Here’s a nifty Website devoted to American book jackets of the 1920s through approximately the 1940s. Compare the variety, and think about the amount of time it took to design each cover, draw the illustration, and lay out the type, with the products featured on this Website, which focuses on book covers from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.
Even as a kid wandering through through the library at St. Mary’s Hall, my old alma mater, it was obvious that at some point around 1968, the unspoken rule seemed to go out, that every book jacket had to look the same. You could have any colors you like, as long they were black and white. You could have any font, as long as it was Helvetica. You could have a few graphic accents and maybe — maybe — if you were really lucky, a painting or a photograph. And that was it. I think it was a combination of the success of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage book, and our already ubiquitous old friend, the Helvetica typeface, combined with the tyranny of the grid that caused the closing of the American designer’s mind, as this classic moment from its documentary a few years ago inadvertently explains:
Obviously that ethos struck the book business as hard as it did the rest of the corporate design world in the late 1960s. Fortunately, thanks to programs like Photoshop, Quark, Illustrator, and the like, that mindset is long gone, as any visit to Amazon or Barnes & Noble will highlight. For a few years there though in the early 1970s, it was brutal. But then again, what wasn’t?
(An earlier version of this post previously appeared at Ed Driscoll.com)