One of the unexpected radio highlights I caught over the Christmas break was Radio 4’s Front Row – The Art of Book Cover Design, a half hour on the current state of cover design and a rare example of graphic design making the mainstream media.

A lot of the content focused on one designer’s work for various Booker Prize winners (this is Radio 4 after all) but there were a couple of points that stood out and got me thinking.

Book cover design is a unique challenge for a designer, in that there are very obvious constraints of size and readability, but really no rules in how to express the uniqueness of a title. The other interesting thing is that unlike, say, album covers, old titles can always be relaunched, radically redesigned and seen afresh by a new generation of readers. I’ve never understood why this idea is such sacrilege in music.

Of course, hands were wrung over the rise of ebooks and demise of print. Interestingly the designers featured didn’t seem overly worried. I’d agree. The state of cover design for mainstream fiction and non-fiction seems higher than ever, in the UK certainly, and the new technological possibilities for books should surely be seem as an opportunity not a threat.

The recent relaunch of the Penguin Pelican imprint was a great example of broader thinking on the intersection of print and digital. Designed in tandem, the books come in web browser, ebook, mobile and, yes, print versions, and are all seen as fluid parts of the same family, not just gradually inferior photocopies of the all-star hardback. Until now with ebooks there’s been the tendency to preserve the conventions of the old form even when those practical considerations of the printed page no longer exist. Thinking more broadly about what the reading experience could be across devices and print could lead somewhere much more interesting. It also makes design a driving factor at a time when ebooks are rendering the main cover design less important.

Another point from the show I liked was Ian McEwan’s contribution, who couldn’t care less about cover design himself but noticed that a great design ‘seemed to raise morale among everyone that had to sell the book… the temperature rises’. Capturing imaginations of everyone client side can lead to all kinds of positive change.

Joseph Harries is Design Director at GW+Co