Book design – creating the vessel to carry the content

We should never underestimate the importance of good design. Often discarded as simply “marketing” or “advertising,” design is generally considered a lesser form of art. Yet it holds a power that much traditional art doesn’t have. It has the power to make you buy things. It has the power to make you feel like you need something, to offer a product that could possibly change your life. Perhaps this is less admirable, but perhaps it is more powerful. Especially when you’re selling a product that is truly important.

Unlike a new kitchen appliance that promises to chop your vegetables for you (twice as fast!), books are products of creativity, intelligence, emotion, and, most importantly, art. But they still need to be sold—not just for money, but to convince people to read them—and for that, we need design. Book design should not be thrown aside on the belief that it is only the meaning of the words that are important. That is simply not true. A good book is a beautiful and harmonious interaction between the visual and textural aspects of the book and the story, the words. It is not just cover design that is important, but also weight, texture, layout, format. Think of the words as water and the book as the vessel—without it the words would fall over themselves in chaos.

Designing a book cover is tough because there is little freedom: we have a set expectation and template for what a book looks like. It is rectangular. There is a title, perhaps a subtitle. The author’s name. And there is some manipulation of space (whether through illustration, text, or photography) that conveys, visually, the novel itself. Though there are millions of ways to manipulate that blank rectangular space, publishers often take the easy way out and forgo creativity for predictability.

For instance, most people can imagine what 99% of all “romance novels” look like: the airbrushed, painted image of the muscular hero looming over the flushed heroine. Sci-fi and fantasy novels are usually better, but only slightly: their major problem is not the viewer’s need to either gag or laugh (as in the romance novel’s case) but instead the cover designer’s compulsion to include “the ‘dramatic’ pose, the ‘epic’ vista and the ‘adventuring party’ combining warrior and mages” in the words of James Long, blogger. For imaginative readers—as readers of fantasy and science fiction often are—this is almost an insult, as if the reader couldn’t just read the book and come up with his own visual description of the characters and the setting. (Go here for some true cover-art drivel.) A cover should be evocative of what is inside, not indicative.

There are a great many fiction novels out there that deal almost exclusively with romance, or horror, or fantasy. They just have better covers and are marketed differently. It’s almost as if you get a good cover design and the right publisher and your book is immediately marketed as “fiction” instead of  “crime” or “romance”. With that label comes a sense that the book is somehow written better, whether that’s actually true or not. A cover is extremely important in convincing potential readers that the words inside are not as cheesy, conventional, and craptastic as the art on the outside. A creative cover points to a creative novel, just like a cheesy cover points to a cheesy novel.

Visually, there are many ways to create a fantastic cover. It needs balance, which in artspeak means a feeling of visual equality (color, shape, line, value), symmetrical or asymmetrical. The center of interest, the area that first grabs your attention, should be intriguing and will pique your curiosity. Because there is text on the page, proper font selection is vital. This is something that many people simply don’t understand, not just in book covers but on websites, in presentations, etc. Design geeks will be able to name off several of their favorite fonts. (See the awesome Periodic Table of Typefaces.) The final cover should be unified, or harmonious. This simply means that all of the visual and design elements come together to create one whole image. A book cover doesn’t need to be emotionally pleasing but it sure does need to be visually pleasing. Recognizing good design is instinctive for most people—but creating it is a whole different story. (Check out the WSJ article on the evolution of the cover art for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

In short, a really great book design has three things: marketability, artistic/design value, and a deep connection with the words inside. Book design should capture the essence of the story (or message, for non-fiction), not the plot, in a way that is both memorable and marketable. And, like I said before, it should evoke the book, and carry the words to the reader in a vessel that is unique to the water-words it carries.

–          Elena Makansi

Update: we decided to add a few examples of what we consider good design: (check out many more here)

Explore posts in the same categories: book cover design, book marketing, design

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One Comment on “Book design – creating the vessel to carry the content”

  1. GREAT blog post (although I’m part of BSP, I didn’t write this). I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll throw in the fact that most authors don’t get a say in their book covers. For the most part, there’s a reason behind that–most authors aren’t designers. However, I have to wonder if some romance, sci fi, or fantasy authors see the publisher’s proposed cover and wish they could change it to something more evocative, as you said, but they simply don’t have a say in the matter. BSP definitely lets our authors have a say in the matter.

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