Exercise 4: Designing a cover

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale , 1985

Following on from the discussion of George Orwell’s novel 1984, look at the covers for Margaret Atwood’s equally dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), in which a woman finds herself surviving inside a harsh American fundamentalist society, that sees women’s roles as subservient cooks, matrons, and mothers. Alternatively, you can pick a different book to respond to, but it needs to be one with more than one cover design, so avoid recently published books.

Are there key conceptual motifs being used over and over again within different cover treatments? Can you identify more expressive versions of the covers? Check the date of each version and try to speculate about the historical, political or social context for each one. (Don’t spend long on this but it’s important to realise that creative design doesn’t happen in a vacuum.)

Using one of the main motifs you have identified (such as the uniforms that feature the book), the title of the book, author’s name, and no more than three colours (including black and white), generate as many different layouts of the cover design as you can. Think about how you can dynamically layer, organise, frame, clash, or balance these elements. Work quickly and come up with lots of different visual possibilities.

This is a similar exercise to the Lightbulb Project in Graphic Design 1, which aims to generate quick design possibilities by arranging your typography, motif and colours in as many, and as varied, ways as possible. Examples of students’ responses can be seen here:

Use thumbnail drawings or DTP layouts to achieve at least ten fundamentally different layouts. This is a warm up exercise that will help you with your approach to designing a cover for assignment two.


This is quite a good exercise to work with, as the previous project The Light Bulb was easy and creative and I leant how the same objects can respond differently depending on the position in the space.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, is a beloved Canadian novel and the covers brought it to life. The hit TV series sparked some serious conversations about feminism, politics, and the state of our world.

I wanted to find out more about this book, as I have never read it before. So, what I have learned, is that Handmaid lives in a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.

The Handmaid’s Tale book cover has been redesigned numerous times. The marine visual that comes to mind when I think about this novel is a hidden faced woman in red clough, wearing that unsettlingly sharp white cap, dwarfed by an enormous wall.

The true first edition, 1985 (Canada) As a rare book dealer who has handled first edition copies of this book. The very first cover ever published has this old painting look, with the theme of European traditional art from the 17-18th century, made in the icon style.

Those book covers went through all possible variations, I could see that the image of the particular dressed woman was heavily used for most of the covers. For example, the third cover has only a silhouette of the woman wearing a white dress, she looks like a ghost, I’m guessing that relates to the story itself, the woman whose personality was patronised. Also, most of the covers have an expressive approach, with strong sad and desperate emotion into it, and only a few the conceptual (Vintage, 2017; Vintage Classics edition (“Vintage Futures”), 2016; German edition, Claassen, München, ca. 1985).

The woman hidden behind a white veil in the McClelland and Stewart edition of 2006, has proven that tender colours can be presented for this book cover as well. But mainly, of course, white, red and black colours are dominating, I think that is the way to show the power of the story through these colours. Around the world, too, there are some great covers: a cover published in Russia, as a visual of burnt matchsticks. Also, another example of the cover, which is completely different to others closeup of the face of an old-school Hollywood noir woman, with some pink colours implemented in it for a cover published in France. The German edition looks completely different as well, with red flowers with green leaves and made on a pure white background, those covers are definitely different to others.

I quite liked a few book covers from the set, especially Vintage Classics, 2016 book cover, with the back of the woman with beautiful flowers on them, I think there is meaning into it, that despite the desperation, there is still some beauty (hope) inside to grow. Also, I liked the modern cover Vintage, 2017, I think it was designed by Suzanne Dean, Penguin publisher, the illustrative silhouette of the woman on the plain dark background, the simplicity of it is quite attractive and eye-catching too.

Also, I wanted to highlight beautiful iconic illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso. The visuals, originally created in 2012, are influenced by Soviet propaganda posters and have a constructivist style that appears to have been echoed in the anticipated TV adaptation, which follows the story of a totalitarian, post-revolutionary American society.


To start with, I decided to try to identify the image that I wanted to use in the book. I went through some keywords that I wanted to use for the cover, and that helped me to choose the direction for researching the image to express.

  • Uniforms that feature the book
  • Silhouette of the woman
  • Desperate
  • Emotional
  • Expressive and conceptual

I made some sketches of ladies, looking from different angles. I had ideas to design the image where the whole face was seen, or the face pointing down, so only the top of the hat could be seen, also I sketched different shapes of hats. I found the process of looking for the right sketch I could work with quite useful, I went through as many options as possible, and I found a few solutions I could use for the book cover. I wanted to use the hat of the woman, with her uniform, on the hat itself I could design a face only like an outline, as the details of the face were not necessary at all for it, as I wouldn’t be able to manipulate with it through possible options. All my sketches are presented below.

I’ve noticed, that the full face didn’t show the desperation of the story, it was a more suitable illustration for stories like, for example, Pride and Prejudice. But the image of a woman with stitches on her mouth showed pain and sorrow, which was closer to the plot. The image of a woman with wings had a power in her sight like despite everything she is ready for the challenge and the wings on her back are a good symbol of the holy spirit of the poor woman.

Designing the cover

After my sketches, I created a standard book cover in Adobe Illustrator and started the illustration painting process. I tried different shapes for the hat and chose the second option to develop different designs. I chose the middle option for the book design, and I like the idea of showing the elegant face line in it, to highlight the feminity of the protagonist, despite the complicated destiny.

The first cover was a test, I thought I could use that hat shape with the steached mouth woman, but then I could see that option could only work in more illustrative design, but not for a limited colours vector image I was going to produce. Also, I couldn’t use just only three colours in it, as it needed more shades to illustrate the lady’s face.

I went through as many options as possible for my book cover. I specified colours I wanted to work with, so they were red, white and black, for some covers I tried to see different shades of red and experimented with cream shades instead of pure white, the feel of the cover changed with that slight adjustments as well. What’s so interesting I noticed about my designs, is that I tried not only different locations and scales for the hat, but I used different styles for the cover, like depending on the font, dominant colour and hat location, the feel of the book changed as well. Also, with the location of the objects, with different styles for the cover, some book covers look more like classical novels, some of them have a feel of a dark story, and some of them are lighter and easy-going. For example, an option with little scaled hats, that look like polka dots looked like a girly novel, and the dark cover with huge font in it brought a feeling of the dark side of the story.

I preferred the option of the woman in front of the brick wall, I loved the texture that the background had, and the san-serif font with the image of the girl looked in harmony together. Also, for inspiration, I used similar techniques following the works of Phil Baines, concrete typography and white background for the cover. Also, I had inspiration from artists like Suzanne Deann for her skilful use of illustrations, Ellen Lupton in the option of using little objects for patterns, and Peter Mendelsund for using the handwritten font in the name of the cover. I quite enjoyed comparing different design options for the book cover and the feel that they gave depending on the dominating colour use and object scale. My favourite design option I placed in the mockup.

Book Cover Designs


I enjoyed this exercise and experimenting with different book covers for the same story. What is useful to learn about this part, is the understanding of how the same objects can respond differently, depending on their scale, proportions, colour and font use. From my previous exercises, I learned that font could change the whole feel of the book, but in this case, the size of the object and its location can play a role too. Now I’m excited to see what I can use from the knowledge I’ve got in the second assignment.

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