"You can't judge a book by its cover" - true, it seems, for everything except books. Walk into any good bookshop and you'll see row upon row of stylish book covers vying for your attention. In the age of e-books, it seems that a well-illustrated front cover is a paperback's unique selling point. 

But that is (literally) to touch the surface. Beyond that, illustrations serve to paint a scene, to depict characters, to give children understanding and - perhaps this is a little cynical - to distract parents from the boredom of reading their darling ones' favourite story out loud for the 194th time. Editorially, an illustration can sum up a newspaper or magazine article in a way in which a mere photograph cannot. The V&A Illustration Awards remind those working with this frequently overlooked art form that what they do serves important purposes.

It is a shame, then, that the V&A has chosen to dedicate only a portion of one of its galleries to the Illustration Awards, and to feature only the winners of the four main categories and the runner-up of the Student Illustration category (unless one counts the TV screen which scrolled through a "selection" of entries), when the offering was so incredibly diverse in styles and media. The gallery display was minimalist - large, glass-fronted cabinets, lined in black and holding the relatively diminutive artwork, against the backdrop of a whitewashed room - apparently to draw the eye to the intricate illustrations. It worked, but for the sake of displaying a broader range of work, I could have done without the spaciousness of it all.

This year's judges - the designer Orla Kiely, broadcaster and cultural commentator Emma Freud OBE, and the V&A's Director of Design, Moira Gemill - chose French illustrator Laëtitia Devernay as the winner of the Book Illustration category and also as the Awards' overall winner. Her winning entry comprises illustrations from her book, The Conductor, an entirely wordless story about a composer, who, Devernay says, looks to nature for inspiration. The detailed drawings, appropriately verdant, are inspired by music and capture a strong sense of life and dynamic: on one page, a flock of birds twists and turns like a swarm ("the moves of the violins"), whilst on the penultimate page one sees a tiny conductor with his baton in the air, the birds increasing in size towards the top of the page in a final, fortissimo flourish. The conductor's standing atop a large tree on the final page perfectly encapsulates the silence following a brilliantly executed work.

The use of pattern and repetition was evident in several of the winners' entries (perhaps reflecting Orla Kiely's well-known use of pattern in her own designs), from the Student Illustration winner Holly Mills's striking and vividly colourful paintings of scenes from Brian Aldiss's novel Hothouse, in which pattern is used to "relate the intense, hectic atmosphere of the book", to Nick Lowndes's use of triangular form (pairs of legs in motion) in his Editorial category-winning illustration accompanying a Financial Times article on growing small enterprise. Daniel Clarke, runner-up of the Student Illustration Award, almost obsessively uses repetition in his illustrations of the high-rise, (formerly) densely populated Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle accompanying a book on the architecture of the estate, and the memories of its remaining residents, perhaps to reflect the preconception that life on the estate was monotonous when it was anything but. Even the Book Cover Illustration Award, won by Matthew Richardon for his cover for Albert Camus's The Outsider is not devoid of pattern, the squared background and step pattern touching the collaged photograph of the book's protagonist somehow reflecting Camus's Absurdism.

The rest of the entries can be found in an online gallery on the V&A's website. Whilst it is good that all the entries get an airing, it is a pity that the relevant part of the website is not better designed. Shortlisted entries are listed, but without any accompanying pictures - and it takes a while to find, for example, Rob Ryan's magical papercut illustrations for A Sky Full of Kindness amongst the very many other pictures. However, it is ideally designed if you're seeking a good chunk of not entirely useless, office-accessible distraction.

V&A Illustration Awards, at V&A MuseumJulia Savage reviews the V&A Illustration Awards 2012 display.3