I 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?
Purpose 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.