Examples of Interesting Cover Design
Before dissecting my own design process, I want to show you several cover designs that influenced my thinking.
Note, the covers are presented at the sizes of the sources I’ve linked to, giving you a good idea of how they appear online. The exception is Mysterious Skin, because the current edition uses a different cover. I wasn’t able to directly link to a image. I’ve used the GoodReads copy of the cover at full size. As this was designed before internet book selling, it gives you a more accurate indication of what the published product looked like.
Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin
Unfortunately, I can’t describe the multitudes of why this cover is The Best Cover Ever™ without spoiling the plot. However, it’s brilliance is because image obliquely captures every detail of that scene without showing a single element of the plot or characters. The more I look at it, the more references I find subtly worked into the framing and posing. The designer who created this cover not only read the book, but re-read the referenced scene multiple times to understand all of it’s nuances.
On the shelf, the typography is strong: the sans-serif face is contemporary and serious, but has humanist overtones that a more formal face wouldn’t. The ample letter spacing contrasts pleasantly with the way the top and bottom rules (lines to you non-designers) press against the letter forms in an almost clauterphobic manner. However, this cover was designed in the ‘90s, when books weren’t sold online. For conteporary marketing purposes, the type is too small to hold up in a thumbnail. I’m showing you the original trade paperback cover. After the book was made into a film, it was given a rather dreadful cover, despite featuring the always wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s sole virtue is the increased size of the typography is much more prominent in the new design, although the face isn’t particularly interesting.
(Since I gave away several copies of this novel without retaining one for myself, I can’t give the designer proper credit. If anyone has this version and can tell me, please do. Credit is deserved.)
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy
This is the book that started my redesign process. The minimalist design is marked by an assertive sans serif face and a single image that references a non-plot element that occurs through the series. The mocking jay pin is surrounded by abstract forms suggesting the centralized capital-district system of Panem (the world the book is set in). While not as startling resonant or obsessively observed as the Mysterious Skin cover, the lack of clutter promises a tightly paced, highly-engaging read. It also reproduces extremely well in thumbnails. The series carries the basic concept through the second book and modifies it slightly in the final, suggesting that at last the caged bird has been freed, a clever way to signify the events that happen in the final book.
(Caveat: I’ve only read the first book, so I’m basing my discussion on the cover design for Mocking Jay on discussions with people how have read the book.)
Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!
Ah, the joys of a hardback cover on a book with decent sales expectations.
I don’t have a loupe at home, so I can’t verify this, but I suspect the jacket on the hardcover isn’t CMYK—the four color printing process used to represent full color with ink. Most likely, the jacket was run on a six color press, using CMYK plus green and red inks so that the titles are crisp and the details in the knock-out stand out.
Back to the design stuff
Bradley’s cover painting is fairly detailed, which could be a minus for an online thumbnail, but even viewed in in the Amazon preview I’ve linked to, the charm and character of the illustration come through. The wild, exaggerated voice of the text comes through in the cover, as does a certain old-timey-ness, which reflects the story. The typography, using a lovely script treatment for the title and a delicate all-caps serif for the author name and other cover information lends the cover poise and implies that this isn’t a children’s book. Another nice touch is that while the illustration captures an appropriate sense of the past, the script doesn’t reinforce that. Arguably, a more “theme park”-like typeface could have been used, but that risked over-emphasizing the childlike elements.
(I believe Swamplandia! is currently out in a school edition; while primarily written for adults, Russell’s writing is full of a childlike imagination few adult (category) writers present. I imagine young readers will find find it a joy and seek out Flannery O’Conner, well on their way to being teen literistas.)
Lessons from the examples
All of these books have distinctive covers that in no way overlap in style, typography or design. So what can we learn from them as a whole?
Good design takes in consideration its audience. It doesn’t matter if the designer is penning covers or road signage (or electronic devices or websites), the end user has to be the primary driver of the process. Romance novels (as I understand it, not writing in the genre) from the major imprints follow a very rigid template for content. Each imprint guarantees its readers will receive a desirably predictable plot, structure, character types and degree of sexuality. Covers are designed to quickly indicate to potential readers how the book fits in with the genre. For people outside of the genre, the covers can look repetitive or even tacky, but they are very well designed.
Apple fans may protest: Steve Jobs never used focus groups! Johnny Ive ignores consumers and designs what works! All (mostly) true. But the reason Apple is so valuable is because every member of their design teams works with the idea of “what does the end user need?” There are many ways to an audience-focused approach, but if you’re designing for someone other than the end-user, you’re likely to fail.
Each of the books I’ve selected effectively target their expected audience. They all feature designs that are eye-catching enough that somebody in a bookstore, online or at a library is more likely to pull them off the shelf. The design gives prospective readers visual clues so they intuitively know if the book is something that might interest them even before reading the jacket cover.
The next part of the series
In the next part, I’ll get to dissecting three iterations of the cover I’ve designed for my own work-in-progress. I’ll talk more explicitly about why typefaces were selected, how they were (mis)used, and what drove the decisions about the art. Concepts will be broken down and beaten up; the vast array of typefaces and ways to use type will be discussed; and I’ll examine each piece of art for what it it tells a potential reader and how it translates online.