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Exercise 2.4: Designing A Cover

Updated: May 28, 2022

This exercise explored the idea of reinterpreting a book cover for a for a new edition of a previously released book. Re-releasing of popular titles is a common practice in the book industry, especially when the story is brought back into cultural spaces through other media such as TV and film, which can lead to increased interest in the original novels. In this case, I was asked to look at Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, a book that I was not familiar with outside of hearing the name in connection to the ongoing TV adaptation that began in 2016.

I started by familiarising myself with the synopsis and key plot elements to write notes on in my sketchbook, while also gathering up cover images from any of the previous book releases that caught my attention.

Analysis of the books main plot synopsis.

The story of The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian version of the United States where a revolution has transformed the nation into a new regime known as the republic of Gilead. Society has been rearranged into a new structure of rigid social classes and religious fanatic ideologies that limit people's rights, especially for women. Pollution and radiation has also rendered most women infertile, and those who can still bear children are designated as 'handmaids' in a subservient role that must provide children for any of the infertile ruling classes. The story follows the first-hand account of the struggles of one handmaid called Offred as she tries to navigate and escape this bleak society.

Once I had a grasp on what the story was about, I could then see where these themes had been brought out by the cover designers. Colour is key to the story, with different classes dressing in certain ways, and red is featured heavily as it is part of the designated uniform for handmaids. It's interesting to look at how these covers have developed and changed their visual approaches over time.

'The Handmaid's Tale' cover variations.

The first edition cover is an unsettling collage with cubist influences and the earlier covers generally seem to stick traditional illustrations. As time has gone by however, designers have been more experimental in their interpretations with influences from a variety of different art movements. Some of these are more conceptual and try to tackle the deconstruction of identity.

Almost all of these interpretations revolve around the distinctive red and white bonnet uniform that's synonymous with the handmaids uniform from the novel, and this striking motif is particularly effective in the minimalist cover first introduced in 2006.This is a stark contrast to an alternative release the same year, which stands out as an exceptions in having a photograph of the author on the cover instead of an artistic interpretation of the story.

With the handmaids uniform as my main motif, I started to develop some of my own design concepts on A7 flash cards using only black, white and red colours. I've used this technique before as part of my process as I find it easy and convenient to organise my thoughts this way, but I wanted to try a small my initial approach to idea generation slightly this time.

Scanned versions of my 10 idea thumbnails.

Although I had seen the previous covers to know what had and hadn't been done before, I deliberately didn't surround myself with many references, and worked almost only with the text when I was coming up with arrangements using the main image, author and title. I feel this helped me to diversify my ideas a lot more as I wasn't visually influenced by much else when starting a new layout. I then wrote notes on what I liked and didn't like about each design in my sketchbook, which I have summarised below.


1. Female Gender Symbol / Cross

This concept revolves around the ring of the female gender symbol acting as the wall imprisoning Offred, with the lower section in a different colour to imitate The Cross of Saint Peter. Although concepts of gender roles and religion feature heavily in the book, I feel this idea is a bit too bold in its current state and would need some development to make it appear more subtle.

2. Scrabble Letters

In one scene, scrabble acts as one of the illegal acts that Offred takes part in when she plays the game with the commander. I like the idea of a text based cover with scrabble inspired typefaces, and there's opportunity to be playful with how they appear. Perhaps real scrabble letters could be arranged to spell out the title in a staged photograph for example.

3. Cassette Tape

At the end of the book it is revealed that Offred's perspectives are being played through cassette tape as a framing device for the narrative. This inspired me to come up with the use of the red tape in the shape of a handmaids profile if arranged correctly, while also being a visual metaphor for the idiom of 'red tape', conformity and rigid rules of society in the story.

4. Smeared Face

This image was inspired by classical artworks where the faces have been deliberately smeared, slashed or damaged. Some of the other covers had distorted or missing faces to indicate a loss of identity for the handmaids, but I wanted a take that in a direction inspired by the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, who often depicted servants or maids in his work.

5. Chess

The board game already holds story symbology with the use of Scrabble, but I thought chess could be another example used to reflect the hierarchal society of A Handmaid's Tale. With handmaids as the pawns, the more powerful pieces would reflect the king / queen as the commander and his wife and the other characters and classes in the story.

6. Distanced

For this concept I wanted to crowd the title text, and a group of handmaids at the bottom of the frame, then have one solitary figure representing Offred leaving at the top. With the negative space in between I wanted to show how Offred symbolically deviates from the system that has entrapped her.

7. Bricked In

Some of the earlier editions of the book covers depict the city boundary wall that physically keeps the handmaids in. It's a powerful symbol of entrapment, so for this version I placed the bricks in front of a handmaid, obscuring her face and identity as she's only visible through the cracks.

8. Close Portrait

As an alternative to the faceless nature of a lot of the covers, I wanted to show the personal expressions of a handmaid. So much is hidden behind their bonnets that I thought an effective cover would be a resigned and solemn expression to show the real emotion of the handmaids and set a tone for the novel.

9. Line Up

This one is more conceptual in showing order. The same handmaids in the same uniform all in a row stretching all the way back to the frame. This is a basic view but if I made the other handmaids less detailed, I could highlight Offred as the hero.

10. Cubist

Another cubist version of the cover, but this time more simplistic and modern. The way that cubist shapes divide and distort a figure is another representation of the removal of self, which is a strong idea, but I must admit I can't see much room for development at this stage compared to my other ideas.


In the past I've taken the approach of coming up with more fully formed designs early on, but this time I feel that I've managed to develop a strong set of concepts that can be further developed when progressing to the next stage of development. The angles involving the cassette tape and the scrabble set are ones that I haven't seen used before and the ideas that I would most like to explore. This was only a warm up for my next assignment though, so I stopped at this point.

I am hoping to start the next assignment as strongly as I feel that my initial thought process has had a refresher and I feel that I'm capable of casting a wider net to record a stronger initial set of ideas without gravitating towards a specific one too soon.



Goodreads The Handmaids Tale At: (Accessed 10/06/21)

Romney, R. The Handmaid’s Tale: 30 Years of Cover Designs At: (Accessed 10/06/21)

The Folio Society The Handmaid's Tale At: (Accessed 10/06/21)


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