Manga Answerman - Why Do Some Shojo Publishers Use The Same Spine Design For Every Series?by Deb Aoki,
When looking at manga in Japan, I've noticed how lots of shoujo tankobon manga have their titles and spines in the same font and format, making for a super uniform look where it's hard for anything to stand out, especially when searching for a series. Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club, and Gakuen Babysitters are like that for example. Other genre manga publishers do similar, but others allow series to have their own fonts and logos essentially, that even make it to their animated versions like Inu Yasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, and My Hero Academia.
Do you have any insights into why publishers choose to make their books' titles look all the same or all different? And are the graphic designs of the visually unique titles done by the publishers in-house or by the mangaka? Also since when have the more logo type titles been happening?
So to answer this, I'll start by saying that one interesting difference between how Japanese manga and light novels are shelved in bookstores in Japan (and even in Japanese language bookstores overseas, like Kinokuniya), is that it's often shelved by publisher or imprint (e.g. all Shonen Jump manga or Margaret manga is shelved together). Having a uniform look to the spine makes it easier for bookstore workers to shelve and display the books, and easier for readers to find these sections in a bookstore. For example, here's how a lot of tankobon from Ribon shojo manga magazine may look like when they're shelved in a Japanese bookstore.
Meanwhile, in N. America, comic shops and bookstores tend to shelve manga by title, in alphabetical order, regardless of genre or publisher. For example, Attack on Titan from Kodansha Comics may be shelved next to shojo romance Ao Haru Ride from Shojo Beat / Viz Media.
It's true that in the past that Japanese shojo manga imprints like Margaret and Hana to Yume used uniform book designs for the covers and spines, but as you note, things have changed in recent years.
Shojo manga blogger Dia (@DiaCLB) noted in her blog Coin Locker Baby an interesting contrast between the “old” version of manga by Aiji Yamakawa, and newly re-designed covers and title type design. On the left is the original design for Chocho ni Naru. (To be a Butterfly) and Futaribocchi (No One But Us)
The old version of covers of Hana to Yume (Flowers and Dreams) imprint books from Hakusensha went further still, and just allowed a smaller square for the cover illustration. This is the original Japanese edition of Ouran High School Host Club and how the spines look when they're shelved in a Japanese bookstore on the left, and the US version of the cover art on the right:
Now, it's more often the case that Japanese manga publishers hire graphic design companies to collaborate with manga artists to create a “look” for their books. This is an approach that takes more time and maybe costs more than just using a templated cover design, but a well-designed book cover can do a lot to influence a book buyer to take a second look at a book, pick it up and maybe purchase it.
For a deeper look at this phenomenon, I reached out to Fawn Lau, book designer and art director extraordinaire. In her role as an editor at Viz Media, Fawn designed the English logo for Haikyu!!, and the cover design for the new “remastered” edition of Battle Royale, to name just a few of the projects she has added her touch.
Fawn's credits in the manga biz are pretty extensive. Beside her work at VIZ, she started out as a graphic designer at Tokyopop, was Creative Director at Kodansha Advanced Media, and is now working on new editorial projects at VIZ. She also has done numerous freelance projects, including a few crowd-funded art books and anthologies. You can check out her portfolio here.
Anyway, here's Fawn's take on your question:
FAWN LAU, EDITOR, VIZ MEDIA:
"From the inquiry, it sounds like they're referencing mainly Hakusensha and Kodansha shojo titles. While I don't know the factual answer to that, I can at least give my interpretation of it. I've come to believe that it's a combination of book culture, branding and production that led to the initial strategy of having such a templated design.
The manga reading culture in Japan is so much larger than in the US that I think discoverability might come from word of mouth or pre-knowledge of the title. Since manga are already serialized in monthly and weekly magazines, readers who buy the tankobon (graphic novel version) probably already know the title or have had friends telling them to get that title. In that case, browsing for manga might have been less about the cover and therefore spine legibility becomes more of a priority than an interesting logo/font/spine art design, especially when they are primarily shelved spine out. The red against the white probably was chosen for optimal contrast that keeps legibility but remains approachable.
With reading culture in Japan being so prominent, and manga being mainstream, I believe publishers probably always want to research more efficient ways to sell their books and establish their brand. I would imagine at some point a publishing executive or team did some research and thought maybe readers were not inclined to be persuaded by spine art and that the title should capture their interest first (which is also why I attribute the long descriptive titles to, like how the Japanese version of Disney's Frozen became Anna and the Snow Queen and the Japanese theatrical release of Brave became Merida and the Scary Forest).
In addition to standardizing the title treatment, there's a very consistent look to all the tankobon published under a given publisher, so there's a "branding" benefit to a templated look. If your favorite manga looks a certain way and you see an entire section of books looking the same, you might associate that look with "the publisher that creates my favorite manga, so let me try more manga from that publisher". As with most competitive industries, once you see someone do something different, you may want to follow suit, and I believe it became a trend to have these templated title-only spines.
As a cover designer, I always consider the production aspect as well. Not just their spines were generic, but their front and back covers were extremely templated and left little room for a unique design per series, only an illustration boxed in a generic frame on the front and a short description on the back with small framed image on the back.
My assumption is maybe the large number of titles they needed to produce in a certain time frame, they needed to save time and costs for designing that the template was formed to become more efficient. Also, Japan has been publishing manga long before the digital age of computer graphic design, so templates were probably designed and templated just by nature of the limitations of the time when they started publishing. Computers have drastically changed the way things are designed and reproduced, so I wouldn't take production and timing out of the equation.
Hakusensha has recently broken out of their template approach, and their new titles now have the more customized look of other publishers and genres. One of the first titles I remember was Millennium Snow (Sennen no Yuki) by Bisco Hattori, because VIZ had been publishing it using a template design based on the original Japanese cover, but the ongoing volumes switched to a new design layout where the original template wasn't useful anymore.
(Note: Here's the original version of Millennium Snow vol. 1 in both the Japanese and English edition, published in 2001-2002, and volume 4, which was published in 2014. The story originally “ended” in 2002 with volume 2, but Hattori resumed the story in LaLa magazine in 2013-2014, with volumes 3 and 4)
I believe in time with more publishers doing more unique cover design work, that perhaps the template became too restrictive and no longer had the benefits it had when it was first implemented. Book and packaging design in general has also become competitive and better looking books have perceived value in content. There's this awesome Manga Design book from PIE Books that showcases some of the most interesting covers out these days.
Most major publishers have their covers designed by studios or agencies that are contracted to handle design across their books and even sometimes related promotional material. It may be that they use several agencies to cover their catalogue, but usually you can see them credited either by agency or by name. Shueisha and Kodansha often use design studios to work on some of their major titles but designs need to be approved by the creator as well, since they illustrate the cover artwork. Creator involvement is part of the design process, but they are not the ones physically designing them."
Our enormous thanks to Fawn Lau for her help with today's article.
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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.
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