We live in an entertainment universe where we are constantly over-stimulated with hi-def images and sound. As a freelance art director and book cover designer for the past 15 years, I’ve had to remind clients—and sometimes myself—that books are the opposite of that. A book cover is not a video or an animated GIF. It cannot move or make noise. We can’t try to force it to sing and dance. Books sit there patiently waiting for us to discover them. The cover is your vehicle to pull someone in, to give the potential reader a little sneak peak inside the book and to set the tone for what’s inside. You don’t have to tell the whole story—actually, as I’ll explain later, you shouldn’t even try.
When I first started designing covers I spent a lot of time in bookstores simply looking at books—15 years later I still make time to visit my local bookshops to see what other designers are doing, and to find inspiration. Outside of the broad categories of fiction and nonfiction there are myriad kinds of books and they all have a general feel and style—self-help, memoir, biography, cookbook, how-to, etc. Just like shoes and clothes, book cover designs have popular styles that come and go and evolve over time. You can feel an older design the same way you can feel an older model of car. This is part of the reason why publishers will repackage books after they start to look dated. Head down to your local bookseller (or, not as good, but still effective: browse online) and see what books in your particular category look like. They won’t all be the same, but you’ll start to get an idea of what publishers have found to be successful and, more importantly, what readers currently expect to see on a cover. Here I should state that you are not there looking to rip-off someone else’s design (although it goes on quite a bit, I’m sure you’re better than that). Inspiration good; stealing bad.
Whenever I design a cover—no matter what the subject—I ultimately want it to say one simple thing: “pick me.” I want to compel someone browsing online to click the cover and give the book a chance. You can’t always pinpoint what it is, but some books you just want to see what’s inside. Many times in print this is accomplished with fancy production effects like embossing, glossy varnish, or an unusual paper stock. But it can also be accomplished with a great typeface and just the right image. Maybe it’s a unique color combination, a contrast in type styles, an enticing title or subtitle.
A Few Book Cover Design Tips:
Keep your type simple and readable. Unless you have a real flair for type design you should just stick to basic, strong, readable fonts. A really cool font that is tough to read does more harm than good. Think carefully about colors and composition. Light type on a light background is tough to read. Small type placed on an image can disappear.
Find a great image. Think about the most concise way to illustrate what is inside. Concise doesn’t mean tiny black type on a white background. It means a balanced combination of type and a great looking image. You can consider all-type, but it’s actually much easier to use an image or images. Again, don’t go crazy—better to have one or two great images than 10 tiny images you can’t see. There are many wonderful sites where you can purchase very affordable stock images. Do not grab images from a Google Image search. First off, the resolution is probably too low to reproduce well, and more importantly, you don’t have the right to use it on your cover. No, you probably won’t get caught, but when copyright cases are brought they tend to make an example of the violators. Thousands of high-quality, inexpensive, royalty free images are only a few clicks away.
Don’t go crazy with special effects. Design software today is loaded with easy-to-use options to create embossing, glows, drop shadows and 3D effects. Use these sparingly. Popular design today has become much more flat (think Apple iOS7). As we’ve moved to a more screen-based world complex designs became too difficult to make out on our devices. The cast shadows and shiny candy look of years past has given way to a more stripped down look.
Make sure it’s readable at a small size. Although I’ve talked about seeing and feeling books in a brick-and-mortar store, the truth is that much of the time the cover will be viewed initially as a small thumbnail online. Shrink your cover down to about 1” wide by 2” high and make sure you can still make out at least the title. It will take some trial and error, but find that line between readable and horsey (a great old design term that means too damn big).
Show some other people, but… It’s smart to get other opinions. It’s easy to get so attached to a design that you can’t see its flaws. But be careful. When asked to give their opinion, many people think they’re being asked to find fault. If you like the design and you’ve followed a couple of these suggestions, then go with it.
As I mentioned above, your cover shouldn’t tell the whole story. Create interest, and set an expectation for what’s to come. For instance, on how-to and self help books I think it’s smart to illustrate the solution rather than the problem. If I’m buying a book about organizing I don’t want to see a cluttered closet—I already have one of those. Show me the promise that lies within.
Dave Walker designs gorgeous covers for books in many genres. He also designs logos and marketing materials. Find out more about his services on his website: www.dwalkerdesign.com.
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