Best book covers of 2021

A graphic designer weighs in on some of the most original artwork of the year

(The Washington Post)

As a book cover designer working with a variety of publishers, from independents to large trade houses, I’m acutely aware of the importance a cover has on a book’s success. In today’s digital environment, covers are a key marketing tool, in ways not imagined even 10 years ago: cover reveals on Instagram and Twitter, book giveaway brand collaborations based on a cover’s “look,” and even those essential tote bags. Publishers put a lot of weight on a book cover’s success, often switching the design from hardcover to paperback if sales haven’t met expectations. Highlighted here are some of 2021’s best, selections that defy the levels of approvals needed by marketing, sales, author, editorial and others, just to advance a design to publication.

“After the Sun,” by Jonas Eika (Riverhead)

Cover design by Lauren Peters-Collaer; art by Dorian Legret

There has been a plethora of beautiful illustrations over the past few years, and yet this photographic illustration is distinctive. The type overwhelms the cover, but there is such subtle refinement to the use of aqua highlights on the letterforms, giving the impression that the type is piercing through stormy skies.

“The Four Humors,” by Mina Seçkin (Catapult)

Cover design by Na Kim. Collage art by Ekin Su Koç.

The collage on this cover is striking — the woman’s features are mysteriously covered while the overall effect is one of fragility. I’m drawn to the delicate tendrils of flower stems, which match the carefully composed penciled-in type. The white space helps emphasize the need for breathing room around all the small, delicate elements.

“God of Mercy,” by Okezie Nwoka (Astra House)

Cover design by Sara Wood

I was immediately struck by the strong contrast on this cover: the starkness of the drawn flames erupting from the eye, and how the hand-drawn, blunt lettering echoes the roughness of the fire above the iconic, sculptural face.

“I Was Never the First Lady,” by Wendy Guerra (HarperVia)

Cover design by Stephen Brayda; art by Liset Castillo

The art for this cover is created out of layers of colored sand, which also evokes the layers in this novel. The way the colors build upon one another is intriguing. The hand-drawn type is kinetic — contrasting the straight lines in the vase by cascading down the page along with the discarded flower.

Milk Fed,” by Melissa Broder (Scribner)

Cover design by Jaya Miceli

Sometimes you happen upon a cover where so much is said with so few elements. The designer here has essentially filtered the visual down to its purest form. The colors and unique typeface are also a standout.

“Mona,” by Pola Oloixarac (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Cover design by Thomas Colligan

There is a resurgence of distinctive vintage-inspired typefaces on book covers and this is a great example. The type has a retro feel, as does the illustration, which pair perfectly. The fluid letterforms mirror the amorphous shapes pulsing across the woman’s face. The entire effect is one hypnotic mood.

“My Friend Natalia,” by Laura Lindstedt, translated by David Hackston (Liveright)

Cover design by Sarahmay Wilkinson

Though this jacket has a subdued palette, there is an immediacy in the tension of the design. The shaded lines jut against one another and the clock in the foreground creates a focalized depth. I give a lot of credit to the designer (and the multiple levels of approval at the publisher) for obscuring the title, which enhances the mysterious tone.

My Year Abroad,” by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead)

Cover design by Grace Han

At first, I was drawn to the color palette for this novel, an inviting mix of pinks, oranges and greens — an unusual, almost Deco combination. The shapes function as ambiguous building blocks holding the type and creating a massive precarious balancing act filling the cover.

“A Shock,” by Keith Ridgway (New Directions)

Cover design by Jamie Keenan

There must have been a perfect “a ha” moment when the designer realized that the five letters in “Shock” would reflect each other perfectly as torn paper cutouts (we designers live for these moments). Here, the designer not only masterfully creates a paper-cut illusion, the type also manages to cleverly encompass the title’s meaning: Raw edges lend to the unease of the title protruding through the cover. Paired with a limited palette, this cover is a feat.

“Shutdown,” by Adam Tooze (Viking)

Cover design by Jason Ramirez

So often fiction book covers receive the most acclaim, but as most designers will concede, creating a clever nonfiction title is its own art form. Shutdowns and covid have been on everyone’s mind the past couple of years, and this cover stands out as a perfect encapsulation of the economic chaos we’ve been living through. The scattered, deconstructed bar code is a perfect metaphor for tumultuous world markets, and the design is executed flawlessly with a limited color palette and austere type.

Kimberly Glyder’s studio specializes in book design, illustration and lettering. Her work has been featured in the AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers show, the Type Director’s Club Annual Exhibition, Print magazine, American Illustration, the American University Presses Book Jacket and Journal Show, and the New York Book Show.

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