Graphic Design AdviceGraphic, Design, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2017

Book Cover Design Advice and Inspiration

OliviaDesign

The level of digital media rapidly increases every day, but take a trip to your local bookstore and you'll probably notice that print design is still alive and well. Although I love working in both digital and print media, there's something special about being able to hold a beautifully designed printed object in your hands, and some of the best and most unique designs in the field today are found on the covers of books.

Designing a great book cover can be a challenge—in order for your design to be effective, it has to creatively represent the material inside while being distinct enough to grab the attention of a viewer and make a significant impact. Because of the complexities of the various different kinds of books, designing book covers can be a valuable exercise to practice your design thinking skills. Here are a few tips to get you on your way to designing stunning covers.

Start with a concept

The best way to get started on a book design is to develop a solid concept that reflects the overall key message or tone of the book. Thoroughly understanding the content and the goal of the content are critical steps in making a successful cover. In order to do this, it's a good idea for you to actually read the content if it's available to you or if time allows. Even if you have a fast-approaching deadline or the content is complicated, there are still ways you can gain a true understanding of the content without reading it word-for-word. Read summaries or synopses, character sheets, reviews–basically, any material you can get your hands on in order to really comprehend the book.

Next, it's time to translate themes and messages of the content into visuals. There are a few different techniques to do this, but my favorite is to develop a mood board—it'll help you organize any visual inspiration you get from the content. Go through your content and make a list of adjectives that describe the tone or overall feeling. Some example adjectives might be dark, mysterious, playful, hopeful, serious, noir, classic, scholarly, and funny. Find any recurring objects, settings, motifs, or important scenes and add them to your board. You might find that these words and images start to evoke certain color palettes or typefaces that you can start to explore. The goal of your mood board is to create a visual picture of the content and its meaning which you can draw inspiration from. Generally, covers that are more symbolic tend to be more visually interesting than literal cover designs, so think about how you can represent themes with a subtle visual metaphor that might intrigue a reader. Understanding the tone of your book will help you to create visuals for your cover that are appropriate for the content and that hint at the overall theme. Think of the cover as a sneak peek for the reader—the first chance to draw them into whatever is inside.

Stick to your genre

Keeping the genre of your book in mind is important—the cover of a mystery novel looks very different from a textbook or children's book, and it might contain different information with a different hierarchy. Depending on the genre, you'll have a different audience to cater to and should design with this audience in mind. For example, a young adult novel cover should appeal to teenagers, so you might usea more youthful design or employ trendier colors and typefaces. For a nonfiction book about politics,the cover you design might feel more formal and academic. Keeping the design applicable to the genre helps readers to quickly understand what kind of book it is and what kind of content they'll find inside.

Take a look at other book covers in your genre to see what kinds of techniques they use. This can provide a bit of inspiration, but it can also help you to avoid repeating concepts that have already been done or using common visual clichés which show up frequently within the genre. For example, mystery novels often use doors, long shadows, dead trees, etc.—this doesn't mean that you can't use these elements, but your cover will stand out more if you find a way to fit within the genre while still being unique. Try putting a new spin on a cliché oruse unexpected visuals or type treatments.

Keep it simple

One of the biggest mistakes I see with novice book cover designs is trying to do too many things at once. Keep typefaces, colors, and information to a minimum—remember, you only have a few seconds to grab the attention of a reader. This doesn't mean that you have to create a minimal design, but making sure the elements of your cover aren't overwhelming together is critical to a professional-looking design.

Make sure your layout has a clear hierarchy—this will help a reader navigate through the presented information and understand it easier and faster. Keep all copy as legible and easy-to-read as possible—this is especially important if you're given a lot of copy to put on the cover. Contrasting your type and imagery can help create a pleasant visual balance. For example, if you choose a busy, complicated image as a background, contrast that with a simple typeface so that the two don't compete. Relate the placement of your type with the image so that the design feels intentional and cohesive. The two should work together harmoniously so that the cover feels great and cohesive as a whole.

Don't forget production

Production is another important aspect of book cover design to keep in mind. Make sure you know the specifications of your book cover—this includes things like spine width, bleed, margins and safe areas, and where the barcode will go. Having this information before you start designing will help save time and hassle in the long run.

There are a variety ofbinding and finishing optionsthat can elevate your design and get a passerby to pick it up. Depending on the project budget (and how much control you have in the production process), elements likespot gloss, foil stamping, coatings, and embossingcan be options to consider. However, as a general rule, I would avoid using too many of these options at once—simplicity is key to keep your cover from looking too gimmicky or overwhelming. The production of your book cover should feel as intentional and thought-out as the design itself so that nothing feels like an afterthought or out of place.

When deciding on finishing options, I like to stop by bookstores and take notes on what other books are doing—what kind of paper they use, whether the covers are matte or gloss, what elements are embossed, etc. This can help inspire you on where finishing would be best-suited on your design. Be sure to discuss production with your client and/or printer to see what options are feasible for the timeline and budget of the project you're working on.

Break the rules

Once you have the basics of design and layout down, don't hesitate to try something completely unconventional or risky. Some of the most successful book covers take this unorthodox approach in ways that make sense for their content. Try altering the orientation of the text, losing the margins, or making the text really big or really small. Use jarring or impactful imagery, die cut holes in the cover, or spread the title over the whole front and back. Breaking the rules doesn't work in every situation, but it can allow you a little more artistic freedom to explore and push the memorability of your cover.Doing something bold with the coveris a great way to prompt a reader to pick up a book.

Practice!

In my opinion, book cover design is one of the best (and most fun!) ways to practice your overall design skills, especially if you're new to the field. Covers require critical thinking, concepting, sketching, typography, layout, and production—skills that can be applied to many other projects. And unlike other mock projects, it's fairly easy to develop a fake brief for a book cover assignment. Try redesigning an existing book, or use a site likePlot Generatorto develop fake titles and blurbs. Doing a handful of fake covers as a personal project can help you to improve your skills and provides great portfolio work when you're just starting out. And, because the projects are your own, you'll have more freedom to try new things than you might with a real-life client.

Below are three fake book covers I designed for three different genres. Each one uses a different stylistic approach and organizes the information differently.

sample book cover 1
This cover for a made-up thriller uses bold, brushed typography and a subtle textural background of a city. The pop of yellow color conveys a sense of urgency and helps the title stand out over the mysterious background.
sample book cover 2
Just because a book is educational or instructional, doesn't mean it can't be beautifully designed. I designed this cooking guide to be simple, using only blue and white, to create an approachable feel for new chefs. The clean, sparse typography contrasts nicely with the more detailed vintage illustrations which make the book feel classic and timeless.
sample book cover 3
For a romance novel, I went with a minimal approach that uses warm colors and lots of white space. I pulled the simple circles off the edge of the cover to reference a sun setting, and the overlapping circles create a sense of connection and movement.

Book cover design can be a difficult and complex process, but keeping these few guidelines in mind will help you to create more successful and meaningful covers.

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