Mascot Blog

What Makes a Great Cover Design?

By Emily Evans-Miller As much as we emphasize the importance of a book’s content, the cover is important as well. From typography, to photography or illustration, to the overall design and colors used, books really do get judged by their covers. Our blog editor, Emily, asked some of our graphic designers what their processes are when designing covers that help a project put its best foot forward.

Our Senior Graphic Designer, Ricky, gave these tips for designing a cover that stands out:

You Can't Make This Shit Up cover

The target market and subject matter: It’s very important to keep the target market in mind when designing for any project. If the design doesn’t appeal to the intended audience, we fail. It’s also necessary that we have a solid understanding of the subject matter of the book. Aside from the genre, we try to present a cover design that aligns with both the author’s writing style and the content itself. Some authors have a very serious writing style while others may be a little more casual. Keeping those characteristics in mind, we try to make sure the overall theme of the cover design is indicative of the content within. Show or Tell, not both: This one is my favorite and something I strive to do with every cover design I work on. Chip Kidd, a renowned book designer, does a great job of explaining this concept. The basic idea is to either show a concept or tell a concept — never both. In Kidd’s example, he recites from a graphic design class: (full article here)
In his quirky Ted Talk, Kidd explains that on his first day of graphic design class in school, the teacher drew a picture of an apple, then wrote the word Apple and said: “Listen up. You either say this,” pointing to the word apple, “or you can show this,” pointing to the picture of the apple. “But you don’t do this,” he said, pointing to a picture of an apple with the word Apple beneath it. “Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”
I like this rule for book design because I think it can lead to a cover design that is more intriguing for a potential reader. It also pairs well with one of my favorite rules of design: Less is more. The competition: It’s imperative to also know what other books of similar content or genres look like. Checking out Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or other book sellers can greatly influence the cover design I end up with. I like to look at other books in the space to see what works, what doesn’t work, what’s overdone, and most importantly, what I can potentially create that’s different and may not have been thought of before in the respective genre.

Another one of our graphic designers, Matt, shared his perspective:

Keeping time in mind: I usually try to clear out most of my other tasks before beginning to work on a cover, so I can dedicate a large undivided amount of time to it. I also try to make sure I’ll have time to execute the concept I’ve thought of effectively, and occasionally I really need to hustle if I’m planning on doing something that I know is going to take up a lot of time. If I’m particularly excited about a cover concept and think it will come out nicely, I’ll take my work home with me to ensure I have the time to work on it! Understanding the book: Attempting to gain a really strong understanding of the themes and subjects in the book is so important. Without a good understanding of what kind of book we’re creating a cover for, we’re basically taking shots in the dark. Sketches: Take a moment to rough out some ideas on paper. Just some little sketches, arrangements, text, or imagery, and getting an overall idea how things should fit together. It’s always really helpful to bring a rough concept of a cover to paper before putting it on the screen. Finally, what I consider to be the MOST IMPORTANT PART: Coming up with symbolic uses of imagery or text that represents the main idea or theme of the book. This is one of the key factors that make up, in my opinion, some of the most amazing covers. I always want the cover to convey a message from first glance, even if someone hasn’t read the title yet. Sometimes, the author already has a symbolic image in mind. For instance, if a book is about raising children, an author may request a flower on the cover. However, if that author doesn’t tell us why this flower represents a concept from their book, it could hurt the process. If the designer doesn’t understand the metaphor from the get-go,  we may inadvertently incorporate a style, colors, text, or other imagery that conflicts with the message the author intended. If an author has a specific vision for the cover, it is really helpful when that author breaks down why he or she may want that specific image so we can help create the best cover possible. Overall, to create a good metaphorical allusion we need to understand the metaphor to build off of it, without straying away from its intent. Some covers are of the more literal route, which is okay too! I do like to sneak a subtle nod to the theme of the book onto the cover when I can. THE PORTRAYAL OF MEANING IS WHAT MAKES A GREAT ARTIST!     What make up your favorite covers? What do you look for in a cover when you buy a book?
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