Ernest Beck | Report

Hard Times for Hard Copy

The library in the Manor house of Betliar, Slovakia

New York designers Catherine Casalino and Christopher Sergio don’t usually think of themselves as rebels, but when they learned that AIGA, the professional design association, was about to “quietly scuttle,” as they put it, a book cover and design competition cherished by the design community, they decided to rally the troops and fight back. The longstanding competition, 50 Books/50 Covers, was about to be integrated into a broader competition called 365/Design Effectiveness, ending more than 80 years as a standalone event. To block the move, Casalino and Sergio circulated an online petition that garnered more than 500 signatures in less than a day, part of a broader effort by many designers to convince AIGA leadership to reverse course, which it eventually did. “There is a history and a lineage in AIGA’s celebration of book design, and that is so incredible we wanted to defend that,” the 33-year Sergio, who runs his own studio, says.

The effort to save 50 Books/50 Covers reflects the importance of the competition, which has been run since 1923 and is a highlight of the clubby book design community. Each year, a jury selects the best in several categories and the winners are honored in a book and exhibition, making the competition not only a showcase for cover art but also a much-sought-after accolade, many designers say. In the age of e-books and e-publishing, the competition has taken on special meaning as cover designs are shrunk to postage-stamp-size on an electronic screen and text formats are limited.

Yet the debate also underscores the dynamic changes taking place in the design world, especially for more traditional areas such as book and cover design, as well as AIGA’s role in advocating for its 20,000 members.

While critics of the move likened integration to a vote of no-confidence in the profession, AIGA had no intention of slighting book designers or denigrating their work. Clement Mok, a former AIGA president and board member, says that integrating book design into the broader 365 competition, which includes digital and cross-media as well as print, “acknowledges the reality of what it means to be a designer in the 21st century.” Mok, who is currently designing apps, adds that “the book design community is one of many constituencies AIGA represents, and to single out book design as more important than other types of design for symbolic reasons is living in the past.”

There were a number of compelling reasons for AIGA to consider integrating the competitions. Despite its longevity, 50 Books/50 Covers appeared to lose momentum over the past few years. The number of entries slipped to 810 in 2010 from 916 entries in 2008 (AIGA membership is not a prerequisite to enter). In 2008 the jury managed to select only 48 covers and 41 in 2009. What’s more, the competition has been operating at a net loss to AIGA for the past 15 years. Entry fees do not cover the cost of promoting and mounting the exhibition and publishing the book. While publishing houses say they support the competition by paying entry fees, “they do not provide any sponsorship of the competition or exhibition right now,” notes Ric Grefé, AIGA executive director, who proposed integrating the competitions.

Grefé sees the debate in the context of the organization’s attempt to adapt and be relevant to members with increasingly diverse practices. There was a perception, Grefé thought, that the dueling competitions positioned AIGA principally as a print design organization, and therefore was treating other forms of design unfairly. “My point was, you should allow us to promote you in a broader design context,” Grefé says about book designers. “We wanted to place books in the context of design, as an element of design and communications. By putting it aside, we made it seem out of the mainstream and possibly anachronistic or separate from fundamental communication design.”

Supporters of integrating the competitions also say such a move would boost the ability of AIGA to more accurately represent what designers do to the public. “The mission of AIGA is to make what we do be known to everybody, so it speaks much more for the design profession to be part of a larger show,” explains Anthony Russell, a former AIGA president, who runs his own design firm in New York. “People who don’t know what we do should know about everything we do,” he adds. “We have a huge range of expertise and capabilities. The diversity of our work should be shown.”

AIGA President Debbie Millman says the organization was at the same time wrestling with the overall structure of its competitions. “We asked ourselves, why not have competitions for 50 packages, and 50 websites, and 50 logos? It was a valid question.” The idea to combine the competitions was part of an effort to “democratize the playing field,” she explains. It was also a reaction to the perpetual decrease of entrants. The petition was circulated right before an informal meeting in early March of AIGA board members and past presidents, prompting a lively discussion at the get together, she recalls. An unofficial straw vote taken at the meeting favored merging the contests.

Still, the initial decision hit a nerve, in part because it was poorly explained by AIGA, which didn’t adequately reach out to consult with the design community, according to Sergio. In that sense, he explains, it was critical to know how many signatures on the petition were from AIGA members: of the 1,284 people who signed, 544 checked a box asking “are you now or have you ever been an AIGA member,” or 42 percent. However, Grefé says the organization’s random check of 178 names showed that 22 percent were current members, 17 percent were past members, and 60 percent had never been a member. The discrepancy, he suspects, was due to the way the question was phrased.

Leading book designers who signed the petition voiced differing reasons for their support. “It is the time to get behind book design and emphasize that it is still relevant,” says Chip Kidd, the designer and author who is an associate art director and editor-at-large at Knopf/Pantheon Group. “There’s tons of great work going on and that is what the show is supposed to be about and celebrate.” Carin Goldberg, who built her career on book and cover design, looks back fondly on 50 Books/50 Covers as one of the few competitions that has really focused on the field. Its potential demise, she says, “was discouraging, knowing how long it has been around and how invested we are in the book business.” Book design must and will evolve, she acknowledges, “but it is still a viable medium.”

While the heated debate suggested fears of the demise of book design, people in the industry believe that the profession is in a state of transition rather than a death spiral. “We haven’t changed anything but it is something we talk about and will have to deal with in the future,” reckons Cindy Spiegel, publisher at Spiegel & Grau, a Random House imprint. “Right now the cover is as important as ever for visibility on websites and in stores.”

At this point, book designers say they are still creating print covers that are simply shuttled over to the e-division without a unified concept or approach. “The design aspect hasn’t changed, but it will,” notes Sergio, who like other book designers believes that books and covers will endure in both print and electronic versions. “Digital versus print is a zero-sum argument,” he says. “These roads are not mutually exclusive. If anything, we want to see more competition and more critical exploration [of book design]. That’s why it would have been a shame to blend it all down into one big thing.”

Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram Design, agrees that book design — in whatever form — is important because people still relate to visual imagery. “It’s the emotional connection,” she says. “People still remember record covers although nobody has records anymore.” Book jackets matter, whether they are on a piece of paper or in an electronic version, she continues “because when none of it matters because it’s digital or nobody does it or it doesn’t save the planet, then we murder our own craft and give excuses to be mediocre and lower standards bit by bit.”

Now the AIGA website proudly proclaims that 50 Books/50 Covers is “back by popular demand!” Designers Sergio and Casalino say they are “acting as a bridge” between the organization and the book design community to see how the competition can be improved and expanded. Both sides praise the new spirit of cooperation. It’s a sense of optimism the profession needs as it heads into uncharted territory. “Technology is changing how we design books and how the reader experiences books, Casalino says. “But we are not an endangered species,” she adds. “We will have to adapt.”

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [16]

the fraud that is design competitions should be abolished. most of the judges are not even qualified themselves, much less to judge somebody else's work. if not that, then end the exorbitant fees necessary to enter and to exhibit the "winning" works. it can only open the field.

And what is so creative in today's book design? What is worth honoring? It's nearly as moribund as the printed page itself. If it is in metamorphosis then it's still larvae. Just a thought.
Robbie Kay

Wouldn't it be wonderful if designers were recognized for blurring the boundaries between texts, rather than erecting the facades of obsolete codices and burying human knowledge in withering pulp coffins?

Robbie, every day I see plenty of people reading books (or e-books) on the subway, not to mention all the people I see in bookstores, which I visit often. And I see plenty of creativity in current book design, as well. Just a thought.
Ricardo Cordoba

It is true in any era that those who are truly creative is quite a small number. Not just the amateurs and those who go through the system earning a degree for pathetic work and come out doing even more tragically low caliber stuff.

As for plenty of people reading books on the subway etc, they are generally the masses reading some university textbook, some NYT bestselling thriller or some trendy crap such as that created by the McSweeney's factory of comic book level/ hipster/trendster junk. they are no good way to judge the future of books.

As for book design, it has been pretty stagnant as of late. Name some well designed books, please. That'd be a start.


Hey Y - what is "truly creative" and who made you king?

I'm with W.

I can see the argument from both sides, though I personally would like to see the book award subsumed under the larger "design awards" umbrella. I think it's a better reflection of the design profession in the 21st century.

Dear Candace,

Are you Art Chantry in disguise?

Also I am with W and R

Isn’t this a good time for book design to get a facelift rather than seeing the same out thing?

Yeah! I am with W too
alice deng


A printed book is a mass produced object, ergo it is designed for the masses.

Also, you've just ruled out the design (and reading of) of non fiction, cheap fiction, comic books, contemporary novels, essays and literary quarterly journals. What kind of books do you find acceptable?

While I recognise that aiga are finding that the competion is no longer functioning properly, at least with the name 50 books/50 covers you know what you're getting. 365/design effectiveness is so wooly sounding. It's like newspeak.

i can understand the desire by some to eliminate the competition, but i find the amount of hate and venom spewed for anything relating to print by some design proffessionals to be sad.

I think there is something for history and tradition...we should keep it, but maybe introduce other competitions.... "50 home pages/50 websties, or 50 interfaces/50 devices...i dunno, something a bit more inclusive for the wide spectrum of whats being done today.

The book is still important. Book design is more exciting than ever. I see more quality design and thinking on the shelves of my bookstore than my daily internet travels on homogenized blogs and default 3 column sites.

I've been thinking about what happened here.. I see where AIGA was coming from. The 50 Books/50 Covers really could seem to be privileging books over other formats. And looking at the AIGA website, the 365|Design Effectiveness Competition could seem a too general alternative? Now that 50 books/50 covers is back, I agree with the commenter above me, it'd be great to have a 50 websites, 50 logos, etc. alongside it.

It's a crazy time, right? What is graphic design? It's not book dependent. If you're a book designer, does that mean you're incapable of appreciating a website or packaging? The sooner the profession can reasonably encompass digital formats, the better says me.

I feel like the subtext here is that people don't understand websites, they don't want to understand them, they're inconvenient or less fun or come with new challenges. Graphic design is not bound to the book, if we chain the profession to a single format, that's like digging a grave. I was just talking to someone yesterday who said they have a friend in Philly who's a graphic designer and he can't find work because he can't make websites.

If people don't think websites are good enough or cheating or something, we should think about that and retrain. 50 websites. Maybe a 50 websites competition would help improve website aesthetics and inspire new creativity in that arena.

I love books. I've read all the stuff about print dying and I really think books will always be with us in some capacity. We could even see a mini-boom in cover design inventiveness over the next few decades. Btw, if you don't think there's good book design going on, you're not looking. And I like the McSweeney's stuff, hipster or not. They push it all the time and try new things. Is Eggers still using Quark?

Books are special. We should want to make and want to have special websites or apps or..? It can happen.

Peter A Jacobson

Why is design a competition? Its odd that THE AIGA continues to promote this notion and then screams about design crowdsourcing (a massive design competition...with clients!). Design is communication, not competition. Stop this foolish competition nonsense--regardless of the media. It's gone on long enough (since 1923!).

I am still wondering why no one has records anymore when only a relatively small percentage of music prior to the advent of compact disc technology is available in digital format. That's only, what? 100 years? I could get really snarky and say that perhaps history didn't really begin until 1980, but I have too much respect for Paula Scher to try that.

Terrence Chouinard

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