Beautifully designed physical books create incomparable reading experiences

The best-looking books of the year.
The best-looking books of the year.
Image: Courtesy of Design Observer
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“Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this,” the bestselling author Dave Eggers once observed.

This is an experience that readers who exclusively consume books on their tablets, e-readers and mobile devices at least partly miss out on. To fully enjoy a book, after all, is not just to chew on the protein of its content but also to admire its presentation on the plate—its size and shape, the thickness of the paper as you turn a page, the faint smell of ink, the texture of the cover and weight of it in your hands.

A Kickstarter campaign launched by Design Observer (which ends today) seeks to champion these first “hand-held devices,” as they put it. Led by two of the design industry’s most respected voices, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and Design Observers’s founding editor Jessica Helfand, the fundraising campaign will support the publication of a book and a traveling exhibition showcasing this year’s winners of 50 Books / 50 Covers, a design competition that has been running continuously for 92 years.

Image: Design Observer/George Baier

A planned 300-page “book of books” will be the first printed compendium of winners since Design Observer took over managing the competition from the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 2011.

Publishing the winning book covers digitally just didn’t seem right, the organizers explained, for a competition that seeks to shine the spotlight on the thoughtful, laborious, highly technical behind-the-scenes work graphic designers do to make a physical book come to life.

How books are designed

Aside from reaffirming the cultural significance of the format, the initiative also seeks to underline the design intelligence required to produce a book. Graphic designers act as translators, Helfand explains. The task of a designer is to synthesize information from authors, editors, publishers, critics, investors, and researchers, she explains. “It sounds like fun, but it’s a tremendous amount of work.”

Details matter.
Details matter.
Image: Design Observer/George Baier

Judging books and covers

With hundreds of entries submitted to the competition, choosing the top 50 is difficult. ”What’s the book that’s going to make me happy? That’s my criterion,” Helfand explains. This short video offers a peek into the judging process this year.

Though the project has met its Kickstarter goal as of yesterday (Aug. 11), you can still contribute and show your support for the beautifully designed books. Dave Eggers will be writing the introduction to this year’s catalogue of winners.