11 October 2016

[SF, Design] Penguin Galaxy SF Classics Cover Design A Challenge To The Eye

(via IO9) Penguin Books have just released a series of five undoubted classics of science/speculative fiction in a package designed to have your SF collector go straight to avarice mode.

They've called the Galaxy series, and it comprises six classic novels: Frank Herbert's Dune, William Gibson's Neuromancer, T.H. White's The Once And Future King, Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, and, saving possibly the best mention for last, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand Of Darkness. The range is undeniably significant (the inclusion of LeGuin legitimizes this collection on so many levels for me, personally) and the packaging, in an orange-tinted plastic box, including a series introduction by none other than Neil Gaiman, indicates that Penguin is taking the subject matter very seriously and driving hard about being stylish about it at the same time. This is cool SF; this is collectors-item stuff.

The designs on the covers may leave your eyes crossing and you on a slow burn, however. The style point is hit hard here and carries the echo of chances taken and creativity at work; the letters, made of lines and rendered in various styles mostly parallel lines, seem to seek to merge a classic feel found in Art Deco with the subjective atmosphere of speculative fiction and a sly graphic visual pun on the themes in the story. This works best with the cover for Neuromancer: shimmering silver-green on green evokes retro computer displays while the visual static hints at similarly-retro visual ideas of displays breaking down, becoming something other than they are and the disharmony represented by Gibsonian dystopiae.

The cover for The Left Hand of Darkness puns similarly, by evoking the theme of gender ambiguity and changeability upon which the novel rests into a double-visioned title that seems to have to live on the cover with an alternative vision of itself in the same space, being both and neither at the same time as it suits.

The most conventional cover is the one for The Once and Future King, an abstraction of a visual cliche on illuminated type; the weakest one, Dune, in which the four letters of the title, two of which almost resemble what a hieghliner might have looked like through an Art Deco lens as held by Dino de Laurentiis, are banished to the four corners of the dark orange title. While this does evoke the emptiness and dryness of Arrakis quite well, it renders the title unreadable as a word.

This series is a true adventure in design, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be the title of an SF work beyond the 'appropriate cover art' ghetto most SF and Fantasy tends to find itself in and elevates it to the level of a more universal literature. However, the reader might find themselves torn between the daringness of the cover design and the simple truth that, in challenging the eye by going heavy on design, some readability … and, hence, communicative ability … might be lost, leaving the viewer with what they may regard as an indulgent exercise in overdesign.

Quoting Brenda Balin, a friend who was at one time an art director, "Form must follow function. These don't function." And, David Gerrold who, on Facebook, blandly stated "They're great design … but they're lousy covers."
I myself feel simultaneously drawn to them and WTF'd away from them.

The Penguin Galaxy series can be more fully peeped at http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/PGX/penguin-galaxy.

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