Does the prospect of designing a book cover make you feel anxious? Jittery? Terrified? Do you start to contemplate cleaning out your basement instead? Don’t worry! You’re not the only one.
At the start of every cover design project I feel the same way. But I get through it one small step at a time, and this blog post demonstrates my thought process. We’ll walk through it together, and you’ll soon understand that most book covers do not spring fully formed from the designer’s brilliant mind.
Step 1: The assignment
First comes the assignment, of course. It may come from a client or from your own mind. It consists of a title, author, image(s) or suggestion(s) from the author or publisher, and some level of information about the topic, the genre, and the mood of the book. With fiction, many designers read the entire book to get ideas. If there are lots of distinct ideas, follow some variation on the process outlined below for each of the better ones.
For this hypothetical assignment, here is what we were given:
This nonexistent book is nonfiction, and it includes history and a vision for the future of Oakland, California, involving technology, gentrification, the visual arts, an influx of more and more ethnic groups, improved public education, and plans to mitigate the effects of climate change. Serious stuff. The publisher wants to use the photo above and has provided the title, subtitle, and author’s name.
Our first challenge is that the photo is horizontal while the front cover space is vertical. When this happens, we have a few options:
- Use the whole image while making it small and putting something above and/or below it
- Let it flow from the front to the back cover
- Crop it.
For this exercise, let’s begin by cropping it.
Aside from the shape of the image, do you notice anything actually wrong with it? Very often, photos taken by amateurs have problems, so we always look carefully at anything that comes our way. There are three things here that could cause problems:
- The photo is crooked! This is common with amateur photography, so always watch out for it. I’ll show it straightened out from here on.
- The bushes in the foreground are unattractive and will be distracting, so we will have to crop them out.
- If you’ve been to Oakland and this view looks familiar, you are probably aware that it faces west, toward the sunset. Since the topic of the book is reawakening, it should really be a sunrise shot instead. However, the view to the east is not as good as to the west, and there is no sunrise shot available, so we will have to use the one on hand.
Step 2. Finding examples
In my office, I have a stack of book catalogs, collected over the years from direct mail, libraries, and bookstores. If you don’t have a collection like this, I suggest starting one. And there are lots of websites displaying book covers. Aside from the most obvious places, try Daedalus Books, BookraK, Christianbook.com, Dover Books, or other book catalogs, and blogs about book cover design such as BookCoverArchive, TheBookDesignReview, and TheBookDesigner’s Ebook Design Awards.
For this exercise, we browsed through history book covers, looking for ones that included photos that filled the entire cover, especially ones with lots of sky or empty space at the top. Here’s what we found:
We’re going to start out by copying what others have done before us. (Gasp!) If you think about it, though, book covers are all more or less the same shape and have the same elements on them. And in case you’ve never noticed, many book covers do look alike. The only difference sometimes is the image and the typeface(s) used.
Step 3. Beginning with imitation
So here’s how we start to imitate some of the covers we chose. Three of the covers in the top row show a lot of sky at the top, so let’s corral them and take a better look.
Did you notice the different ways that the type is positioned? In the first two, the type is centered, and in the third, the type is on the left. This works well for that particular cover because of the two figures standing above the rest of the activity in the image. But because our Oakland skyline is fairly straight across, we’ll concentrate on the covers with centered type. Here’s how we position our photo.
Remember those darned bushes that were in the way in the original photo? We’ve cropped them out now—they are lurking just below the bottom of our space.
Next, let’s add some type. It should be large enough to be read easily at thumbnail size or spotted by someone walking by a bookstore window. How about this?
Step 4. Variations
From here we’ll start making some variations. Luckily nobody else is watching, so if we make some really bad choices, we can simply delete them—who will know? So we make a couple of slight variations on our first attempt:
We could go on all day making more variations on the covers above, but let’s move on. Below are the other covers from our group. They all have different ways of showing the title, and in different positions. We take a stab at something a bit new:
This does the job of filling the sky with something, and the type is no longer all centered, so we’ll keep this one for our first round of successful designs.
And then another attempt at using a color band with type:
You can see from the example above that we now picked up the idea of using a dark band with type on it. The color we used is not black; it was picked up from the buildings in the photo. (See Book Design Made Simple, chapter 58, “Creating a color palette” for details on how to do this.) It’s a pretty striking arrangement of type and image, but it leaves an awful lot of empty sky up there at the top. Let’s keep trying. Because of the dark band at the bottom, we can move the skyline up now. And let’s make type interact with the image a bit:
What do you think? Are any of these bookstore worthy? Even if not, we’re definitely making progress now.
Next, let’s try to use the entire horizontal image by wrapping it around from the front to the back. This image is particularly well suited to this use—see how well the type fits on the spine? We got lucky there. We also are hoping that there won’t be too much copy on the back cover!
So here’s a collection of our favorites, each different enough to give the client a real choice. We will hang onto these and move on.
Step 5. Forgetting it all and starting over
This final step is very important: We are going to erase these covers from our brains. We’ll leave them alone for at least two days, and when we come back to them, we will probably see something obvious that could be improved.
But we won’t even do that until we’ve designed at least two more completely different covers for this book. Even though the publisher wants to use this photo, we should also offer something completely different. Ideas might be an illustration from a local artist, or perhaps a cover with simply some funky, Oakland-style type and colors. (A trip to the Oaklandish store will give us lots of ideas.) We could even combine the photo with some of the Oakland-style type we are thinking about using.
It is easiest to come up with completely new ideas after a good, long break. If we wait for two days between designs, it will take at least a week to come up with three great options to show the publisher. And that is why we start early and plan ahead.
So what do you think? You could do this, right? There’s no magic to it. Analyze the image(s) you are given, find similar examples and analyze those. Imitate. Do variations. If you’re unsure about colors, use InDesign’s Color Theme tool to start with, then grab more colors from the color wheel (see chapter 58 for instructions). Just begin, and continue. If you get so caught up in it that you don’t know when or how to stop, get other people’s opinions.
Then gather your favorites and pass your work on to the client. He or she will surprise you with their ideas and opinions. Take them seriously, not personally. Think about them, then start over if you have to. It’s all part of the process of designing a book cover. Enjoy the ride!