As a design educator, I’m often asked to critique book covers. The most common stumbling block is typography. Here are some simple tips for designers and do-it-yourselfers.
1. Title text often tends to crowd the space. Ideally it should either sit comfortably within the cover and have some breathing room, or alternatively, it should expand past the margins altogether and bleed off the page.
2. Though it’s common to center text on book covers, I rarely center text unless I’m designing a wedding invitation or the lines of text are roughly similar in length. The eye likes to jump to a left edge to read the next line and with centered text, it has to hunt for where the next line begins. Centered text is a natural and logical, but predictable approach. With a little exploration, there are almost always more elegant solutions.
3. Setting text on top of a photo is often difficult. The common solution is to add bevels, glows and drop shadows. Better to use photos with large areas of light, dark or solid color. Photoshop filters look like the hand of a computer – not the hand of an artist.
4. Never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever stretch or compress type. Look around and you’ll find poorly made signs where the middle of the “S” is disproportionately fattened by compressing the text. There are compressed and extended typefaces designed to do that job without losing their proportions. It’s like staring into a fun house mirror.
5. Use comic sans; go to jail. It’s the law.
6. Understand the temporal context of your type choices. Most people choose type indiscriminately from a dropdown menu offering 200 choices without any awareness of whether the typeface is classic or cliche. A friend of mine has art nouveau type on the titles of his self-designed martial arts/vampire books. It’s incongruous, but he doesn’t even know it. Different typefaces have the ability to place your work in the correct-or incorrect-temporal setting. When I first started working with computers, I couldn’t understand what was so futuristic about the typeface Futura. Later, I learned that when Paul Renner designed it in 1929, it was part of a modernist, progressive revolution in geometric sans-serif typefaces. It was futuristic for it’s time, and though it’s still used and useful, it suggests more of a 1930’s feel than a futuristic one.
7. When designing ANYTHING, do some research. Look at book covers by pros like Chipp Kidd. One of my favorite “design bibles” is a book of Blue Note album covers designed by Reid Miles in the 1950s and 60?s. As a matter of fact, the cover of my most recent book was intentionally adapted from his album covers to establish that very point. My design students typically sit down at a computer and start moving text and images around, hoping to come up with something inspiring. This is the “white cane” approach to design. You can come up with something perfectly original based on the work of brilliant people who came before you. Your work will be better, and you’ll grow as a designer by assuming their vocabulary.
8. Challenge yourself to write a colophon for your book-even if you don’t include it in the content. This is the section where you explain your choices of typeface, imagery, color, etc. If you can’t justify it, it’s uninformed choice – not conscious design.
A book cover is not a box or a label. It’s a visual poem that has to immediately create interest in readers. It may be attractive, and it may be legible, but it has to exert its own gravitational pull. A very small percentage of covers achieve this. Like many things in life, book cover designs are often ruined by the things we don’t know we don’t know. Keeping a few simple rules in mind and exposing yourself to the work of brilliant designers is the fastest path to success whether you’re an experienced pro or just starting out on your first cover.
Dave Bricker is a novelist and the author of The One Hour Guide to Self-Publishing: Straight Talk for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers About Producing and Marketing Your Own Books. He teaches Graphic and Interactive design at an arts University in Miami. Read more about self-publishing on his blog at http://www.oneHourSelfPub.com