Ever wonder how they choose animals for the covers of O’Reilly books?

Designing for Emerging Technologies features a blowfish or Fugu on the cover.

O’Reilly Media publishes software engineering and design books with striking covers that feature engravings of rare and interesting animals — the likes of which you may have never seen before.

An engraving of the loris, a tiny primate from the tropics of Southeast Asia, was featured on the cover of Learning the vi Editor.

The origin story of these unique images begins with Edie Freedman (currently O’Reilly’s Director of Brand Management), who as a freelancer with the company in 1986, created the cover layouts for a trio of UNIX books, Learning the vi Editor, sed & awk, and lex & yacc which featured a tarsier, lorises, and Victoria crowned pigeons respectively. The tarsier and the loris are both tiny primates that can be found in the tropics of Southeast Asia; and the Victoria crowned pigeon hails from the same geography. Edie shares the details of her initial design and illustration choices, as well as her thoughts on the important work of preserving rare species in the article Origin of Species: A History of O’Reilly Animals.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web is well known in software design circles as The Polar Bear book.

And, while the covers started in black-and-white, Karen Montgomery, the designer who took over for Edie several years ago, expanded the palette to include beautiful color animals that appear on many of O’Reilly’s books.

Today, of course, the O’Reilly animal brand is known worldwide. And the tarsier image from the Learning the vi Editor book, went on to become a key branding element for O’Reilly Media as a whole.

The Animal Brand

With such a distinctive look, it was probably inevitable that some O’Reilly books would become known best by the animals on their covers. For instance, a seminal book on the practice of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville is fondly known in the software design community (and beyond) as “the Polar Bear book”.

Choosing Your Animal

As an author you’re given some input into the cover design process. However, since the ’80s, when Edie first created the animal covers, the O’Reilly catalog has expanded greatly. So, if you’re looking for a creature that’s the right fit for your book’s subject matter, there may or may not be an animal available that fits your preference. To avoid disappointment, before you let your imagination run wild, it’s recommended that you spend some time looking over the Animal Menagerie, an all encompassing list of the fantastic creatures that populate the hundreds of O’Reilly book covers — from anteater (Access Database Design & Programming) to zebu (IP Routing) and everything in between.

I imagine that for some authors, a trip to the Menagerie is filled with nothing but pain and misery. I started with a long list of favorites that I thought might match up well with the content for Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics, and the Internet of Things. For me, there were two animals that survived the initial vetting process: These were the opiliones or Daddy Longlegs spider, and the blowfish, also known as the Fugu.

The blowfish is a beautiful animal, but one that is extremely dangerous if not handled correctly, due to tetrodotoxin, a poisonous substance found within its spikes. (According to National Geographic, tetrodotoxin is 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. Yikes.) Despite this danger, or maybe because of it, in Japan the Fugu is considered a delicacy and is highly prized. So what does a Fugu have to do with designing for emerging tech? Metaphorically, I thought that the blowfish represented well the idea of humanity exploring technologies, like genetic engineering, that have great potential for both positive and negative results.

My other option, the spider, in some spiritual traditions represents creativity and a connection to the future, which I figured was a good summation of the general themes for the book. And although other spiders were already taken (female garden spiders, for instance, populate the cover of the Oracle Regular Expressions Pocket Reference), the opiliones was still available.

I submitted both options to my editor at O’Reilly and was pleased that the first draft cover came back with the blowfish. In the past, the animals on the covers have been pictured in black and white. However, the latest layouts are all in color. While it remains to be seen if Designing for Emerging Technologies will become known as “the Blowfish book”, I think the cover suits it well. And, another fantastic creature gets added to the O’Reilly animal menagerie.