Our first exercise for "Comm Lab: Visual Language" is to choose a design example that we like, and analyze it according to the four principles of design (grid system, hierarchy, typefaces, and color). I chose the cover of a book I'm currently reading, The Agony of Eros by philosopher Byung-Chul Han.

Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros. Paperback edition by MIT Press, published 2017.

Although he is an academic philosopher, Han tends to write short books that are more approachable and more widely-read by the general public. In The Agony of Eros, Han criticizes the state of eroticism and of intimate relationships in our society, tracing what he sees as the destruction of genuine desire and love by the spiritual underpinnings of neoliberal capitalism - consumerism, individualism, narcissism. The "agony" in the title is dual in meaning. Primarily, it refers to the agony of eros itself - that is, the death of genuine eroticism in contemporary life. Secondarily, Han describes genuine erotic love as requiring a surrendering of oneself in order to genuinely encounter the ultimately foreign being of another person - hence, from the perspective of the ego, eros involves a sort of agony, that of letting go of control and facing the unknown.

At least, that's what I've gathered so far - I'm only a chapter and a half in. The important points, for our purposes, are (1) that the book is about love and eroticism, and (2) that it is a book of high-minded philosophy, but concisely written and containing (3) a scathing critique of contemporary society. Let's keep those in mind as we analyze the design of the cover.

I. Grid System

The cover follows a slightly unconventional layout in that it is rotated 90 degrees - in the image above, the spine of the book is at the top. This design choice allows the title to be more striking, by taking up a much larger portion of the cover than if it were printed horizontally. Combined with the simplicity of the design, this layout makes great use of the limited space of the book cover, which measures only 7 x 4.5 inches (~ 18 x 11.5 cm).

For the remainder of this discussion, I'll treat the cover as being rotated on its side. Since most people would rotate the book in their hand to read the cover, I find it more intuitive to talk about the design this way. So, "vertical/horizontal," "row/column," and "height/width" will be relative to the text direction of the cover.

The grid system is also simple. The title forms one of six rows, the second row being occupied by the author credit and the foreword credit. Following the rule of thirds, the author credit occupies two-thirds of the vertical space of the second row, and the foreword credit one-third. Drawing a midline on the cover, we see that the author and the foreword credits approximately fill the left half of the horizontal space. A credit for the translator sits near the bottom of the sixth row and aligned to the right. The translator credit is very small and its alignment to the grid is less obvious. The primary use of a grid system in the cover is the equivalence between the height of the title and the combined height of author and foreword credits.

II. Hierarchy

The cover establishes a clear hierarchy, with the title as the single most important element. The title vastly overshadows the three remaining elements, filling the whole width of the cover.

The title is the single most important element.

The author and foreword credits are the second most important elements. Placed together in the same row of the grid, and occupying nearly the same horizontal space, they act as a unit. This reduces the main hierarchy of the cover to only three elements - title, author credits, and translator credits. The overall design is thereby simpler and cleaner than it would be with four separate elements. Moreover, Alain Badiou is a renowned contemporary philosopher, so grouping his name with Han's emphasizes his endorsement of the book. Finally, since he wrote the original content of the foreword, his contribution is more similar to Han's than to the translator's.

The author and foreword credits form the second most important element.

Although the author and foreword credits combine into a single top-level element, there is a clear hierarchy between the two of them, with Han much more important. This second-level hierarchy is communicated not only by the doubled height of Han's name relative to Badiou's, but by the choice of colors. As the only blue (and the only dark-colored) element in the cover, Han's name stands out more than its size alone would allow.

Finally, the translator credit occupies the lowest position in the hierarchy, and is therefore placed separately from the others, in a bottom corner, and in the smallest font.

The translator credit is placed in the bottom corner, like a formality or an afterthought.

III. Color

The background, which occupies most of the cover's area, is a vibrant shade of red - the color of passion. It is a light red that borders on the pink, evoking sexuality. The text is primarily white, making it clearly legible but blending in - the text refuses to disrupt the overall visual impression of the cover as a block of a single color. The windowshade effect on the title additionally serves to maintain the dominance of the red background, even as the title takes up the most space of any text element. Furthermore, it leaves the passionate red permeating the title itself, fitting with its reference to "eros". Chromatically, the negative space dominates, referencing the all-consuming nature of erotic desire.

Only the author's name stands in chromatic contrast. It is a dark blue, but looks closer to black or a dark grey when not in sunlight (I took the primary photos for this post in indirect sunlight). Close to complementary, blue stands out against the red background. Despite the size of the title, the viewer will probably notice the author first when glancing at the book, due to this stark color contrast. Particularly in the world of philosophy, where authors generally develop their own unique perspective or themes across their whole body of work, it is reasonable to foreground the author in this way. (Since the title of a book is traditionally largest on its cover, emphasizing Han's name by making it larger would have violated this expectation and risked an impression of vanity.)

Under incandescent light, the author's name appears closer to black in color.

Blue is a cool color and often symbolizes calm, so arguably the choice of color for Han's name communicates his role as logical analyst of such a passionate subject as erotic love. But perhaps that's reading too much into the color palette. At any rate, while they are not as interesting in their design as the cover is, it's worth showing here that the color palette is kept consistent across the spine and back cover of the book.

IV. Typography

I am not sure of the typeface used in the design - What The Font? suggests the Aago family, but that doesn't seem quite right. At any rate, it is a sans-serif font, with very straight and angular lines, and each stroke ends in a hard edge. Combined with all-caps style, this typeface invokes clarity of thought and bold, concise statements. By embodying that boldness in large text and all-caps, the designer avoids the use of a bold-weight font, which would take away visual space from the dominating red background. Only a single typeface is used throughout the whole cover - the text on the back cover uses the same font but does not maintain the full capitalization.

V. Conclusion

The design of the cover of The Agony of Eros is focused on simplicity, clarity, and a chromatic evocation of erotic passion. The title is concise, and the cover displays no subtitle, image, publisher, or other unnecessary elements - only the title and the credits of the three contributors. The space is visually dominated by a lurid red background, against which the narrow-weight and primarily white text stands out only subtly. However, the large, all-caps text - the title runs the whole length of the spine - communicates that this small book contains strong, bold ideas - further emphasized by the contrasting dark color used for the author's name. Concise clarity, boldness, and an evocation of the erotic - these three defining traits of the design match my three earlier points about the nature of the book.