A recent post by “Sarah” for Written Word Media described four principles of book cover design that psychological research shows influence most people. Although individual preferences of course vary, there are enough common denominators to help readers understand why they’re drawn to a particular book on the bookstore table and to help authors and designers increase the odds that their book is the one picked up. On my next trip to the bookstore, I’m going to check this out!
Symmetry in the placement of image, title, author name, and so on. The examples used include All the Light We Cannot See, in which every element is centered on the page, except the later-added National Book Award notice, which stands out by its very non-symmetrical placement. A recent book cover I found myself quite drawn to was that for The Big Green Tent, and you’ll see that it gets a check mark in the symmetry box, too.
Simplicity in design also gets points. A chaotic cover may suggest chaos within. Give a prospective buyer too many images and text blocks, and the eye doesn’t really know where to look. There are lots of bad examples (some hilarious), but a good one is The Long Fire. Only after you’ve started reading do you realize the smudging over the lips has significance, but you don’t need to understand (or much notice) that beforehand. Subtle. Simple.
Color. While I’m notorious for saying, “I don’t care what color it is, as long as it’s green,” in fact a more universally attractive color is blue. As Sarah says, color conveys (or should) a lot about the book’s mood. Note the color similarity between All the Light and the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet. Romance novels tend toward red (hot!), chick-lit toward pink and purple, thrillers toward red and black, darkness and fog. Glance at the rack in an airport and you can pretty much peg the books’ genre without reading a word of cover copy.
Contrast allows some elements in the book cover to stand out more than others. A book by a new author will likely emphasizes the title. Truman Capote was pretty well known when he wrote In Cold Blood and the cover reflects that. When it was written, there was a lot of buzz about that book, and the cover was designed so you couldn’t miss it. Admire the single drop of blood. (Or is that a hatpin?)
Typography – I’m adding a fifth item here that unlike Sarah’s tips relies not on science but purely in the domain of opinion. Color choice, use of images, and density of information on covers all have styles and trends. Sometimes a designer innovates to make a cover stand out; sometimes designers just copy what has worked well for another book—thinking or hoping readers will make some association with these past successes. Typography has gone through or may still be in the middle of one of those copycat phases, in which the cover’s words are designed to look hand-written in chalk or crayon. I first noticed this technique with The Fault in Our Stars (2012). Three years later, there are a half-dozen uses of it in this roundup of “most anticipated” new books for fall 2015. At that link you can see 42 new covers and Sarah’s principles followed and flaunted. Which are most attractive to you?
With all this in mind, read NPR’s recent deep dive into the significance and impact of the covers of the 2015 National Book Award shortlist with new appreciation!