March 10, 2011

Notes on design: A 50/50 chance


In 1923, a young organization called the American Institute of Graphic Arts mounted its first annual “Fifty Books of the Year” exhibition. In its early years, the show featured examples of fine design, typesetting, and production on books by authors like H. G. Wells, Rockwell Kent, and Sherwood Anderson. Over time, with publishers increasingly using eye-catching covers as essential components of their overall marketing strategies, star designers like Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand were recognized for their pioneering work, and in the ’90s, recognizing the now near complete divide between the disciplines of interior and cover design,  the competition was relaunched as “50 Books/50 Covers.” These days, selection for 50/50 is considered the highest form of recognition a book designer can receive, and the show has become the central forum for the book design community.

But this nearly 90-year legacy was thrown into jeopardy last month when the AIGA quietly decided to bring 50/50 to an end. When the usual entry deadline came and went without any notice or announcement from the AIGA, the community grew suspicious, until finally it became clear: the show would not go on. Catherine Casalino, an art director for Grand Central Publishing, and Christopher Sergio, an independent book designer, decided to organize a campaign to reverse the AIGA’s decision, and a week later, the Save 50/50 petition was live. Word spread quickly, and by the end of the first day more than 500 signatures had been collected, including designers from every major publisher and many small presses, as well as some more surprising names, like Francine Prose, whose book A Changed Man was recognized in 2004 for its design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, and Dave Eggers, who’s been awarded many times as a designer, editor, author, and publisher. (Melville House has been recognized as well, for books like The Blindfold Test designed by Kelly Blair and the Art of the Novella series designed by David Konopka.) The plea was simple: now, more than ever, books deserve to be celebrated.

The plan worked: after five days and amid a growing clamor from designers, editors, authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, students, teachers, and readers, the AIGA’s executive director, Richard Grefé, released this statement announcing the return of 50/50, including a vision for its future:

We have listened to these passionate voices in the design community, and we have reinstated “50 Books/50 Covers” as a distinct competition…. This year “50 Books/50 Covers” will look much like it did last year, although we are working to adapt the system to include e-books. Moving forward, we will continue to strive to balance proving design’s effectiveness with celebrating the craft and tradition of design in all its forms. We look forward to a continuing discussion on recognizing design excellence through competitions, both with those who expressed an opinion through this process and with our members and chapter leaders.

The success of the campaign is thanks not only to the efforts of its organizers, but to the AIGA’s directors as well, who are to be commended for their open and thoughtful response. It just goes to show that book lovers (and book makers) are a passionate bunch.

Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.