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NOTE THIS NOTE: this article was prompted by the Wiley Design Challenge, to design book covers for an upcoming Photoshop book.

Book Cover Design Tips & Tricks

by Fred Showker

Designing Book Covers Few people think about the way book covers come into life, and most think you just call an artist and say make a book cover. Sad to say, that's the way many actually are created. We've even seen authors themselves, or author's friends or family members designing covers. But for an effective and successful cover, some foundation design rules and expertise come into play.

Good ideasObviously it would be inappropriate for me to attempt to teach you how to design book covers on a web page -- although many others claim to -- however, I can share the following rules and tips to get you started. In my JMU Publication Design classes, I would take several labs, and an assignment or two to teach the skills involved. Here, we'll just take a look at some of the basics.

I spent just over 16 hours eliminating entries in the Wiley Design Challenge in order to arrive at my five winners. This was a competition, open to the public, to design the cover for the upcoming Photoshop book by Al Ward "Photoshop for Right Brainers: The Art of Photo Manipulation." They had seven other judges, of varying design skills, so the outcome wasn't quite as I would have expected. But I plied my judging based on the graphic design rules and criteria for designing a book cover. Today's marketplace dictates some new requirements for good book covers considering marketing and sales via the internet. By now, most publishers know that the tried and true rules should still be carefully observed for those books which also make it to the shelves of book vendors.

A general survey of all the covers submitted indicated this was more of a photo illustration audience than graphic designers. This is evidenced primarily by the lack of design capabilities in the areas of typography and intent. A strict critique of all the entries revealed that none of them did I consider to be an excellent job of merging visual imagery with well crafted typography. Many had superb visuals, but fell flat on the type and positioning of the type. Many evidenced no real typography skills at all -- handling type in amateurish fashion or as an afterthought. There were several that had very good typography but were lacking in market targeting and intent.

The following are the covers that I felt would best fulfill all the criteria of book cover design -- even though these too should have some refinement of typography. (enlarge)

Submitted covers

Each of these covers fulfills at least most of the criteria for good book cover design. Titles are readable and command attention, illustrations are appropriate, and overall visual feel is appropriate for Al Ward, and the Photoshop techniques he generally hones in on. They all have some problem however, and we could critique them for those various flaws. But from over 100 covers submitted, I felt these were the strongest.

Let's take a look at some of the driving criteria I used to judge the campaign.

1. Know the materialAl Ward Photoshop cover design example

Some say this is the most important consideration. Some even say read the book. These days however, reading the book is nearly impossible. The rule is to know as much of the content, intent and personality of the book as possible. I was in a good position to judge these covers because I've read all four of Al's other books. I know his style, and I know the kinds of information he focuses on.

No matter the subject matter however, you must be familiar with it so you can set the mood and character of your design to match what the reader can expect. Nothing is worse than getting a book you did not want after being mislead by its cover.

The example at right shows a workable cover -- and particularly shows various techniques that will be applied to photos in the book. It even has a bit of the flavor of Al's sometimes off-beat presentation of information. He is not your usual generic Photoshop writer who writes ten books a year and in each one shows you the same old, tired, tricks. He goes for effects that are not run-of-the-mill, so this graphic presentation is hitting close to the hot button. Unfortunately the typography is a little weak. They nailed "the art of photo manipulation" dead-on -- but mixing colors of letters spells death for readership. At the bookstore, the shopper would not be able to read the title at a glance. Worse yet, on the web with a thumbnail in Amazon at 120 pixels, that type would look like a mistake.

2. Know the readerAl Ward Photoshop book cover example

All books have a target reader. If it's a murder mystery, then the reader is a murder mystery fan. If it's Photoshop, then it's Photoshop. However, in all genres there are varying degrees of readers. Al's book would not appeal to production engineers even though they might use Photoshop all day long. Targeting the reader most likely to buy the book is very important. All other sales are gravy.

Knowing the demographic of the reader allow you to craft a combination of type and graphics to grab that reader's eye, then instantly send the message that this book is for you. I know you think that's a no-brainer -- but it's seriously more difficult to do than say.

The example at right could be considered a good cover by many critics of book covers. Then again, in my opinion, it misses the positioning of the reader. There is a strong probability that the Photoshop user interested in this book would have photographs in mind. Most new Photoshop users and home or small business, nonprofessional Photoshop users are primarily interested in working with photos from their digital cameras or scanner. This cover is clearly sends the visual message of a "graphic" and not a photograph -- it is obviously a personal expression by the artist rather than an attempt to match the intent of the book. This cover might be better suited for an Illustrator product.

Remember what I said earlier about typography? This layout does focus in on the book's USP ("Unique selling proposition") which is The Art of Photo Manipulation. Putting it top deck, at the very top, would be a smart thing to do. On the other hand, the type face selected does not send the Photoshop message, nor Art message. It's a type style reminiscent of the 1960s psychedelic era and probably not appropriate -- aside from the fact that it could be difficult to read from a distance or on the web.

Design and illustrate the visual message NEXT PAGE: let's continue to the next rule Designing Book Covers, page 2. . .


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