March 6, 2015


I was very proud (and very nervous I might add) to be asked to be a judge at the 2015 Academy of British Cover Design Awards.

It’s a new organisation run by Jon Gray (of gray318) and Jamie Keenan (Keenan Design), both eminent international designers in their own right, and nice blokes to boot. It asks its members to nominate the best book cover design done in the UK in 2015, in ten categories (children’s, classics & reissue, crime-thriller, literary fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, mass market, non-fiction, series design, women’s fiction and young adult).

The process was simple, as judges we independently reviewed almost 1000 covers over the categories, and narrowed them down to what we thought were the best six examples of designer in that category. They were submitted back to the Academy, who presented a shortlist of six at the Awards evening, Thursday 5th March in Hoxton Square. There were no criteria for judging, only that you weren’t allowed to vote for your own. Those present at the awards evening then vote for the best covers, and the cover(s) with the most votes wins.

Faced with almost 1000 covers, I kept my responses instinctive. I went through each category in a day and gathered true covers any of which spoke to me. I left it a couple of days, and then picked it up again for a closer look trying to round it down to six (plus another look over the original set to see if I’d missed anything interesting). This second round allowed me to look closer at the design, what it was doing to push the boundaries in that category, if I disagreed with any of the decisions the designer had made with layout or execution – anything I thought could be done better. It had to go into that kind of detail, otherwise the categories would have many, many more covers in them. There was just too much good work…

Comparing the covers within the best 6 was the hardest part, how do you rank something an illustrator has spent a great deal of time on, against something executed quickly but with more impact? Is there any subconscious bias going on? A lot of questions, hence the “instant” approach of mine to narrow the list down in the first round. Jon Gray once said in a talk I went to, that cover work was kind of like speed dating, you get a very short window of time to attract people, or you loose them.

Do I think my judging was on the money? Who knows, I would hope so. In the shortlisted categories, a lot of my choices made it in, which was awesome (I must be doing something right). But beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the designer I am has changed over the years, once upon a time I appreciated much more craft-based covers that work in literary fiction, and coveted doing that kind of work. Now, I look to meet a brief in any area of book publishing, and sometimes ugly design is the best solution and the most rewarding.



A few beers, some pictures to look at, what’s not to like?!

Each member of the Academy (those who come to the awards and drink beer, basically), each get a list and a pen to fill in their votes. The votes are counted and then the results are announced.

I presented the award for Series Design, on stage and everything. Needless to say I didn’t have the foresight to prepare a speech of anything witty, whilst the other judges managed to create raleigh calls about how great we all are, and wear space helmets. I was definitely the most boring.

You can find all of the shortlists and winners here:

The covers that stuck out for me were:

CHILDREN’S – Roddy Doyle, for just its impact.

YA – Spiders, just fantastic illustration from Sam Hadley in a simple design.

SCI_FI/FANTASY – Strange Bodies, another excellent execution by Mark Swan.

MASS MARKET – The Investigation, I thought this was just lovely for a commercially considered cover. Really pushes things. Closely followed by Burial Rites.

LITERARY FICTION – Michel Faber, by a mile. The physical book is a joy.

CRIME/THRILLER – The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.

NON-FICTION – The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, just so simple and pushes the stereotype in non-fiction far enough without being a stranger to it.

SERIES – Ray Bradbury, strong author branding and consideration of the design across multiple titles, while maintaining individual covers’ impact is an art, and this series does it best for me. Variance yet an overriding brand and structure.

CLASSICS – Regeneration. Nice to see a bit of collage for once.

WOMEN’s FICTION – Y. Simple, excellent, great balance.

At the end of the evening, there was a real sense of community in what we do. Jamie called us the cover design family, which is fantastic. Getting out to these events is so important, because its easy to forget as designers we’re part of a group of very talented people, without whom this country’s books would be a very bland place indeed.

To Jamie and Jon – you’re both amazing for doing it, and doing it well. It’s so simple and open, and it gives us a chance to show some appreciation for each other and have a few beers at the same time. Oh, and thanks for my tote bag – love it.


donnap jonandjamie students tote





Submit a Comment

Posted By