Imagine you’re browsing among the art catalogues in a bookshop, without looking for anything in particular. The first thing that strikes you about all of the books there — from a distance, even before you can read the titles — is the colourful covers. Reproductions of famous paintings, intriguing details, familiar styles, indecipherable typefaces… you stroll over to a table next to the shelves and pick up a catalogue. Could you say just what it was that attracted you to it? What made you go for this one rather than some other? If the cover had been different, would have you have looked inside it anyway? And when you did open it, was the interest that the cover aroused in you confirmed by the contents, or were you disappointed?
We tend to think that in the case of an art catalogue, like any other book, the cover is the bait dangled in front of the reader, the siren song we hope will entrance you. Choosing one design over another is not simply a matter of taste. The decision is made according to what we want to say to you, what part of the content we want to focus on, what we believe will attract your attention.
1 Cover of the exhibition catalogue Forgetting Velázquez. Las Meninas.
2 & 3 Other proposed graphic designs. Jason Ellams
Too classical? Too cryptic? Elegant? Daring? Obvious? Will it be interpreted correctly? Des it tie in with the Museum’s line? Is it going to look dated in a year or two? We ask ourselves these and many other questions in the process of choosing the cover of the new catalogue we are working on.
1 Cover of the exhibition catalogue Secret Images. 2 & 3 Other proposed graphic designs. Nino Cabero
In some cases the selection process can take weeks. On other occasions there is unanimous agreement at the first meeting. We often ask the designers who work with us to put forward a range of options, not to feel confined to putting into visual form an idea that we have given them, and to risk offering us even conflicting alternatives. They have been working on the project for months, so nobody understands better than they do the expressive potential of a particular image or the power of a certain typography. Luckily, we can rely on their patience and professionalism when the choice proves difficult.
But the cover is not just image or typography: it’s something we touch, it’s a fundamental part of the physical body of the book, binding it, defining it, supporting it. The choice of format and materials, whether it’s a paperback or hardback, whether or not it has a jacket… whether to put the title on the spine, and if so, how… whether or not to commission a text for the back cover… All of these things have their own particular significance, each one means something and is sure to generate a lot of very different responses among the visitors to our exhibitions who buy our catalogues.
Do you think we made a good choice? Which cover would you have chosen?