On the day that Fire and Fury becomes available in UK bookshops, Michael Wolff’s account of the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency needs little introduction. Extracts have appeared in the Guardian and New York magazine; Wolff has been interviewed on numerous TV shows; while the book’s cover has been widely shared in commentary across social media.
Yet the reaction to the design of Wolff’s book has been decidedly hostile, the cover widely ridiculed and regarded as a missed opportunity. Fast Co. Design called it “hilariously bad” in a critique of its strange choice of fonts, “oddly patriotic” colour palette and Image-Search-results photo of Trump wedged between the subtitle and author’s name.
As is the way with such things – most often logos or visual identities – Twitter was quick to mock the design and suggest alternate versions, or at least call for them.
Artist Edel Rodriguez stepped up to the challenge with a striking cover idea (above) featuring an illustration of an open-mouthed Trump, head on fire, which draws on his previous caricatures of the President created for Time, The New York Times and Der Spiegel.
It’s a great cover, but I think the one the book already has works better.
Designed in-house by Rick Pracher, creative director of Henry Holt & Company/Macmillan US, the look of Fire and Fury wasn’t a design decision made lightly – this is a cover that needs to be unequivocal about what this book is about. It also needs to work as a thumbnail image on Twitter and on TV – it’s no doubt going to be shown on more screens than any other book cover in recent memory.
In this sense, the cover never had to be beautiful, or clever; it just needed to be identifiable.
Fire and Fury doesn’t require a beguiling cover in order to attract the customer perusing the shelves in their local bookshop – its hype has already done the leg work. If you own one of the 330,000 printed copies that have already been sold in the UK, according to the Bookseller, chances are you knew what it looked like before you paid for it.
As writer and designer Scott Sullivan stated on Twitter, in relation to Rodriguez’s version – “Unpopular opinion: not everything should be cute. The Fire and Fury cover is appropriate for the book. These ‘well designed’ covers would cheapen the content.”
Furthermore, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut acknowledged that, stylistically at least, the cover actually fits in with the genre of books about US Presidents – he showed the cover of Bush at War by Bob Woodward as an example (above).
The simple red, white and blue-plus-portrait treatment crops up on several other books, such as Craig Shirley’s focus on Ronald Reagan’s late-70s policies, or Peter G Bourne’s biography of Jimmy Carter.
In this way, Wolff’s tome – despite its salacious, often downright crazy content – is in keeping with the established look of serious political books. Again, it needs to convey this aspect in order that its extraordinary content be taken more seriously. And within the context of the bestseller lists – be they Amazon’s or a bookshop’s – Fire and Fury stands out a mile.
Sullivan’s point also addresses the idea that had Wolff’s book been given an on-trend, thoughtfully-illustrated cover (one that we regularly celebrate here on CR, for example), it might actually have more limited appeal – and even offer itself up as a target.
“I feel like it would be much more easily dismissed by the conservative base if it looked like a Che Guevara t-shirt,” Sullivan tweeted. A similar point was made by P Nielsen Hayden, Associate Published at Tor Books: “The proposed design [by Rodriguez] looks like a much smaller and less important book, targeted at a niche audience of people who already know what they think.”
As Love Lagerkvist on Fonts in Use pointed out, far from being slung together with little thought, the typography on the cover is actually more considered than it might appear, though the overall effect might be to convey something of the rashness of the Presidency.
“All capitals, and in your face, with the only possible colour combination, a case could be made for it almost looking rushed,” he writes. “Then again, that is most likely the point: echoing the raw immediacy and faux-outsider aesthetics that underlined Trump’s entire campaign.
“Crude Helvetica is obvious as can be, but the red serif left me puzzled. It ‘should’ be a system font, but isn’t. It’s not even Swift, king of newspaper wedges. What we are looking at is actually Union, a 2000 typeface designed by Gareth Hague. Suddenly, all those angled lines and idiosyncratic counter-forms made perfect sense. If only the same could be said about the book’s subject.”
Hague says he’s happy that such a significant political book makes use of his typeface. “It’s a real moment in Trump’s presidency – it’s great to have a connection with it, however small. That the design is being criticised is inevitable, isn’t everything? I think if you look at the rest of Henry Holt’s offering at the moment, Fire and Fury’s cover design sits in pretty comfortably,” he adds. “It looks like a typical-ish example of mainstream book cover design to me, giving prominence to big title type and pic, and squeezing other info in-between.”
Yet despite the ubiquity of the cover, like it or not, it seems that some have still had difficulty identifying the book. University of Toronto professor Randall Hansen has seen a marked increase in sales of Fire and Fury, his 2008 book on the Allied bombing of Germany during the Second World War, thanks to buyers presumably picking up the wrong title online.
The cover of Wolff’s Fire and Fury may not win any design accolades, but believing that it warrants something more tasteful is missing the point. Like Trump, Wolff’s cover is blunt and unapologetic. Unlike Trump, it may help to get to the truth of what this bizarre Presidency is all about.
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