asking any of us to work for free. Designers may not be scholars in existentialism or evolutionary biology, but we’re not stupid.

Posted in: Business, Media

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