The Casual Optimist Judge

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Each year ABDA invites a panel of nine designers and design lovers to judge the Book Design Awards, including one international judge. Previously, Jessica Hische, David Pearson and Jon Gray have lent us their expertise. This year we are honoured that popular design blogger Dan Wagstaff took up the challenge. Today we hear his thoughts on the judging process, Australian book design and how he started his much-loved blog.


You run the popular design blog, The Casual Optimist, when choosing books for your monthly round-ups what do you look for?

When I started the monthly cover round-ups, I was really just collecting together some of the covers that had caught my eye in the previous weeks. Early on, the posts included covers for books that wouldn’t be out for months. But I’m a bit more organised about it now. The posts are usually about 15–20 covers. I try to focus on books that have just been published or are going to be published that month. It keeps me on track, and it means that people can actually go out and buy the books that are featured.

I grew up in the UK and I live in Canada, so the covers I choose are often British or North American because those are the ones I see, although I do try to include covers from other countries (including Australia) when I can.

I’m not a book designer so often it just comes down to personal taste. I see a lot of books every month (I work for a book distributor), so I look for covers that I find interesting or are a little out of the ordinary – I like things that are a bit weird. But I also include covers that I think are just well executed. Sometimes I’ll include a cover to illustrate a current design trend or to compare it with another design if I think it’s relevant.

I admit I always look out for work by designers I particularly admire. And I tend focus on literary fiction and nonfiction – print books rather than digital – because that’s where my interests lie. But I’m trying to be more aware of my biases and include a wider selection of work.

The Casual Optimist's notable covers of 2016

A selection of Australian designers’ work from The Casual Optimist’s Notable Covers of 2016. Designed by (from left) Jenny Grigg, Alissa Dinallo and Allison Colpoys.

Had you been part of a judging panel before? 

I haven’t judged any design awards before, so I was honoured to be asked to be a judge for the ABDA awards this year.

I was more rigorous for the awards than I am when I choose covers for my blog. I read all the designer’s statements to get a sense of what was involved with the design, whether the designer had achieved their goal, and if the final cover was appropriate for the book and the intended reader. In most cases, I also looked up the details of the book on the publisher’s website to get a better sense of the book. Then I considered the composition of the cover, the typography (or lettering) and colour palette. The technical qualities of the design were obviously important, but I was also looking for originality, and a creative response to the brief.

Do you think Australian book design has any defining characteristics? There’s often discussion about the US and UK having different styles, do you think you can tell an Australian designed book apart?

I think we’re seeing a more global approach to covers as a result of publishers deciding to hold on to the international rights for their books, and designers and publishers (not to mention authors and readers!) being more exposed to covers from other markets through the internet and international travel. But it is still surprising how different covers from different countries can be. The contrast between British and American covers can still be quite striking.

In Canada, where I live, we are geographically very close to the US, and we get books from both the US and the UK, so domestic covers tend to be a bit of a hybrid, with a handful of designers and publishers trying to do something unique. I get the sense that the situation in Australia is similar, although there may be more willingness to experiment with covers than in Canadian publishing, which can be quite conservative when it comes to book design.

I do recognise the work of individual Australian cover designers from time to time, particularly the ones who work internationally, but I don’t know that I could identify a book published in Australia just from the cover… Perhaps if it was in a line up with covers for the same book from other countries…? It would be an interesting experiment!

2017 ABDA winners

Winning cover designs from the 2017 ABDA awards designed by (from left) Amy Daoud, Stuart Geddes and Anthony Stephens

Unfortunately you weren’t able to see the shortlisted books in person, what things were helpful when Skyping about the books? 

The Skype call was an interesting experience, and it did help me get a more rounded sense of the book. It was helpful to see the production values of the book, especially in the picture book and illustrated book categories. It’s impossible to gauge the tactile qualities of a book from a flat image.

2016 in Australian book design: any noticeable trends? Any surprises? 

Illustration rather than photography seems to the predominant trend in the fiction categories at least. And like the US and Canada, hand-lettering seems to be rather popular, which is fine when it is appropriate and done well, but often it isn’t. Sometimes I think we underestimate the effectiveness of a well-chosen photograph and good typography!

The big surprise for me was that one of my favourite covers of the year, which was designed by an Australian designer and was on the ADBA awards longlist was not even shortlisted in its category. I was so certain it would win! But I think this is what makes awards interesting – it’s not just a personal choice, it’s the considered opinion of a jury.

Winners from the 2017 ABDA awards

Winning cover designs from the 2017 ABDA awards designed by (from left) Sandy Cull, Mary Callahan and Anonymous

Dan Wagstaff is the Publicity and Marketing Manager at Publishers Group Canada, a Canadian book distributor that works with independent publishers from the US, UK, Canada and Australia. He is the author of The Casual Optimist, a popular blog about books, book design, book culture and publishing. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Toronto.