Design Diary: Cover Concepts for the 2016 World Development Report

A lot of work goes into designing the cover for any publication, and no less for a report as complex and widely-discussed in our sector as the World Bank’s World Development Report.

Every year, a new team of economists and scholars from the World Bank comes together to write the World Development Report, a several hundred-page report on a theme in global economic development. Reboot was proud to serve as design partner for this year’s report, “Digital Dividends.” We worked closely with the Bank’s editorial team to set the report’s visual style through its graphs, cover, and a set of infographics.

For Reboot, creating the cover for the report wasn’t just about creating a beautiful end product (although we are happy to say that was one result). Following many months of designing graphs, chapter dividers, and a style guide, the cover was the visual capstone. Its design needed to speak to all of the important themes of the report, and the journey to the final cover took us in many different directions. In this post we’ll share some of the cover designs we came up with, and discuss how we reached the final version.

Here’s one early idea that the editorial team really liked from the start:


It’s a visual representation of the report’s metaphor of the internet as a 21st century machine running on 19th century tracks. Outdated policies and regulations aren’t adequately supporting the new digital frontier. This design suggests a parallel between internet advancement and its underlying institutional infrastructure. While this design is a clever, snappy way of showing that concept, it falls short in that it represents only one idea from the far-reaching report. We needed something that meant more.

That brought us to the “circuitree”:


In this illustration, the branches and leaves of the tree form a pattern resembling circuits, representing the world’s rapidly growing digital infrastructure. The roots allude to the institutional practices and policies that support advancements in digital development. We experimented with several versions of this illustration, some of which emphasized one of the report’s key cautionary messages: that the analog foundations (roots) of digital development are too small, and not growing fast enough to keep pace with advancing digital technologies. This cover’s metaphor certainly captured more of the report’s most important themes. However, it presumed that readers had at least a moderate level of understanding of the themes, which would be necessary to make the connection.

As we searched for a new solution, we wanted to stretch our concept of what a cover could be. In years past we’d seen covers of the World Development Report include photographs, illustrations, and maps, but we hadn’t seen a cover that told a specific story. Enter, the infographic cover:


For these two concepts, we started with a dataset comparing internet adoption to more traditional development indicators—access to clean water and, sanitation—and tried to represent that data in a way that was compelling and informative. The results were interesting, and it certainly challenged the traditional use of a cover, but its character separated it too far from covers past.

Throughout our various explorations, we aimed for a balance between accessibility and thoroughness. The “wi-fi train” made a good icon, but didn’t go far beyond that. The circuitree brought complexity to the metaphor, but only if you knew what to look for. The infographic was informative and independent, but misaligned.

Finally, we reached a solution:


The World Bank team had been particularly drawn to this photograph throughout the process. Taken by John Stanmeyer, it shows migrants in Djibouti straining to access mobile signal from Somalia. In addition to being a beautiful image, this scene captured a story that reflects an important idea of the report: Despite 20 years of civil war, Somalia’s mobile sector experiences fierce competition, ensuring better mobile access than Djibouti, and many of its other, richer neighbors. Thus, the photo strikes the right balance. It’s both accessible, conveying themes about mobile technology to uninformed readers, and thorough, evoking the complex market and political factors that impact digital access explored in the report.

The process of designing a cover is not often short. But while we went through multiple versions, we had many opportunities to experiment along the way. And we landed in a place that yielded new opportunities: We were able to take the cover a step further with an infographic explaining the story behind it.

Futher reading.