What Makes a Great Book Cover: Lessons from a Great Designer

What distinguishes a great book cover from an ordinary one? Read on…


Lessons from a great book jacket designer

The bright yellow cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is instantly recognizable.

The Wall Street Journal called the jacket, designed by Peter Mendelsund, one of the most iconic in contemporary fiction in the U.S.

Mendelsund, Associate Art Director at Knopf, now has his own new book, Cover, published by powerHouse Books. It’s a fascinating inside look at the process that goes into creating a memorable book jacket, including the opportunity to see dozens of discarded comps.

Authors line up now for Mendelsund to create their covers, but his very first assignment as a cub designer at Knopf came with a condition. The author of the book, renowned scientist and best-selling author Edward O. Wilson, requested a specific painting for the cover of his newest work, The Future of Life, about mass extinctions and the precarious state of our environment.

“Use this,” Mendelsund was told.

The problem

“Not so bad, right?” says Mendelsund of the painting (see right.) “Well, if you’re a cover designer, this lovely painting, though compelling on its own, is a complete nightmare to work with.

There’s no place to rest your eye, there’s no decent location for copy, the colors are all over the map, the whole thing is massively confusing.

So, what to do?”

The solution

His solution became a blueprint for an approach he now uses often:

• Pick out a small detail

• Allow that detail to serve as an emblem for the narrative itself.

“In this case, all I had to do was find a decent visual detail in the painting,” he says.  “I proposed a die-cut cover in which the entire painting, minus the little orange frog, was occluded, leaving just that tiny amphibian reminder of the risk implicit in the book title.”

Open the cover, and you see the whole painting, a brilliant solution that also satisfied the author’s original request.

Keep in mind that Mendelsund is the first to say there’s no formula to jacket design, and that every good book cover is as unique as the text it wraps.

The job of every book cover

“Jackets are expected to help sell books,” says Mendelsund. “They wheedle, shout, joke, cajole, wink, grovel, and otherwise pander in every possible way in order to get a consumer to pick up a given text.

A new book needs first and foremost to catch a browser’s eye, to stand out in some way. There are so many books published in one year and so many of their covers look alike, don’t they. I prefer ugly covers to clone covers. At least ugly covers demand a certain amount of attention.”

More on the many tasks of a book cover:

• It’s a skin

It’s a membrane, a safeguard. The book jacket protects the boards of a book from scuffing and sun damage. It provides a book with a unique face, and in so doing it helps establish a text’s unique identity.

• It’s an information booth

The jacket tells you what the title is, who the author is; what the book is about; what genre it may belong to. It will tell you who else read and enjoyed this book. The jacket is a grab bag of information.

• It’s a decoration

Books and book jackets help us decorate our living spaces. They allow us to live prettily amongst our accumulated wisdom. (Presuming that we have read our books.)

• It’s a name tag

Books (like cars, clothes, etc.) telegraph who we are. Books jackets are advertisements for ourselves.

• It’s a teaser

A jacket is also a teaser, in the sense of trailer, in that it should give us just enough information to entice.

• It’s a trophy

“Just look what I read!”

Advice for self-publishing writers

Keep it simple!

“Most self-published book covers fail because they are trying too hard,” says Mendelsund. “Even design professionals fall in the trap of trying to shoehorn too much design into one composition. I often tell students, ‘your problem isn’t that you have poor ideas, it’s that you have five ideas competing on the same page at the same time.’

If in doubt, stick with typography. Make sure the typography is legible. Use your handwriting if your handwriting is decent. If not, use a font. Any tried-and-true standard face will do (Bodini, Baskerville, Garamond, Helvetica, Trade Gothic). Pick a pretty color for your background. Voila.

When you start to incorporate illustrations, photographs, etc. the amateurishness of the work begins to show. But there’s no need for any of that stuff. Many of the best book covers are simple as could be.

There’s really no obvious reason why anyone can’t make a decent book cover – the skills required are easy to master. The tricky bits all have to do with taste and reading ability. Those parts may be a little bit harder to learn though.”

What about you?

Whether you’re seeking a traditional publisher or doing it yourself, a good cover design can make a big difference. It needs to pop online. It must stand out on the crowded shelf or in the window of a brick and mortar retail store.

So I always advise authors to do everything possible to get a great book cover. Work with your publisher, or hire your own designer. You can engage the same designers the big publishers do, as many are freelancers with their own websites and are happy to take on challenging projects. Check out this earlier post featuring several professional designers.

Take a look at Mendelsund’s book and try applying his advice to your own book cover project. If you have any experiences or guidelines that have worked for you, please let us know. We welcome your comments.


* Excerpts used with permission by powerHouse Books

From: https://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2015/02/24/lessons-from-a-great-book-jacket-designer/

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