10 Type- and Illustration-Forward Cookbook Covers and Why They Work
No photographs here.
Howdy cookbook fans!
And hello from my beautiful, sunny hometown of Madison, Wisconsin! I have a treat for you today: designer Frances Baca is back to analyze some cookbook design, this time looking at cookbook covers. Specifically, covers that don’t feature photographs and instead use type and illustration to entice readers to pick them up off the shelf. I think you will be delightfully surprised, as I was, at just how much can be conveyed via choice of font, abstract illustrations, color choices, and more. This is a long one, so if your email cuts off at the bottom, click on the headline above to read the story in full on the website.
One last thing before I hand it over to Frances: today is the LAST DAY of my fall cookbook season sale. Until midnight tonight you can get 20% off an annual subscription! Tomorrow the price goes back to normal, so if you like stories like the one below and want to support this work, get two extra issues a month, and unlock the ability to comment, click that big orange button below to get started:
Okay! Frances, take it away!
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From renowned chef Chris Scott comes a first-of-its-kind, richly narrative cookbook that celebrates an under-explored foodway in the African diaspora: Amish soul food. Learn more about his new cookbook, Homage: Recipes and Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen.
10 Type- and Illustration-Forward Cookbook Covers and Why They Work
Invariably, the food and drink section of just about any bookshop will be stocked with dozens of books featuring attractive photographs on their covers. Smiling celebrities, sparkling kitchens, and abundant tables entice with the promise that, yes, you too can learn to make roast chicken or salmon-avocado bowls with Chrissy Teigen and Ina Garten. Though the aspirational spark these images ignite can be irresistible, I find myself drawn far more strongly to those books whose covers have no photographs whatsoever (and some, barely even a word of type).
While illustrated and type-only cookbook covers are common in the United Kingdom and Australia, American publishers have a preference for photographs of food on their book covers (this phenomenon is explored here). Australian book designer Andy Warren notes that creative briefs from his local and UK publishing clients communicate this preference indirectly by noting that the cover must have “U.S. appeal.” However, American tastes may be shifting a bit in this regard, as evidenced by the popularity of Black Food and its brilliant type-only cover design. Books like Noma 2.0 and Black Power Kitchen are also recent notable departures from the trendy framed photo covers so familiar to American readers (you know the ones I’m talking about—here, here, here, and just about everywhere).
Few illustrated and type-only covers are executed with a level of skill that allows them to stand out from a sea of beautiful photographic covers, and I’ve combed my shelves to bring you ten examples that are especially remarkable in their creativity and courage. These covers demand that we engage with them on a more imaginative level, challenging our expectations and dropping subtle and, sometimes, deeply meaningful clues to the contents within. The curiosity and delight that these designs inspire are refreshing, and my admiration goes out to the talented designers, collaborative authors, and visionary publishers who push the creative boundaries around what a cookbook cover can be.
By Mark Diacono. Designed by Matt Cox at Newman + Eastwood Ltd. Quadrille, hardcover, 2019.
Sour is one in a series of books by food writer, photographer, and gardener Mark Diacono (who was also involved in the early years of the UK’s famed River Cottage restaurant). Diacono’s book demystifies sour foods and offers recipes that showcase the appeal of their flavors. There is a magic at work in Sour, a transformation of ingredients through processes like fermentation, that encourages a little experimentation and rewards with bold but surprisingly balanced flavors.
The artistry in Diacono’s recipes is reflected beautifully on this cover, whose broad chartreuse brushstrokes, printed on a silky white cloth, feel as fluid and sharp as his writing. Diacono states, “I wanted a cover that slaps you across the face with sourness, that sets the back of your jaw alight,” and he certainly got his wish. The flood of intense color here provides a dramatic contrast to the modestly sized crisp white and dark copper type (the latter printed in metallic ink which here appears black). Sour’s designer Matt Cox cheekily describes the cover as “Mark Rothko on acid,” and, indeed, it paints a vivid picture of a mildly mind-bending taste on the tongue.
By Andrew Whitley. Designed by James Victore. The Do Book Co., paperback, 2014.
Do Sourdough features UK baking authority Andrew Whitley’s easy methods for making sourdough bread at home. Like all titles in The Do Book Co.’s catalog, this book adheres to their single cover design template: large serif and minimally colored type on an off-white background with a small colored illustration signed by the artist. Though the entire series of covers is playfully evocative, this one is particularly so. The crumpled kraft paper and gestural white marks, with a couple of curvy gray wisps of heat rising above, remind me of oven-fresh bread wrapped in brown paper bags.
James Victore designed the Do Book series, striking a deal with the publisher whereby he would accept a modest fee in exchange for complete creative control over the covers—a rare privilege in the world of publishing. “They are mostly surprised and delighted by my choices. Sometimes I will go in the opposite direction that they had in their mind, and that widens the book's peripheral vision and keeps it from sitting in the cliché,” says Victore. Though a loaf of steaming bread may be what one would expect to see here, the cover is elevated by the evidence of the artist’s hand and the exceptional bond of trust that helps guide it.
By Caroline Eden. Designed by Dave Brown at APE. Illustrated by Ivana Zorn. Quadrille, hardcover, 2019.
Black Sea’s unusual design stops me in my tracks—it is rare for cookbooks to have black covers, stripped of any brighter hues to lighten the mood. Despite its somber tone, designer Dave Brown and illustrator Ivana Zorn’s shadowy, swirling cover pulls me into this travel log and recipe book by author Caroline Eden. In the book, Eden explores the histories and foods of cities along the Black Sea coastline. Though there are deep ties of common identity and cohabitation among these communities, there is also evidence of war, division, and mistrust.
Black Sea’s dramatic package—including sprayed black edges that hold the book in a dark embrace—evokes this complexity, weaving together a sense of mystery, magic, and a little danger. But stories of beauty and hope prevail in Eden’s writing, signaled by touches of lighter colors on the cover: a few words set in blue and white, thin gray lines cresting subtly debossed (sinking below the surface of the paper) waves, and an iridescent silver woven throughout the swell and laid over the blocky, faintly Soviet-style typography. The spell this cover casts on me is captured by Eden in the preface, where she describes frazzled travelers on a bus turning toward the Black Sea in wonder: “Mobile phones were taken out and passengers began photographing the waves. The sea’s reassuring strength…lifted the mood and relaxed nerves…its drift hypnotized.”
By Simon Bajada. Designed by Andy Warren. Hardie Grant, hardcover, 2019.
Simon Bajada’s Baltic illuminates the cuisines of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are relatively unknown to North American readers. The pale gold title and small cross—which is called “Māra’s Cross” and is sometimes stamped on fresh-baked Baltic bread—shine like sunlight through a deep forest-green field that appears deceptively sparse. Upon closer inspection, the subtitle and author begin to emerge from the background as a blind emboss (where elements rise from the surface of the paper without ink). The effect echoes the spirit of discovery that infuses the book, not to mention it feels wonderful to the touch. This modern sans-serif type sits alongside the elegant and more traditional-looking serifs of the title—a quiet gesture toward the book’s balance between old and new.
Designer Andy Warren explains, “I remember when I put together the winning concept and thought to myself, ‘I love it, but they will never go for it.’ To my utter surprise and delight the publishing team and author loved the concept as much as I did and even more surprisingly, the sales team signed off on it.” What might be deemed too risky—no photo, low author profile, limited color palette, difficult to read subtitle—was bravely embraced, making this book cover exceptional for its simplicity and daring.
By Bill Granger. Designed by Frith Kerr at Studio Frith. Murdoch Books, hardcover, 2020.
Australian Food is the twelfth book by the self-taught chef widely proclaimed to have originated the avocado toast trend, Bill Granger. Well known in his native Australia, Granger’s restaurants are beloved for their casual ambiance, deliciously unfussy dishes, and fresh local ingredients. I have not dined at any of his nineteen establishments, but the consistently effusive descriptions of his food are pretty convincing—all the more so when I gaze upon the cover of his latest book. Honestly, you must be known for having a great place to eat if your cookbook looks like this: relaxed, whimsical, and brimming with joyful confidence. On the cover, designer Frith Kerr creates a clever visual play on a happy diner, leaning on the fame of the author (whose last name is set provocatively sideways—that’s how confident we are) to pull off a rather spare design treatment. The marketing copy for the book reflects best the essence of what we see here: “It is a bright picture of Australian food…whose main ingredient seems to be sunshine itself.”
Edited by Carol-Jane Jackson, First Edition Translation by Andy Sewell. Designed by Fraser Muggeridge at Fraser Muggeridge studio. Phaidon, hardcover, 2012.
Fish is a collection of authentic Italian recipes from the Silver Spoon kitchen. The recipes, selected on the basis of their reliability and ease of execution, are written in a tone that is encouraging to readers who are new to preparing seafood. This approachable writing style is mirrored in the lighthearted cover, whose quirky fish swim gently across the faintly textured and varnished blue sea background. The art and type, reduced to basic black and white, signal that you’re in for a fun and easy read. But those fish—the more I look, the more I wonder, What exactly are they?
“I like the fact that no one really knows that it’s actually an abstract mobile—that the eyes are the holes in the mobile. I like the idea that the design is found—almost appropriated—and used in another setting, like a picture puzzle,” offers cover designer Fraser Muggeridge. Muggeridge was inspired by an Alexander Calder mobile, whose abstracted organic shapes reminded him of fish. As many as fifty cover sketches were presented to Phaidon, but this one was selected immediately. And with good reason, as one can’t help but smile when you see it—a reaction any publisher would be thrilled to inspire.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s highly acclaimed cookbooks have become instant classics the world over. The UK versions of his books mostly feature wonderful illustrated covers, of which NOPI, named after his London restaurant, is no exception. NOPI, written with the restaurant’s former head chef, Ramael Scully, focuses on cuisine from the Middle to Far East, and its elegant cover hints at the restaurant’s sophisticated and quietly playful personality. Designer Sakiko Kobayashi enthusiastically remarks, “I was lucky that Yotam is very creative and inspiring, so I had the challenge to excite him with the design!” Kobayashi did not disappoint, creating a seemingly simple cover that slowly reveals a more complex interaction of color, shape, and texture. The dark cast-iron pan—a reference to the restaurant’s signature dish, shakshuka—is set against a creamy white background and is encircled by embossed gold foil that echoes the golden “O” in the NOPI logo, which is also set off in metallic foil. These two shimmering details contrast with the lightly distressed surface of the pan, enhanced by a tactile varnished ring that softly shines against the otherwise flat, uncoated paper.
Though I admire this design for its restraint, I adore it for one tiny detail: all of the circles in the pan—the hole at the top, the large golden ring, the varnish along its perimeter, the “O” in NOPI—line up in the middle of the cover (Kobayashi pushed “NOPI” ever so slightly to the right, skillfully, and to the untrained eye, imperceptibly, setting it off center). NOPI’s cover is an excellent example of the rewards we reap for taking the time to stop and look a little more closely.
By Jancis Robinson. Designed by Jon Gray at Gray318. Abrams Image, hardcover, 2016.
Jancis Robinson is an international authority on wine whose book The 24-Hour Wine Expert distills her knowledge into a comprehensive yet accessible text that quickly teaches basic wine appreciation to beginners. The witty writing tone is conveyed brilliantly in this cover by designer Jon Gray. Drawn in both spindly all caps and a flowing script, the hand lettering approximates the immediacy of Robinson’s voice and feels almost like doodles on a cocktail napkin, complete with red wine stains—which, humorously, are noted in online book descriptions as an intentional part of the design (and presumably not spilled on the cover by a tipsy marketing intern).
Heady topics that novice oenophiles might ponder fill the cover, creating a clever visual metaphor for the breadth and density of information crammed into the book’s compact size (a breezy 112 pages at 5” × 7”). The UK version (right, above) of The 24-Hour Wine Expert displays even more text—a special treat for those, like me, who enjoy studying the idiosyncrasies of hand-drawn alphabets. The cover’s warmth and personality are a fitting tribute to Robinson’s wisdom as well as her sense of humor: “Make sure you have some food on hand…to temper the effects of the alcohol. You won’t become an expert if you can’t remember anything.”
By Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli, and Rose Gray. Designed by Stephanie Nash and Anthony Michael at Michael Nash Associates. Knopf, hardcover, 2018.
Capturing a sense of place is an essential quality of any restaurant cookbook, and is a difficult task to achieve on a cover without photos or logos. But for River Cafe London, Stephanie Nash and Anthony Michael’s cover design immediately imparts the lively flavor of River Cafe’s food, space, and history through a whimsical yet restrained combination of type and color. River Cafe London celebrates the famed Italian restaurant’s thirtieth anniversary, updating the recipes in Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s 1996 classic, The River Cafe Cook Book. The palette reflects architects Stuart Forbes and Richard Rogers’s design for River Cafe’s interior—awash in vibrant hues and dominated by a hot pink wood oven (recalled in the cookbook’s pink sprayed edges).
The delightfully distinctive “30” is a typeface designed by artist and color theorist Josef Albers and gives a subtle nod to the importance of both color and art in the restaurant’s history. These numerals jump off the stark white background and provide a dynamic counterpoint to the no-nonsense black sans-serif type. Holding this book in your hands, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself—white tablecloth before you and maybe one of these knives close at hand—transported to River Cafe’s bright and boisterous dining room.
By Blanche Vaughan. Designed by Clare Skeats. Harper Design, hardcover, 2016.
The masterfully minimalist design for Egg, written by British chef Blanche Vaughn, is perhaps one of the most remarkable modern illustrated cookbook covers around. It presents only a die-cut circle and a white debossed oval on a light gray field. The die cut reveals a sunny yellow uncoated endpaper underneath, a clever tactile detail that is complemented by a spot varnish on the oval that mimics the sheen on a sliced cooked egg. Designer Clare Skeats explains that the recipes celebrate the simplicity of eggs, and she wanted the cover to express that as clearly as possible. “I was lucky in that the object I was trying to represent also happens to be a very familiar and readable form, so I knew the illustration could be super reductive. This, combined with the fact that the book was simply called 'Egg,’ led me toward the decision to remove the cover copy. If the title had included even one extra word besides 'Egg', it wouldn't have worked,” explains Skeats.
The decision to omit text on the cover is highly unusual. Vaughn acknowledges, “Yes, it was a controversial choice but I felt that the cover was so strong, it would be diminished by adding text. The idea was that people would want to pick up the book and open it, attracted by the cover, then the authorship could be revealed.” While this approach assumes a high degree of engagement from a casual bookshop browser, it has been largely validated by the widespread praise that the cookbook has received. “I'm sure there must have been some pretty nervous Sales people!” laughs Skeats, adding “Luckily, Blanche was fully behind it, which is kind of amazing when you think about it.”
Frances Baca is principal of Frances Baca Design and Consulting in Berkeley, California. Her studio focuses on editorial design and creative direction and consulting. She has designed and art directed countless cookbooks, and she was the founding design director of the much-loved food and culture journal Gastronomica. Her work has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, the Society of Publication Designers, the Association of American University Presses, Graphic Design USA, the New England Book Show, and Bookbuilders West. You can hear more about her thoughts on cookbook design in the Salt + Spine podcast.