Backs of things

Quietly, with no fuss at all, we are losing an area of design that is rarely discussed or celebrated. When it's gone, we'll miss it and reminisce it and pine for it. We are losing the backs of things.

Things, as we all know, are important. Books, records, comics, all vital to who we are. What we read and what we listen to – from childhood, these are the little culture bricks that help us to build who we are. But the essence of a thing is more than it's content. Just as important is the physical form the thing takes, the content manifested as object. Text becomes book. Music becomes album. Caper becomes comic.

Of course, this is old thinking. Things don't work that way any more. Content remains, but the object part of the formula has been replaced with convenience. Physical packaging of media is no longer required – tangibility and all its lumpy little dimensions are extraneous to the new norm of digital distribution.

We’ve held on to as much of the physicality of things as possible, little mementos that help us navigate abstract forms, familiarity holding our hand and reassuring us that technology isn't that scary after all. Cover artwork remains, even if its function has been diminished somewhat. It's the other side that's getting left behind in the big migration to our hard drives. Back covers, a rational but unfortunate omission from the future.

Listening to an album in iTunes, the artwork is given short shrift as it is (I shan't moan about those blurred edges yet again, but good grief they are horrible), and whatever remains of the back is reduced to a humdrum, homogenised track listing, in an impersonal but agreeable way. There's no practical reason to replicate the original reverse of the sleeve. It's the same with eBooks – what purpose could a virtual back cover really fulfil? Would you even know it was there, unless you flicked all the way to end, after you'd finished reading? No, the end of the story is the end of the story.

From a design-fetishist's point of view, this is a great big massive shame. Look at what's routinely adored and pinned and aped: fronts are everything. Arguably, backs deserve just as much love. They have a more complex role to play in the life of the thing, often tackling multiple purposes and tones rather than just going for the big impact. In the cold, wet, real world, things invite a physical exploration. Whether it's the spine or the front cover that we're first seduced by, a serious purchase involves a deft spin of the wrist to get to the back, where the information lives (including the most important detail: the designer credit).

Look at the reverse of any paperback for some incredible economy of design. For example: on my desk here I have Pan Books' 1968 paperback edition of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, published to coincide with the release of Roman Polanski's film adaptation. The spine is cracked, the pages yellowing, the first few pages pencilled with multiple charity shop values. It's a thing of musty beauty. And the back of this book fascinates me.

It has to sell itself, the film and the author. So we have: a still from the film; details of the cast and filmmakers; critical praise for the book and the author; an enticing call to to open the book to find more praise; a plug for another Levin book; plus the obligatory ISBN and price details for multiple territories.

There's no way you could put this down and leave the shop empty-handed! It may not have the design-lust impact of the film's iconic poster, but that this back cover does so much in such a small space without looking cluttered or confusing is to be admired. It's a fine balance of editing, marketing and typography. And it's the sort of design we see all the time but take for granted. Grab a book off your shelf, flip it over and give it a good hard look. Try to see what's going on and think about how it got to that state.

Not all backs are crammed with information. The twelve inch glory of a record sleeve offers space for as much or as little content as you care to imagine. Some fill the space with essays, lyrics, photographs, adverts. Some go the other way, keeping the square as clean as possible.

Compare two squares of thoroughly British pop: Mark Farrow's beautifully sparse sleeve for Pet Shop Boys, actually, a few lines of text set on a field of white, and Anthony Sweeney's more text-laden design for Saint Etienne's Foxbase Alpha. Both reflect the content and creators of the thing as effectively as the cover artwork, both offer a conversation between band and listener that you simply don't get with a default digital track-listing.

Reading the liner notes while listening to an album, or reading the back of a book to find out if it's worth opening – these are rapidly becoming behaviours of the past. Nostalgic interactions from the days when we were encouraged to explore and discover and share things. Now you've either downloaded it or you haven't.

Still, at least Apple appreciate the appeal of a nice backside. For them, the device is the thing. They don't always get it right (it's not entirely clear why the be-cased iPhone 5c looks like a Croc with a gallic "non" peeking through a hole), but at least they're making an effort to embrace the potential of the back. The ubiquitous minimal layout seen on the reverse of a naked iPhone or iPad isn't that far removed from Farrow's Pet Shop Boys sleeve, a quiet, public statement of relationship between discerning user and sophisticated thing. These are the new things: monolithic physical forms for all content, arks carrying content of the old into the new. Just don't forget what came before – absorb them and learn from them while you still can. Things aren't what they used to be.

Written for MacUser