Basic Cover Design: Do’s and Don’ts

If you intend to tackle the arduous task of making a tantalizing book cover there’s a few things I should tell you.  (How’s that for alliteration?)  I’m going to use my faux-story Swan Stake as an example.

Swan Stake Jae

I’ve alluded to Swan Stake in earlier post, but it’s basically a pre-teen space vampire ballet romance novel.

Ballet Vampire

I’m going to base my bantha poodoo cover examples on those I’ve seen floating around the Twitterverse, but worry not, they’ll remain perfectly anonymous.  I just didn’t have the heart to criticize them publicly.  Writers aren’t typically designers, and that’s okay.

jae dansiejae dansieMost covers need at least 2 things on them:

  1. The Title
  2. Author Name

But this usually isn’t enough, as you can see.  Even if you add a color, you’ve still got little better than a Word document your 5-year-old could create.  And let’s face it, at least they’d draw something interesting with crayons.

jae dansie crayons

I drawed this!

Most covers I’ve seen have at least enough sense to include some kind of image on the cover to draw some appeal.  But slapping any old image on there isn’t going to cut it.

In order to create something the least bit interesting I’m going to introduce you to the concept of dominant objects and lines for creating an interesting cover.

DOMINANT OBJECTS & LINES

This is to say that if everything on the surface is the same size, your brain will probably start at the top and read it like a page from a book.  No, not necessarily a bad thing.  But it’s problematic because your brain will treat all things as equal, which may translate to boring.

Using a dominant or larger object can help up the level of interesting as well as direct the eye of potential readers to the important information.  That’s often why the title is the largest text on the book.

You may be tempted to make your name larger than the title or as large, pointing to the likes of James Patterson and his covers for your examples, but here’s the thing: you’re not James Patterson.  Unless for some reason you’ve got fame and fortune (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t just have a publishing house take care of this for you) then your name is almost irrelevant.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be on the front cover, but it should play a supporting role to your story, more like a Samwise Gamgee to your Frodo Baggins.  Sure, you’re the one who dragged Frodo into Mordor, but it’s Frodo we’re interested in until we know who you are.  So give Frodo the spotlight until you’re as well-known a name as Terry Brooks, J.K. Rowling, or Suzanne Collins.

For the sake of basics, keep your title at the top and your name at the bottom.  Since this is the way we usually read, your relevant information (the title) should come first.

Your title will probably end up being the foremost dominant object, but a close second will likely be the image you’ve chosen to place on the cover.  And often the image and title work together in dominance, but they don’t have to.

TwilightLet’s go back to Twilight and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  For Twilight the dominant object is actually not the title, but the image.  However, thanks to clever design we’re immediately directed to the title.  This is what I mean about lines.  With Twilight, because it’s a dark cover with muted colors, the first place your eyes go is the apple.  Then you follow the arms up, capturing the title in a kind of ‘V.’  It happens pretty quickly, but the cover is designed to take you right to the title.  Then once you’ve found the title, your eyes resume reading their natural way and you find the author’s name right below the big red spot.

Simple Twilight ShapesI’ve always been very impressed with the cover design on this book because it’s so well done.  It’s simple but very sophisticated.  Anyone looking for this book who’s ever seen it before, isn’t actually looking for the title “Twilight” but this particular pattern of colors and shapes.

The rest of the covers aren’t as clever as this, but it really doesn’t matter because they look like this one so we automatically associate the rest with this first clever one.  Well done Gail Doobinin.

Now for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  diary of a wimpy kidThe bright red background serves as a nice contrast for the starkly white people of paper pasted on the front.  Which, if you’ll notice, is angled so that the top most edge of it is pointing at the title (it’s also the dominant object).  Wimpy Kid is also the largest text on the page so whether your eye goes to the white paper first or the words Wimpy Kid, your brain will register the title immediately.  The picture of the wimpy kid drawn in comic form tells you already what kind of story you can expect inside.  Because a diary is a familiar form, you probably noticed that it was a diary without reading the word diary directly at first.  And then please take note at how incredibly small the author’s name is at the bottom.  Why?  Because he’s trying to sell his story first and foremost!  Now that he’s made a name for himself, if he writes another series it can probably be a little bigger, though my guess is they’ll still probably try and sell it as “from the author who brought you Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

Anyway, I hope you’re understanding more of the thought that goes into dominant objects and lines.

DO’S AND DON’TS EXAMPLES

I created these covers using inspiration from the Twitterverse.  These faux designs are based on actual covers, though with names, titles, and elements changed to protect the innocent.  First I’ll show you the don’ts and then covers closer to do’s.

JAE NOTE: I made this a graphic design game for myself, which turned out to be a great creativity challenge.  The rules I laid down for myself was take the existing elements, and make as generous an improvement as possible.  That means I couldn’t switch fonts or photos.  Tell me how I did in the comments below.

There were a lot more don’t examples than I care to name.  I’ve chosen three for our purposes here.  First up is Mysterious Switch.

deon richmond mystery litandscribblesWhat is it with you people and your love of Impact font?  Okay, it isn’t the worst font in the world, but it’s soooo overused and usually poorly used.  Next there’s a picture of the Washington Monument, which as far as I could gather is only on the cover because the author was from the area.  The awful green stroke too I didn’t understand.

The only points I can give them is kudos for the fog to portray mystery, but part of me wonders if that was done by accident.  Yes, all the relevant information is there, but the placement is uninteresting as is the use of the photo’s lines.

So what can we possibly do with this to make it any better?  Well, I’m not promising perfection, since I’m limited by the available elements, but, drum roll please!

deon richmond litandscribbles mysteryI decided to make good use of the foggy sky.  And I put the font in all caps because it’s typically the only way I can stand Impact and I think it makes it look more suspenseful or intense somehow.

Obviously I would have preferred a graphic that actually had something to do with the story, and so should you.  Don’t just put a picture in because you have it or because you think it’s interesting.  Otherwise your readers will wonder when they’re going to read about the Washington Monument, or better still Washington D.C.

Next up we have Sugar Loose!

Sugar Loose is a story for kids.  Sugar is a cow, who isn’t actually a cow, but an ant.  I probably would have gone with an illustration myself, but instead we get this unfortunate photo.

When taking a photo of anything, unflattering rules for humans apply for animals.  Unless you’re trying to make a point, please don’t show us a picture with large focus on the animal’s behind.  There are soooo many more interesting ways to take a picture of a cow or whatever it is.  This is where that $19 or so would come in handy with a nice professional picture.  I also don’t really get the reverse italicization of the font…

deon richmond litandscribblesTo be fair I did notice there’s a new edition of this particular book.  The cover is about 10% improved.  We kind of have a point of interest for the relevant information.

I have to admit, I’m certainly more inclined to read this book than its preceding cover.  But this is a kid’s book isn’t it?  Shouldn’t there be bright colors or something?  This looks more like a self-help or deep thoughts of the universe book.  The mood I’m getting from this cover is not anything fun, adventurous, mysterious, etc.

This cover gave me a real headache with how I could possibly leave it improved.  These elements were the most limiting of all.

Again, I would have probably done an illustration of some kind.  The best I could come up with was to at least draw more attention to the title.  I really wasn’t sure what to do with this awful cow picture.

But I hope it serves as a good example of how choosing the right presentation in title and use of color can up the appeal.  It’s not what I’d ultimately want for this cover, but I think I’ve left it improved, so I’m going to call it good.

Best of luck to you, Sugar.  May your cow disguise carry you to places beyond your wildest dreams.

Last of all, and for me least appealing of all we have *cue spooky voice* Dark Midnight

Deon Richmond darkThis was well-intentioned, but very poorly implemented. The font isn’t my favorite, but most appalling to me of all is that little black bar at the bottom. I think the intention was legibility, but whatever they were hoping to gain with the photo was lost. Plus it seemed a bit pixelated to me. Always use the highest quality photo when it comes to your cover.

So what can we do with a building/house/something that kind of looks scary because it’s run down or something? And that font, must we really stick to the rules and use what this poor cover maker left us to work with? It seems hopeless, but it’s amazing what a little tweaking can do.

deon richmond dark jaeI believe the original intention of this cover designer was to provide us with a spooky image to let us know the stories contained inside were of a more scary nature. I’ve always found the stark contrast of black and white helpful in achieving menacing. Maybe it’s the loss of color that serves as a reminder of death. Anyways, I desaturated the image, kicked up the contrast, and voila!

Seems a bit more foreboding now, doesn’t it? I added a hint of red around the edges to hint at the possibility of blood or murder. I don’t know that it necessarily fits with what the author had inside, but again, I could only work with the elements I had.

CONCLUSION

I hope this was as entertaining for you as it was for me, if not at least interesting and informative. And perhaps I’ve made a stronger case for those of you wanted to scrimp on the cover to shell out a little dough for some professionalism.

You’ve got to take so many things into consideration when designing: fonts, colors, image, tone, mood, lines, dominant objects, etc. etc. etc.

So tell me, what have you learned? Are you gaining some more knowledge about book cover design? Whether you’re self or traditional pub, are you going to design the book cover yourself or just let the pros handle it. Let me know in the comments.

Monday the fun continues with Helping Your Designer. See you then!

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7 thoughts on “Basic Cover Design: Do’s and Don’ts

  1. I’d like to know if you’re going to design your own cover, should the need arise? If I ever self publish, I’ll hire a professional. You have to stand out and what better way than with a professionally designed cover? This series of posts has opened my eyes to the different building blocks behind a good cover. You’ve definitely shown me how to make a cover better and some things to avoid. I hope do-it-yourself cover designers take note of these tips. The difference in sales could be tremendous. Great tips, Jae. I think another golden bomb diggety is coming your way! You’ve clearly earned it.

    On a completely different note, I don’t understand why some indie authors think they can just slap a photo on their cover and call it a day. It doesn’t make much sense. Makes you wonder how much time and energy they put into their book. Guess what? Most other people are thinking the same thing and passing on those books. I know I would probably skip all of these based on the covers, fake or not. A photo does not a cover make.

    The fun will continue? I know where I’ll be on Monday. 😉

    • I’d probably do a combination of me designing, but friends doing photos or illustrations. I have a pretty decent network of professionals. But it will still cost me something I’m certain. I think a cover should be tied in priority with professional editing if a person is going to self publish.

      But I know this business and the rights I’d need to secure, etc. That’s why I’m trying to discourage any amateurs from attempting it themselves. I believe that designer I linked to said authors who got a professional cover saw an 18% increase in sales, just because of the cover. Pretty significant.

  2. Great post! I love hearing about design, but that probably has something to do with the whole illustration thing…

    You have some really great examples, and really like your version of “Dark Midnight.” I would completely agree about getting a professional if you don’t know what you’re doing, and even if you do know what you’re doing, it always helps to get some more professional opinions. I always thought Twilight’s cover was one of the better covers out there. It really stands out in a sea of photoshopped faces. And I love how the arms frame the title while subtly still bringing your attention to the fact that there’s details (the author’s name) at the bottom of the cover.

    By the way, let me know when ever you want me to check out your fist chapter. I’m really looking forward to it. 🙂 -K

  3. The differences you made even with having to stay within the original parameters of the original cover is amazing with these books.
    I’m excited to work on the cover with a group of people who know what they’re doing. And you’ve broken it down and made more sense of it, too. That way I know what I’m talking about. 😉 Thanks.

  4. I’m just reading up on self-publishing my translation of a 19th-century novel, and I read that a professionally designed cover is vital and mustn’t be skipped. So I searched for info online and I found your blog. I liked your idea of a desaturated image of a spooky old building with a red tinge to the edges. This information is all very helpful. Thanks.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found the info helpful. You’ve really got to think about the mood you want to convey with these. I’d study books like the one you’ve got and see what they did with it. Thanks for commenting!

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