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Great cover design: 3 things to focus on

Have you ever had one of those hamster wheel days where your to-do list just keeps getting longer no matter how hard you try to get it to shrink? Despite trying your best and ending up utterly exhausted, you still end up with a frustratingly long backlog - or, worse, you end up doing nothing because you simply can't figure out what to focus on first.

I used to get hamster wheel days a lot, until I thought to google it and came across a simple tip: decide on three most important things you need to get done in a day, and do those first. So simple! Works great. Three things are easy to pick and reasonably simple to get accomplished and then you get to feel at the top of the world. If you are thinking that three is too few, good news: you can always do more once the initial three are done.

Over the years, I've found that something similar is true with design as well. I could compile a long list to use to evaluate a design, and because each project is different - by design, if you will! - almost none will check off all the items on the list. In real life situations, we are often choosing not the ideal solution, but the best one possible. The way to get to the best - but still realistically possible - is to know your three main points, the three important things that get you the most bang for the buck. That's how you get from overwhelming to easy!

So what's the secret of a good book cover? Or more precisely - what are the three secrets to focus on? Let's dive in.


1. The power of simplicity: choose your symbol

If you've read A Song of Ice and Fire, you may have noted how simple the cover designs are, despite the awe-inspiring complexity of the story itself. A shield, a chalice, a shadow, a crown... just one simple object on the cover, but as you read, you begin to understand that it's more - it's an elegant distillation of the entire story into a single symbol. And the mockingjay pin from The Hunger Games? I'll bet there are people who haven't even read the books that still recognise the symbol. example There is a reason many designs focus so strongly on one symbol. We may be tempted to try and put a snapshot from the plot on the cover - and as designers and book lovers, we've had some great times doing just this with authors who enjoy it. But as writers, I'm sure you know: there is power in not telling the whole story right on your first page. Even if there was enough room on the cover to somehow show the entire plot of your book, should we do that? Or do we want to ease the reader in, intrigue them, thrill them and only then let them learn everything about your world and your characters?

For that first glance at the cover, it's enough to simply evoke an emotion or idea. We are not giving the reader answers - we are giving them a question, a hint, a promise of great answers they can find within the book itself.

An increasingly important consideration with cover designs in recent years has been the size of the thumbnail image. A large portion of book sales these days are made online, through Amazon or bookstore websites and in their listing pages the book covers are shown in relatively small sizes that don't display small detail very well. We aim to make the title readable and the cover design identifiable even when shown at small sizes, because that's how they will be making that first impression. We choose a single focal point, highlight or symbol that can attract the reader's attention and draw them in.

book, book cover

A good design will work even when shown in a small format. Even in thumbnail view, there is still enough room to tell our prospective reader what genre the book belongs to, what the central themes are and to offer a few chosen elements that create the good first impression of the book and of the author. It's the job of a well-designed and attractive cover to trigger the buyer to pick up the book and take it home with them. The story itself will take care of the rest.

2. Typography: if books had voices

Typefaces are like - well, faces. Each typeface has its own personality and voice, its own style, or even quirks. Their character and influence are so strong and intuitive that they are felt even by those not paying attention or not versed in theory of design. Typefaces set the tone and the mood. If your book cover could talk, the typeface would be its voice.

So, choosing the right font for book cover design is an art. There are no firm rules and intuition serves us here as much as technical knowledge, but there are some guidelines that we want to keep in mind. Probably the most important one is to choose a font suitable for the genre of the book. For example, bold, clean, straightforward typefaces are best for crime or adventure themes:

For romance, we would use typefaces with softer forms or scripts evocative of hand-written letters.

Classical or geometric typefaces are great for non-fiction.

These are just general guides rather than rules, and we often adjust and play with these to adjust for finer meanings or preferences of the target audience. A more modern font may speak better to a younger audience; a font inspired by Roman inscriptions invokes more gravitas and may be better suited for an older, educated audience.

The length of the title can influence the choice of font as well - to be legible in a thumbnail cover image, a long title will need to be set in a condensed narrow font, whereas a shorter title can be more playful or use a wider typeface that fills out the frame.

3. Color: painting emotion

The third of our basic elements of book design is color. Knowing the basics of psychology of color and choosing the right color palette is key in creating the right mood and reaching the desired audience. Pastel tones, for instance, can help create a romantic gentle introduction to a great romance novel.

With historical fiction there can be a considerable range in fonts and color palettes used, depending on the books subgenre and themes. Neutrals, earthy tones and natural greens were a great match for a story set in the Norse Viking Era that balances exciting action with romance and strong character development.

For a thriller or a crime novel, we might use a powerful mix of fiery reds and shadowy blacks and browns to capture the suspense and excitements awaiting the reader.

And in this fun example, bright colors such as a sunny yellow, a warm red, and a couple of saturated blues were used for their vibrant cheerfulness, suitable for a guide to raising the great negotiators of the future.

No project is ever simple and creative projects are even less so. There will always be questions and bumps in the road and part of being creative is finding ways around obstacles. The key to success is having a plan and knowing the main beats you want to focus on. If you find yourself confused about design choices for your book, we hope keeping these in mind will help you focus on what's crucial to getting you most of the way there to a successful book cover.

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