Tragic Flaws Inherent In The Graphical Design of the Cover of Carl Sagan’s Book, Contact

by Dr. Lloyd Miller, Art Critic

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a long time since we last talked; but I have been so busy with my part-time hobby of offering my unsolicited advice and criticism to several local young artists via telephone, that I have had very little time to step foot outside of my office! However, last week I finally made a trip up to Barnes & Noble, and let me tell you, I was quite appalled at what I found!

A good friend of mine (and a very hard working American), Nancy, recommended that I rush right out and purchase a paperback copy of Carl Sagan’s Contact. I took her advice, as she reads an abundance of paperbacks, and generally has an objective opinion. How wrong I was in trusting her! There are so many elements that disturbed me, that I simply do not know where to begin! Perhaps I should highlight a few of the honestly good points before I tear it to shreds (as I am morally obligated to do)…

Probably the most redeeming quality of this work is the graphical strip (1.75 inches wide x 7.75 inches tall) on the left side of the face (although inconveniently located near the spine — now where is the reader to firmly grip the book?!) featuring a romantic, slightly pensive rendering of Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster staring off into the unknown near several satellite array dishes, (which are used in the book for receiving mathematical signals from extra-terrestrials.) This strip utilizes a brilliant and yet simple three-color scheme consisting of blue, black, and white (assuming we are to consider white a color — any true graphic artist must not overlook its usefulness!)

I noticed, however, that the space above the clouds in the night sky simply does not make me feel that the artist knew anything about outer-space. Where are the Meteors? Planets? Rings of Saturn? (Even The Doses were wise enough to mention these in passing) Space ships equipped with laser-beams engaged in an interstellar battle? Nothing along these lines are portrayed in this conception, and I find this to be unimaginative and shameful, showing the narrow-mindedness of this so-called graphic artist. For if there is nothing but stars in outer space, where are these profound messages coming from? If we cannot integrate the visual and the textual elements of a paperback book, the reader will be left confused, and will no longer trust in spending their hard-earned dollars. This cannot happen if we, as artists, hope to survive financially. We must NEVER mislead our loyal audience.

The remaining text-panel on the right side of the cover (2.375 inches wide x 7.75 inches tall) was definitely this work’s downfall. A tragic flaw I first noticed upon approaching the book was the inconsistency in point-size. In the name Matthew McConaughey, the two M’s are different sizes! The human brain must not be required to strain to read even a simple name on the cover. However, one of the more visually horrifying aspects of this panel is the amount of space above and below the title, “Contact.” (1.25 inches above, 1 inch below!) This is simply disproportionate. How the graphic designer could have overlooked the most crucial of this books elements/themes (SPACE!) is beyond me; it is because of this fact that cannot be taken seriously as TRUE graphic designers.

The back cover was no exception to this blatant sloppiness. For example, above the shouted, all-caps quote, “DAZZLING… CONTACT BECOMES THE GREATEST ADVENTURE OF ALL TIME.” – Associated Press I found .25 inches of space, and below I found .6 inches. This obvious disregard for SPACE (which the damn book is about) has just cost Carl Sagan a loyal fan. If carelessness of this kind is shown ON THE COVER, imagine how inconsistent, messy, and scatterbrained his writing must be! And to think, someone in the U.S.A. had the nerve to run this through their printing press…I hereby withdraw my moral sanction!

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This article originally appeared in May 1999 in The Left Leg.