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Cover Design: Art or Science?

In my line of work, I’ve come across some pretty awful book covers.

Self-published authors in particular, being free from any kind of editorial oversight, tend to permit themselves indulgences when it comes to designing their own covers. Their inclination is to go for whatever they might subjectively feel ‘looks good’, or is ‘pretty’. Another trend is to try to tell too much of the story on the cover (a fault which is also common amongst blurbs).

It’s hard to present too many examples of bad book covers which have been published because traditional publishers tend to blow them out of the water long before the book reaches print — the big publishers have professional designers and other experts who usually know what they are doing. And I don’t want to single too many individual authors out for scrutiny as it will undoubtedly embarrass them. But one core principle has to be understood about book cover design: though there is plenty of room for aesthetics, the whole field of designing book covers is much more of a science than is usually supposed.

John F. Green, in his book Confessions of a Graphic Designer (well worth a read for anyone interested in the basics of the subject) outlines the three aims of any piece of graphic design:

1. Command attention.

2. Communicate clearly.

3. Motivate response.

Examining these aims in relation to book cover design, and using the maxims from my own book How Stories Really Work, we can really get to grips with how to do this properly.

Commanding Attention

To command something, it’s pretty essential to know what it is and how it behaves. Attention is the alert, directed flow of someone’s awareness, and, like any flow (like water, for example), it moves towards gaps, holes, emptinesses. In the case of human attention, these include mysteries, unknowns, differences and oddities. (You can read much more about attention in another book of mine here, if you want to be distracted for a minute - see what I did there?) To command the attention of someone browsing along a bookshelf or across a website page, it is necessary to present them with something which they are broadly expecting, but which is somehow also different, with some elements in it which stand out and seem 'strange'. In book terms, this means, for example, having a science fiction book cover, with the usual spaceships or planets or any other expected elements of the genre featured on the cover — but with something about those elements which seems mysterious, or entices notice by being a little different. The famous cover below to Frank Herbert’s Dune is a case in point: against the familiar backdrop of a dark sky in which a planet floats, we have juxtaposed a mysterious-looking desert, a masked human but with startlingly blue eyes, and a strange winged machine. The cover’s recognisable elements telegraph ‘science fiction’ to the browsing reader; the specific features signal ‘something different’ to his or her attention, and draw it in.

Another example is David Bowmore’s well-received collection The Magic of Deben Market. The background speaks of the coast, and evokes something of the seaside town in which the stories within take place, while also suggesting with its colours a hint of mystery; but the real mystery lies with the half-seen figure of the old man. Why don’t we get to see all of him? The fact that he is half off the page is enough to draw the attention of the prospective reader.

Commanding attention for book covers, then, demands two fundamental things: a knowledge of what a reader expects to see on any example of a given genre’s cover; and an inventiveness in making those expectations differ slightly so as to draw in the curiosity of the browser.

Communicating Clearly

You would think this would go without saying, but it only takes a few minutes browsing to find many examples of covers which are a mish-mash of fonts, colours, shades and images which do nothing but confuse the browsing prospect. Apart from signalling incorrect or non-existent genres, many covers use images which are in themselves perplexing. One example shown here is a cover for William Goldman’s The Princess Bride which sends out all the wrong signals about the book’s content. But mixed messaging is one thing: poor messaging is another.

The other example shown here is of an obscure book All That Rain Promises And More by David Arora. It’s hard to tell from the cover what it is about — the picture is of poor quality and seems inappropriate (why is he carrying a trumpet?), the title and sub-title suffer from bad typography, and the colours are almost repellent. The book’s obscurity probably owes something to this mess of a cover.

Motivating Response

When graphic design is used in advertising, its primary purpose is to motivate the viewer into taking a specific action. But the same thing applies with a book cover — a book cover is, after all, a single-shot ad. It commands the prospect’s attention and communicates clearly in order to achieve its product.

What is the product of the book cover? One answer might be ‘To get the browser to buy the book’, and that’s true. But for most covers, unless they strike upon an already very interested prospect, getting that person to the checkout all on their own is usually too much to ask. So a better, more achievable product for a book cover is this: To get the potential customer to read the blurb.

If a cover can grab, direct and hold the attention long enough for a person to flip the book over and read the blurb on the back, its job could be considered to have been done. And make no mistake, book covers have jobs. They most certainly are not there just to look pretty. They are there to attract enough attention so that the prospect investigates further.

The rest is up to the blurb and one or two other things — but that’s another story.


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