I get asked all the time: What’s the most important element on a book cover?

the_war_on_words.largeI get a lot of e-mails from designers finishing school, to designers just entering the industry and have changed from a hobbyist to a professional, and there is one reoccurring question that comes up:

What is one thing that will help me create a good book cover?

You can’t ever just say it’s one single thing, design is such an all-encompassing experience. It’s like building a house, you can’t ask: what will help me build a good house? without expecting a list.

I’m going to tell you the one thing that is at the very top of the list. Often ignored, rarely thought out, and separate from the imagery. It’s seen as like a third cousin who lives out in the country, people don’t really want to talk to it.

What is it?


the_king_of_methlehem.largePurpose of type:

Pfft, game over, I can hear you saying. I just put on some Garamond, or even just Arial or Times New Roman and it’ll look great.

NO, it doesn’t.

The purpose of type is to support the design, enhance the message, while being completely undetected. When you open a paperback and start reading, it is considered good typography when you are never distracted by the font face and the layout, and it is an ease to read. This is the same with type faces on a book cover. It should almost remain invisible, but add to the beauty and grace of the cover.

If the interior of a paperback looked like this it would drive us mad and we’d have to put the damn thing down:


Think of it like… a bride getting her hair done for a wedding. The rest of her looks beautiful, from make up to dress, but if the hair isn’t done it’s alarmingly offensive. When it is done, it works together with the ensemble and never draws attention to itself, yet it can be complemented and singled out as beautiful on its own.


Typography rule 1: Keep it simple, and legible

The first mistake I see on book covers is the use of overly technical, decorative or distorted font faces. The author/designer thinks:

Well, the genre of the book is paranormal romance so I’m going to use some really curly font I found on 1001 fonts, because it looks paranormal-ish.

Like this:

vtks-38.regular vtks-beauty.regular billy-argel-font.regular

The rule keep it simple means: Let the image do the talking. Choose a font face which takes a back seat and doesn’t scream LOOK AT ME!!!! 

The rule make it legible means: Your readers have to be able to read it fairly easily.  The typeface is going to get completely lost if there’s already a lot going on in the imagery, so don’t be scared to pull it right back.

utopia.largeTypography rule 2: Don’t use more than three fonts, try and just use two

What is the main focus of your book cover, regarding type? It’s the title. If you decide on a decorative or distorted or flourishy font then use it for the title to bring it to attention. You can also combine a decorative font with a serif/sans serif font face in the title to create a bit of excitement, and you’ll see this done a lot in Romance.

The second focus is the author name. If you want to use the same or a different decorative font face for the name then you end up diluting the focus of the title. To support the title rather than fighting with it, go with a serif or sans serif font face. Your name can still be big if you want, but there is a hierarchy to everything.

Title is King, the name is Queen.

At the high court of typography if the Queen wants to look like the King then the people won’t know who to follow, or focus on.

The tagline needs to be smaller than the name and very easy to read. I suggest using the same font face as the name, if it is a serif or sans serif. Consider it a whisper, but it has to fit with everything else. By going for a third type face at this point can splinter the cover unnecessarily, especially if it’s a poor choice.

the_mad_ones.largeTypography rule 3: Your type should be a part of the design, not an afterthought. Integrate it.

A pet peeve of mine is when I see a piece of art work that’s been created specifically for a book cover, by an artist that is so talented I want to puke, and the title name and author is plastered on in five minutes, and it shows.

What is the relationship of the title to the image? Does it need to be in the same colour palette, placed carefully into the right corner, does it need to be big or small? Take care when choosing font faces and try different layouts. Just like writing you have to work through drafts before you find the right one.

we_must_love_one_another_or_die.largeTypography rule 4: Work with grids

Grids are used everywhere in design. You can head on over to The Grid System or Thinking With Type to see how extensive working with the grid can be.

Grids bring control and balance to design. Don’t be afraid of them but work within their boundaries. Set up some margins over your document and follow them to ensure the width and height of words, letters, and lines fall into the same structure.

You can follow this tutorial at typophile to figure out how to layout a grid in InDesign.

This tutorial shows you how to set them up in Photoshop.

the_thing_about_life_is_that_one_day_youll_be_dead.largeTypography rule 5: If unsure, get a professional to do it

If you’ve hired a professional illustrator for your cover, why aren’t you investing the same sort of time and money into a designer who really knows their typography stuff? Learning how to work with type takes time and experience, the greatest typographers can act like an invisible Superhero. They take out the baddies, but you never see them or hear about them.

It is the typography that can make or break a cover, in some instances. 

If you don’t have the knowledge, invest in it. I offer type-only book cover packages for a much cheaper price than my standard book cover packages.


This article is for those still learning design, or aren’t a designer and still want to give their book cover a crack. Once you get a handle on typography you can go ahead and break all of the guidelines I’ve mentioned here. Experiment with it, see what comes about. Learn from example and research other book covers, look to see how others have done it. You don’t have to start from scratch. You’re allowed to seek out inspiration, direction and motivation.

What are your experiences with typography? What have you learned along the way that you can share with others? What is a book cover you’ve seen where the typography makes or breaks it?

One thing to make your book cover better in 10 seconds

There’s one major thorn that is sticking out of the DIY thumb, when it comes to self-publishers giving their own cover design a crack. It happens over and over again. I browse self-publishing forums and see book covers posted up, the author looking for feedback, and this one piece of design tactic is always missing. What is it?


What the hell am I talking about?

Definition of hierarchy: any system of persons or things ranked one above another.
In this instance, I’m talking visual hierarchy. It is the way elements are organized to let us know what is most important, to least important, in the design.

On a book cover, what is the most important element? The title. There can be images, or no images, but there must be a title. Seth Godin’s book Poke the Box has no title at all on the cover- which further emphasizes the importance of it since it’s such a break from tradition. In Seth’s instance, the lack of title makes us immediately intrigued and will go on a search for it.

The problem:

If you don’t have a background in design you may not be aware of how important hierarchy is. Design is a visual language, but authors are used to working with words, not images. Text is laid out without any thought of how it relates to the images, all the words are big, there’s a mix of information, emphasize is made on the wrong element.

Here are some examples I’ve mocked up:

V1: The text feels like it’s yelling at us. We don’t know where to look first. Is that a series tag or does it actually belong with the title?


V2: The name has more emphasis than the title. If you’re a huge best seller, then go for it. Stephen King is the ruler of his domain and can have his title at about 1/10th the size of his name, but there’s a good chance that you’re not there just yet (yet). So we need to bring the title into focus, and let the name take a back seat.


V3: Everything is white, and flat. There’s no interaction or relationship between the image and the type.


V4: Interior Layout: How your book will look with everything at the same size


The Solution:

Remember, type has a really important role to play in book design. It’s the most important factor- above the graphics. If it’s not legible, and not readable, it’s not doing its job.

In design there’s a theory that is used as the basic, most simple guidelines, called the Gestalt Principles. There’s tonnes of information about it online, so I won’t go through it here, but it outlines how to help your audience interact with your design.

Emphasis and importance can be (briefly) outlined by:


Are there elements on the page that are close together, or are they far apart? Is one shape or element different to all of the others?


Is everything the same size, or is there a heading, and a sub heading, and general text? Is size used to convey figure and ground (foreground and background? Something close to you, and something small in the distance?)


Is there contrast between the elements, or are they all the same colour? Is there a bolder colour on the title, or is it softer?


Is the title typeface simple or decorative? Is the name typeface more decorative than the title? Are there more flourishes on one word than another?

Here are the examples again, using the Gestalt Principles and working with hierarchy. You should now be able to clearly identify what is the most important element in design, and what is the least.


If you’re going to design your book cover yourself, then this should be your first port of call when figuring out layout. You don’t even have to decide on your font faces yet, this is just to do with visual communication.

Imagine your text as an image, that it is not read but simply looked upon as a picture. With everything else involved- what is the most important element and what is the least?


What do you find is the most important principle of hierarchy in design? Do you find it is something easy to tackle, or challenging? What covers have you seen that perfectly displays the principles, or a lack thereof?