How to design an effective book cover

Nowadays, a book cover designer must meet the needs of two sets of people: the author and the public, writes Yvonne Shiau. With so many moving pieces and people to please, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture. All this begs the question: what should a designer keep in mind for a good book cover? In this post, we strip a book cover down to its most fundamental elements: from here you can use these building blocks to construct a book cover that will do justice to everyone.

1. Imagery

Proper imagery on a book cover can say a thousand words before a reader’s even reached the first page. If I were to see a book cover, would I get an inkling of the story inside? The person picking up the novel doesn’t need to understand every detail, but they need to be intrigued — and the cover’s imagery should be able to give them a clue about the story.

Images are also a great way to connect people with the book on a deeper level. Peter Mendelsund’s design of Metamorphosis, for instance, suggests the novel’s major themes from the onset: identity, perception, and duality. In such a vein, good cover imagery can be arrestingly iconic (think Jurassic Park) or symbolic (think Catch-22). In addition, book cover imagery encompasses everything from photography to the background you use to complement your typography. Which takes us to…

2. The Title

It’s not a myth: authors do agonise over the title of their books. Ernest Hemingway considered The World’s Room and They Who Get Shot for days before deciding to go with A Farewell to Arms.

As the designer, you should make sure your typography backs up both the feeling a title evokes and the tone of the book itself. You’ll often find sans-serif fonts dominating the non-fiction genre, since they convey a sense of modernity, confidence, and professionalism. On the other end, romance novels often feature whimsical fonts such as Lavenda.

Perhaps most importantly, type-based brand identity is potent in the world of books, as the typography for a title can brand a book in the public’s eyes. Think of famous book series that have turned into establishments. Harry Potter’s typography, for instance, is today a brand in and of itself. You’d recognise it anywhere, wouldn’t you?

3. The Author’s Name

Speaking of name recognition, authors aren’t exactly wallflowers themselves. Quite often, readers will buy a book because they trust the name on the cover.

Ergo, the author’s name on a cover matters. Create the typography for an author’s name, and you’re creating an author brand. It tends to result in a powerful psychological connection with readers: whenever children see Roald Dahl’s name in funky type, they know they’re in for one heck of a ride.

Acclaimed designer Adly Elewa places Jeffrey Eugenides front and nearly centre on the cover of The Marriage Plot. Jon Gray, the designer behind Swing Time, goes one step further: Zadie Smith is afforded the same weight and space as the book’s title. That tells people right away that this author is a big deal.

4. The Spine

Also known as the component that many book cover designers first overlook, the spine of a book keeps the book together in more ways than one. Don’t forget: when a book is on a bookshelf, the spine is the very first thing a reader sees. It’s important.

Whereas the cover of a book is all style, the design of the spine is (usually) all substance. It will echo the title and author’s name, both of which should be presented in a typeface that’s consistent with the style of the front and back cover.

Rachel Willey’s cover design for The Mothers, which presents a woman whose face isn’t revealed until you get to the spine, shows that a designer can use the spine to keep the design surprising and interesting.

5. Balance

But in the end what matters most is balance. All good covers share a balance of the above elements. Good book covers use white space to create congruity. Lines can also draw readers’ eyes where you want them to be drawn, as book cover designer Matt Vee does in the cover design for The Association of Small Bombs.

To make a book cover great, focus on the basics and make the above five elements interesting and original. Such a book cover design will sell the book itself. An authentic book cover that achieves the marriage of art, type, and story will ultimately be the one that persuades audiences to crack the book open.