Beginner’s Guide to Book Cover Design

In this article I'll be covering some common mistakes beginners make when making book covers. After reading you will know more than 99% of people that create graphics. Follow these guidelines thoroughly and you should see a dramatic improvement in your work.

There is truthfully no specific set of rules to follow with book covers, so we will be discussing mainly about design in general, with a stronger focus on eBooks.

But first, some key points:

  • When you become a pro, you can break these rules.
  • Graphic design is 10% software and 90% skill, talent, and imagination.
  • Spend less time learning software and more time learning design theory.

Get Inspired

Take a moment to admire other people’s work—this is the key to becoming a better designer. Get some graphic design books or browse online. Analyze how other people set type, and look at their photos and images.

Online bookstores are great places for browsing through book covers. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you search by category; I recommend looking at bestsellers as they usually have the best covers. If you want more inspiration, try searching Google images for book cover designers. Follow this and you’ll never run out of ideas.

Keep a swipe file of all the design work you love. Bookmark your favorite websites, and return to them when you want inspiration. All designers have a swipe file and bookmarks.

Type & Design

There are many books that go into a deep understanding of typography. This is required learning and a major part of graphic design. I highly recommend learning as much as possible about typography before you start your work—I’ve listed some resources at the end of this article.

GET SOME NEW FONTS

Avoid preinstalled system fonts—we all know them: Arial, Impact, Comic Sans, Times, Georgia, the list goes on. There are just way too many fonts on the market for you to restrict yourself to system fonts. Professional typefaces can greatly enhance the look of your work.

Visit cool sites like Font Squirrel to browse free fonts that have been specially selected. Or you can find free fonts on Google. But premium fonts are the best; they come with a fee, but you buy them once and can use them for life. Premium fonts give you the benefit of a professional designer’s skill.

MY TOP FREE FONT SITES

  1. Font Squirrel
. A large collection of specially selected free fonts. A big plus is that you can filter by the number of styles for each font.
  2. Lost Type
. Quality free fonts presented in a way that inspires the viewer.
  3. Font Fabric
. I really like how this site displays their fonts. A great selection, including fonts such as Nexa, which includes a family of 16 different fonts, and a free demo of Galano Grotesque.

MY TOP PREMIUM FONT SITES

  1. MyFonts
. One of the more popular places for purchasing fonts. Preview your own text in different styles.
  2. Adobe Typekit
. This includes a Creative Cloud subscription, if you don’t already have one.
  3. Hoefler & Frere Jones
. Recently renamed typography.com, this is a great resource for finding some of the most elite fonts around. They also have a cloud service.

Try to find sites that have the complete “family” for each font. This will usually include super-thin as well as super-thick styles and everything in between. This variety will give you more control over the text in your design.

font-family

GO BIG AND GO BOLD

Especially for an eBook, you want your title to be big, bold, and confident.

While I was writing this blog post, I saw that a new Internet of Things (IoT) eBook had been released. The guide is packed with valuable information but the 50 pages of content were totally let down by a 2-minute cover. It was screaming for my help.

gbb-before

gbb-aftergbb-after-logos

CHOOSE YOUR ALIGNMENT

All alignments should look deliberate and intentional—so find an alignment and stick with it. If you are aligning to the left, then align everything to the left. If you are centering the title, then center the rest of your cover.

choose-alignment

Avoid being wishy washy about your layout. When something is not deliberate, it looks like you don’t care.

choose-alignment2

THUMBNAIL READABILITY

According to Netlingo.com, a “thumbnail” is a smaller version of an image or graphic that allows for multiple images to be displayed on a single Web page.

Often, beginners will get lost in a large work area and make their text very small, treating the layout like a movie poster instead of a book cover. When the cover is sized down for the Web or viewed on mobile, the text becomes unreadable.

thumbnails

FONT MIXING

I’ve found that a layout with any more than three different typefaces is extremely difficult to parse visually. I get a weird feeling in my stomach just thinking about it. A good rule of thumb is to stick with two. Just remember, you can get plenty of variation and mileage out of one font with its different styles—bold, italics, all caps, etc. (This is why I recommended earlier to choose fonts with different weight variances—so you can maximize your typographic options without changing the font!).

Here are some good general guidelines for choosing your fonts.

  • Choose two sans serifs max per layout.
  • Remember that each font should be visibly different.
  • Make sure each font has a consistent role on the book cover.

CREATE CONTRAST BETWEEN ELEMENTS

The difference between two or more objects on a layout should be dynamic. We determine and control the contrast between these elements.

create-contrast1

create-contrast2

Get Your Message Across

Pull the user into the cover. This can be achieved in many ways—with a compelling title, with a famous author, or with a visually striking image. Which method will work best for you really depends on the particular book or story.

TYPOGRAPHIC TITLES

Make your typography look deliberate and intentional—this is key. Use typographic style to reinforce the words. The meanings of words like “big,” “power,” “mad,” and “cash” can be reinforced though type. As in the examples below, the words can become the artwork.

typographic-titles

FAMOUS AUTHORS AND PEOPLE

Most people can identify a famous person from a photograph. This is especially useful for biographies and self-help books by well-known authors.

Take advantage of this by emphasizing the background photograph so it is more prominent than the title—make it the main focal point. Or, for a novel by a famous author, the author’s name could be emphasized at least as much as, if not more than, the title.

famous-people

STORIES AND NOVELS

Use an interesting photo or illustration that reinforces the title and story in a creative way and makes the viewer curious. Can’t find the perfect photo? Take one yourself, or hire a pro.

stories-novels

POWERFUL WORDS

A gripping title can also be more powerful than a photo. As an extreme example, the words “death,” “dead,” “die,” and “kill” are very strong and speak for themselves. If you have one of those words in your title, combine it with a landscape image, and your work is nearly finished.

powerful-words

Success By Design

Despite what some people think, graphic design really does matter. Good design will subconsciously attract you to look at it without you even knowing it. You will like something but have no idea why. But the designer knows. I’ll give you some secrets for attracting more eyes.

COLORS

Use repetition when working with text colors. Try keeping all yellows the same yellow, all reds the same red, and so on. Too many colors will introduce complexity and confusion. Personally, I tend to stick with white text and then add one or two additional colors that contrast with the background.

colors

LESS IS MORE

When everything is prominent, then nothing is prominent. If everything is calling for attention, then nothing stands out to catch the viewer’s eye—it just looks like a sloppy mess. The beginner ego wants pizzazz! but the pro has a specific message that demands attention.

less-is-more1

less-is-more2

REMOVE CLUTTER

One of the biggest struggles in design is making something simple. Complexity is easy, but too much content and too many elements on a cover can be messy and draw the viewer’s eye away. Simplicity requires you to be safe and confident with your work—this is why so many avoid it.

remove-clutter

MENTAL OVERLOAD

Without simplicity we have mental noise. Your job is to prevent elements and objects from visually conflicting with each other.

The human brain can only absorb so much information at one time. Are you trying to distract people or sell a book?

mental-overload1

mental-overload2

SPACING AND BALANCE

Look at professional book covers—notice the spacing and balance between text and other elements. The spacing between objects and text creates balance within your design and reduces visual conflict.

spacing

RESOURCES

  1. Butterick’s Practical Typography
    Very thorough and detailed explaining of typography. Fun to read and easy to understand. Try to make it a habit of practicing what you learn on this site.
  2. Fonts in Use
    This site showcases interesting book cover designs and lists the fonts that were used. Great place to get ideas.
  3. Typography Served
    An inspirational site showcasing some of the best work from Behance users.

SOME PRETTY GOOD BOOKS

I started my journey into design back in the late ’90s. I got lucky and found some good books at first (and I found many bad ones after that). The truth is, most graphic design books are full of text and have very little examples. So with that said, here are the only books and articles I recommend for a beginner.

  1. The Non-Designer’s Design Book
    I have been recommending this book for over 15 years, and I will continue to do so. After you finish this book, you will never see design the same again. It’s a fun and easy read.
  2. Before & After Magazine
    Submerge yourself in this site. They have printed books, PDFs of magazines, and article subscriptions. I still follow their articles to this day.
  3. The One-Minute Designer
    An oldie but a goodie. Mostly about page layout. I think it’s out of print, but you can find plenty of used copies on Amazon. This shows over 200 before-and-after design examples.

Want more articles like this? Please let me know by commenting below. Have fun!

Comments

  1. Damien Rufus

    Mark,rnrnThis is one of the best blog post you’re written during my time as a CAP customer. I’m bookmarking it now and will definitely share.rnrnHere’s to better book covers!

    Reply
  2. Michael

    This is an excellent post, Mark, best concise treatment on the subject I’ve seen, and the graphics do a great job of illustrating the points. Bookmark worthy for sure. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. colin stevens

    What a brilliant article. Whether you’re creating your own covers using Marc’s actions or briefing other designers this walk through gives us some vital elements to look at and consider. As always less is more plays a key part.

    Reply
  4. Stew Kelly

    Great article Mark, thanks for sharing; especially the examples. It is very helpful to see other creatives and have them critiqued. Much appreciated.

    Reply
  5. AJ

    INCREDIBLE post Mark!rnThank you so much for packing years of sound advice, experience, examples and simplicity into this POWERFUL AMAZING post.

    Reply
  6. karen

    Hi mark, I have been a fan of your product Cover Action Pro for many years. I love this article and will bookmark this page for future reference. You are such a good designer and teacher. I would often love to see design through your eyes for a day. You have such an eye and flair for excellent design and detail. You are the ‘master’ of design. I will use this article to help create my next book cover. Take care. Karen

    Reply
      1. karen

        Hi mark, ha ha ‘the check is in the mail’, that’s funny!!!rn please feel free to use my comment in any of your testimonials. rnBye for now, karen

        Reply
  7. Joseph

    Thank you Mark, this is EXCELLENT and a very helpful addition to your templates. rnrnI’m sure you know that customers like me value what you do, and, as a non-designer, your blank templates are half the battle. So the clear guidance, tips, do’s and dont’s, and examples are super helpful. I especially appreciated your image+commentary style in this post.rnrnThanks again!

    Reply
  8. Joshua

    Mark, this article is what I call fundamental structure of design. It has revealed most common mistakes designers make with impunity. Though very simple, but has the capacity to influence ones perception of design. Can you do a blog of Common Mistakes Designers Make? As long as I remain a designer, I will follow you. I just stumbled on you through a YouTube video on book cover design, after the designer used and introduced Cover Action Pro. I have just purchased it now.rnrnThanks Mark.rnrnJoshua.rnThank you Mark.

    Reply
  9. lucas adamski

    Excellent article Mark, I’ve learnt a lot and before after examples make your points very clear. Thank you 🙂

    Reply

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