You know the one: A blood-red sinking sun, throwing a lone acacia tree into relief as twilight sinks over the savannah. You probably remember it from the Lion King. And according to dozens of publishers and designers, it's the platonic ideal of a cover for books relating to Africa.
A few weeks ago, a fascinating post on Africa Is a Country plumbed the strange visual meme—which is so familiar, it's almost invisible. On Twitter, Simon Stevens pulled together 36 examples of the cover, which make it seem like the entire African continent is in a perpetual sunset, covered in isolated acacia trees:
— Simon Stevens (@SimonMStevens) May 7, 2014
It's a pretty stunning illustration of how design—even when meant well—can perpetuate lazy stereotypes. And it doesn't end there: Other users chimed in with more examples—like this collection of Arabic literature by M. Lynx Qualey of ArabLit:
And then there are visual memes associated with gender—today, Art Fag City points out how how design for women's health groups consistently involve squiggly ladies dancing:
As to the African trope, The Atlantic asked Knopf's associate art director Peter Mendelsund to weigh in, and he had the following to say:
Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We're comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it's safe. It presents 'otherness' in a way that's easy to understand. That's ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?
In other words, publishers think acacia trees as symbols that readers will universally understand. And so, in the end, they choose covers like these because they think they'll sell more books. It's a depressing reality—that even when picking out the next book you'll read, subtle stereotypes seep into the equation. [The Atlantic; Africa Is a Country]