We spoke with two graphic designers to get some insights on what makes for great design and why your book cover design is more important than ever before.
This article was written by graphic designers Doug von Werssowetz and Anna O’Sullivan, based on conversations with frequent BookBaby contributor Chris Robley. Doug and Anna work together as a graphic design team called Chicken 3000, creating book covers, websites, album art, concert posters, and other promotional material for independent artists.
We live in a world where we’re overwhelmed with media, all of which is jockeying to get our attention – and our dollars. When it comes to online bookstores, we scroll through a limitless jungle, given snippets of text, book summaries, and star ratings; it’s tiresome and time-consuming. Yet somehow, we do come to rest on a title now and again. Why? Is it the 4.5-star rating by beckyreadabook25? Probably not.
I’m willing to bet it has far more to do with an awesome cover and a snappy title. That’s what’s going to stand out in the crowd, to convince folks to linger a little longer, to scroll a little slower. The same is true in a physical bookstore. What draws you to a book and makes you pick it up? The title? The cover? Typography on the spine? Colors? Probably all of the above.
An effective cover design grabs our attention and prepares us for what we might find within the book. But a good book cover doesn’t equate to being crazy or loud. You don’t have to yell at people to get their attention; there’s enough of that happening already. It just needs to be clear, well done, and compelling. In this article we’ll give you some tips that will help you navigate the process, and better equip you to design (or have designed for you) a superior cover.
Book cover design considerations
DISCLAIMER: There are exceptions to every rule. There are amazing designers doing creative things that break one, or every, rule listed below. This advice is meant to guide those of you who haven’t spent many, many years (or more) studying the finer points of graphic design. You’ve spent your time, instead, writing or studying the topic you’re writing about, and now you want to produce a cover that’s as exciting and relevant as the pages inside. Here’s how.
To hire or not to hire? That is the question.
Hiring a graphic designer
There are many factors that go into this decision, but the biggest one is likely your budget.
If you have the budget, hire a designer (unless you’re a designer writing a book about design). A professional designer has the tools, knowledge, experience, and resources to make the process run smoothly and produce a result you’ll be thrilled with. Even if you have a clear vision of how you want the cover to look or feel, an experienced designer will be able to realize that goal much more effectively and efficiently.
Choosing a designer
Do your research and pick a designer based on his or her portfolio, NOT because they are related to you or are willing to work cheaply. Really look at his previous work; if you like what you see and it feels like his style will fit with your ideas, then he’s probably going to be a good match. The important thing is to trust in the designer that you’ve chosen, and know that he has the same goals as you; to make a great looking cover for a great product.
Working within your budget
Determine ahead of time what your budget is, and ask for a quote. Or spitball a figure at your chosen designer and see if there’s any way for them to work within that budget. It never hurts to ask!
Professionals will have a contract, or will spell out in their estimate what the expectations are for both parties. Typically, a designer will provide you with a set number of concept sketches to choose between, then a set number of revisions within that chosen direction. After a certain amount of back and forth, you’ll arrive at the solution together.
Can you DIY (design it yourself)?
Note: These guidelines will come in handy even if you decide to hire a professional designer (which is highly recommended), as it will give you a foundation for informed input and feedback, and will hopefully make it easier for you to talk about your ideas with the designer. (Remember, BookBaby provides professional book cover design for your printed book or eBook.)
What programs or tools will you need?
There are countless apps, programs, and tools available. Do some research and see which you like best. (Professionals will most likely be using the Adobe Creative Suite, which is not cheap.)
If your book cover needs to be printed, confirm from your publisher what file type they’ll need. At the very least your chosen design tool needs to be able to save at a high enough resolution (300 ppi is safe), and in the correct file type as required by the book printer.
Generating a book cover concept
When you opt to hire a designer, the concept will be developed by the conversations you have with the designer regarding your book. You’ll be asked to think and talk about your work in a way you haven’t before (which is a good thing).
Tone and emotion
You want to make the feeling of the cover fit the overall feeling of the book. This is a high-level goal, and might seem a bit vague, but by following some of the other strategies in this article, you’ll be better able to capture the vibe of your book with your book cover.
Extract something simple in terms of imagery
One approach to creating a memorable book cover is to visually highlight a single element from your book — an important place, an object, etc. — something significant that can be utilized in a simple manner. When designing things yourself, minimalism can be your best friend.
Decide on a visual approach
Do you want your cover to have an illustration, photographic, typographic, or graphic appearance? Look at covers that you like – and that are compatible with the tone, genre and content of your work – and determine what the common elements are among those covers. Are they bold and simple? Is it just an interesting use of typography? Is it the intense photo that captivates you? Keep breaking it down until you have an idea for your book cover that utilizes the same approach you responded to in other covers.
Stream of conscious brainstorm
Sit down and start writing about your writing. Keep it simple and just jot down words and images that come to mind. Once you have twenty or thirty words, see what images and interesting correlations you can make that might be turned into a cover element.
The book cover design: guiding principles
There are general guidelines that a good designer will understand when creating a design – and it’s good for you to know them so you can articulate these from the outset.
Hierarchy of Information
Some elements are more important than others. This should be reflected in the design through use of scale.
If you’re a new author, it’s a safe bet that no one knows who you are (yet), so designing a cover that suggests otherwise is not going to engage an audience (unless your name is Noodle Poodle or Gutter Crotch).
You want to grab people with the title of the book; entice them with the emotion and narrative the title alludes to, and then let them know who you are. Make your title the largest and clearest part of your cover design. If your name is as big, or bigger, than the title, you’re doing it wrong (that goes for you too, Gutter Crotch).
Another way to say this is: if everything is the same size, nothing is important. Don’t make the various elements of your design compete for eye-attention, use size and scale so the elements complement one another..
If there’s too much competing information and imagery on the page, it just becomes visual white noise; there is no focus and it’s hard to discern what’s important or relevant (similar to what we discussed above when considering your hierarchy of information.)
Examples of too much clutter include:
- too many colors
- too many images or components within an image
- more than 2 fonts (more on that in typography)
- quotes competing with title or author
- drop shadows
- outlines on multiple things
- excessive gradients
Decorative fonts, such as scripts, are difficult to read (particularly in small sizes) and should be avoided. AND THEY DEFINITELY SHOULD NOT BE USED IN ALL CAPS.
A general rule of thumb in typography is to only use two fonts in a single design – one serif and one sans serif – and they should have some kind of visual harmony or relationship.
That being said, you can choose fonts that have a variety of weights and italic options to give you some spice while maintaining unity.
Anything below an 8 point font size will require a magnifying glass to read: avoid it.
Don’t stack type! It is not how we read, and it’s clunky.
If you are going to format your typography vertically, it should read from top to bottom. (Look at any spine on your bookshelf.)
Outlining type is tricky, who needs it? Nobody.
You should know the size of the finished product before you start designing. That might sound like common sense, but plenty of amateurs make the mistake of designing first, only to discover that what they’ve come up with won’t work within the dimensions they later select for their printed book.
Also, it’s important to remember that your cover will initially be viewed as a thumbnail by many (most?) people. Make sure the cover is compelling and clear even when reduced to the size of a postage stamp. This is a universal design rule that applies to book covers, event posters, corporate logos, etc.
When in doubt… KISS
You know, Keep It Simple Stupid. There’s not much more to say. Strip it to the basics. Make your book cover about the title and who you are. A cover won’t be able to convey everything about you and your book, but it should say one or two things in a striking way.
Print and Digital (eBook) considerations
The final book cover design document for printing needs to be created at a higher resolution than the version for your eBook cover. You can always “save down” to a smaller file size, but it does not work the other way – you can’t take a web-ready 72 ppi file and expand it for print. So as a rule of thumb, set files up at 300 ppi. Even if you’re only planning an eBook at first, you may want to print in the future, so always plan for printing. Better safe than sorry!
Pixels vs. vector
Digital files are read in one of two ways: raster (pixel based images), or vector (based on points and lines). Vector is infinitely scalable with no loss of quality; raster is not. If you’re working in pixels (i.e. Photoshop), make sure NOT to take an image that’s smaller than you need and attempt to blow it up. It will look like trash. Get a file that is 300 ppi at the size it will appear in print (at least).
Consistent visual branding
Cross-branding and reinforcement of your product is important. Here’s a few things to think about in terms of branding:
Is the book part of a series? If so, maintain visual consistency (use the same fonts, similar photographic imagery, illustrations, typography, etc.).
Do you have an online presence? Integrate design elements from your website, press, social media marketing, advertising, etc. into your design – and vice versa. Now that the book cover design is established, use the same aesthetic and elements to promote your writing on various platforms, including your Facebook author page, your website, print and banner ads, posters, or the side of a bus. Keep the look consistent to build familiarity, excitement, and interest for your awesome book. Of course, all the above rules for design still apply!
We are constantly looking at existing cover designs for inspiration and motivation. Many of the books on our shelves are kept as much for their form as for their content. The reason we buy this version of The Old Man and the Sea instead of the other 12 editions available at the used bookstore is because of kick-ass design on the front. If a story is going to stand the test of time, shouldn’t the image on the front do the same?
Check out Chicken 3000’s graphic design work at Chicken3000.com.
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