A large horizontal red title over a framed artwork all bordered in gold or blue; these are the distinct features of older shoujo manga covers, especially those coming from Hakusensha's Hana to Yume and Lala, as well as Shueisha's Bessatsu Margaret magazines. It is rare to find a cover with such features these days, mostly because Japanese manga covers now feature full-width artwork in playful colors, surrounded by its title arranged in a manner that makes it one with the displayed character. This change was sparked thanks to Yasuhisa Kawatani of the Kawatani Design, and his influence among many other cover designers.

Cover design, as the term suggests, is a field in the manga industry focusing on designing covers. It has been a part of the industry for a while but has only become more prominent in the later years. As the competition between book sales become stiffer, the usual cover template publishers use are becoming outdated. Additionally, since books are usually sorted by category then publisher, it would be difficult to garner buyers to pick up a book if they have no knowledge of who the author is or what publisher it is from. Hence, a similar spine layout is helpful to easily recognize the series coming from the shoujo category. Even most older books, not just shoujo, use a lot of red-over-white coloring for greater contrast, increasing reading legibility. However, as the aesthetic aspect of books has become more relevant, cover designers are hired.

The red text over white is prominent on older shoujo series like Ouran High School Host Club
Bisco Hatori © Ouran Koukou Host Bu, Hakusensha 2003

Cover designers layout a draft to send to the editor and the manga artist, suggesting a pose for a character, artistic elements, and overall text arrangement around the art. The manga artist will then provide multiple drafts for the designer to work around and work on revisions if needed. The designer is also in charge of the overall color grading and palette of the book, from flap to flap, as well as the spine style and back cover attributes. The obi or the strip covering the bottom of the book (usually containing an announcement) are also usually designed by the designer. Their work ranges from serialization magazine to compiled manga covers.

The removable banner at the bottom of a book is called an "obi."
Hikaru Sugii, Yuu Akinashi © Rakuen Noise, KADOKAWA 2021
Image from @bankun_773

Yasuhisa Kawatani, based in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, Japan, never studied design in particular but has a few designer acquaintances. He looked upon Tsuyoshi Takashiro, a former Japanese advertisement producer and multimedia writer, and thought to himself he'd like to do multimedia as well. After dropping out of college, he worked as a software dealer specializing in Macintosh. The job helped him acquire knowledge in different applications. His first design project was designing a flyer, and during this project, he was asked to be a designer for an advertisement company, an offer he accepted.

His design job was mainly creating mooks (a book in a form of a magazine) and gardening advertisements, as well as planning for a quarterly magazine, giving him the opportunity to travel overseas with a photographer. When he was in his 20s, he also tried creating an indie manga and was serialized in a music magazine Cookie Scene. He later compiled his works as a doujinshi.

Kawatani's break in the manga design scene was when his office was asked to design the announcement page for an upcoming issue of Bessatsu Margaret. Despite not having any professional experience in the manga design field, he thought he could do it since he was a fan of the magazine and had been actively reading its releases, so he enthusiastically took up the offer. For a while, he'd only been doing advance notices and color kuchi-e pages (book frontispieces), but he eventually designed the cover for the magazine. In 2001, after 6 years of working in the advertisement company, he decided to become independent and pursue freelancing.

Aya Nakahara's Apple Diary was his first series project, but since the manga's editorial production would be in charge of the cover, he was tasked with creating its logo instead. He made his cover design debut in Nakahara's Lovely★Complex, for which he designed the logo. Challenged by Margaret Comics' editor to try doing the second volume's cover, with instructions to just use the cover template and replace the cover artwork and volume number, Kawatani also changed the logo's colors into something cooler to counter its summer release date, breaking the consistent cover format of the imprint.

Volume 1 of Ringo Nikki, Volume 1 and 2 of Lovely★Complex
Aya Nakahara © Ringo Nikki, Shueisha 1999; Aya Nakahara © Lovely★Complex, Shueisha 2001

At that time work was still done traditionally (he used tracing papers and Copic markers), but coming from a digital background he transitioned earlier than others. During Margaret Comics' upgrade to digital design, Kawatani felt his voice was finally heard since he was the most familiar with the digital process in the office.

Being new in the manga industry, he refrained from changing the format as soon as possible, opting to gradually practice his freedom and fluidity in cover design while maintaining the format readers were familiar with. A good example can be seen by comparing the first volume with the third and fourth volume (which Kawatani designed) of Bisco Hatori's Sennen to Yuki (Millenium Snow) manga published under Hakusensha's Hana to Yume. While the artwork was shown in full-page, the popular tricolor band of Hana to Yume comics remain, whilst compressed. The full adaptation of his fluid design can be seen on the tenth volume of Ruri Miyahara's Love Lab manga which has been serializing since 2006, as well as her Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou manga.

Volumes 1, 3, and 4 of Bisco Hatori's Sennen to Yuki manga
Bisco Hatori © Sennen to Yuki, Hakusensha 2001


Volume 1 and 10 of Ruri Miyahara's Love Lab, and Volume 1 of Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou manga
Ruri Miyahara © Love Lab, Houbunsha 2008; Ruri Miyahara © Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou, Shonen Gahosha 2010

Kawatani expanded from designing shoujo manga covers to manga magazines, covers for other imprints in varying genres, novels, and other literary volumes. He was put in charge of the cover format for Shinchosha's new Shincho Bunko novel imprint to commemorate its 100th anniversary, Shincho Bunko nex, which was launched in 2014 with Yutaka Kono's Inaku nare, Gunjou. Since it was his first time creating a cover format from scratch, as well as the imprint's first book, the draft had more than 100 versions. Additionally, even though Japanese book covers usually have their titles at a higher position to make way for promotional bands (the horizontal strip attached at the bottom of the cover to reveal an announcement), Kawatani went with a full-height position to blend with the band design to attract more attention.

Editor Yusuke Takahashi's note shot of Inaku nare, Gunjou's different cover drafts

The prominent styles that distinguish Kawatani's works from others are his use of intentional typographic trimming, layer hierarchy, text shapes, highly vivid coloring, scattered and repeated texts, monochrome lettering when titles are one with the art, and most especially, his playful use of depth of field, which is a style he proudly invented.

By blurring the background, creating a sharp focal point, and adding a crisper front title layer over the art without making the illustration and the text fight, he creates an effect that enhances the readability of the letters and makes the art pop.

From left to right, top to bottom: Yuki Ojo ©  Ao no Suugaku, Shinchosha 2016; Karuho Shiina © Kimi ni Todoke (available in English as Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You), Shueisha 2005; Momoko Koda © Heroine Shikkaku, Shueisha 2010; Mika Yamamori © Hirunaka no Ryuusei (available in English as Daytime Shooting Star), Shueisha 2011; Ayuko Hatta © Ookami Shoujo to Kuroouji, Shueisha 2011; Aruka © Ore Monogatari!! (available in English as My Love Story!!), Shueisha 2011; Mayu Sakai © Sugar Soldier, Shueisha 2011; Saburouta © citrus (available in English as citrus), Ichijinsha 2012; Akira Hiyoshimaru © Hatsukoi Monster (available in English as First Love Monster), Kodansha 2012; Yuki Fumino © Hidamari ga Kikoeru (available in English as I Hear the Sunspot), Printemps Shuppan 2013; Mika Yamamori © Tsubaki-chou Lonely Planet, Shueisha 2015; Suu Morishita © Short Cake Cake (available in English as Shortcake Cake), Shueisha 2015

These days, Kawatani has been designing 200 books per year and some of his greatest works won several awards and have become huge bestsellers. His cover designs for BL books always earn a spot or more in Chill Chill's BL Award Annual Best Cover Design, with his two works Hitomi Takano's Tsuranaru Stella and Sakae Kusama's Wondervogel ranked 4th and 9th for 2018.

This free approach in designing manga covers has influenced other manga artists and designers as well. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun's mangaka Izumi Tsubaki has been publishing the manga Oresama Teacher since 2007. It has the classic Hana to Yume cover format until volume 16 when Tsubaki showcased a new cover format for volume 17 and continues up to the series' latest volumes. She has even posted her multiple revisions following the change on her blog.

Yohei Sometani of BALCOLONY, a graphic designer most noted for his works on Kimi no na wa, Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica, and Love Live!, noticed the change and the freedom expressed in the issues of Bessatsu Margaret and the covers of Margaret Comics. When he looked up for the credits, he noticed it was all Kawatani's work. He praised his great direction and understanding of the illustration, making the art more catchy and appealing.

They may say "don't judge the book by its cover" but covers make up a lot on a book's marketing value. From the planning process on how a cover should look like to its printing, logo and cover design is a field in advertising arts requiring major understanding in the illustrator's intentions and bringing out its selling potential, and Yasuhisa Kawatani is one of the respected designers able to do that.

Yoicomic, ANNMdN Feature Article and MdN December 2017 Issue