Dec 1, 2004

How To Design A Book Cover

by Biz Stone

Before my web career, I worked in books—designing covers and jackets. This is an essay I wrote years ago but its still good.

Sneaking a brilliantly visual example of lateral thinking and graphic excellence through the mine field of editors and sales committees is daunting. Designing book jackets is creatively fulfilling, but a dash of realism needs to be thrown in for good measure. Knowing your client, listening carefully, and tapping in to your own design sense will help a fantastic book cover make it to press.

Use Your E.S.P.

Listening carefully can mean the difference between a long, messy ordeal and an exciting vacation for the right side of your brain. If you already know your client, that's great. If they are a new client, try to find out what their tastes are so that when they say they want something "edgy and new" you're not thinking "Here's my chance to win a design award." while they're thinking "Can't wait to see that crazy glowing type!" A good way to get on the same page in terms of discussing aesthetic is to ask the client what covers are out right now that they like.

Be Like Columbo

Designing a book cover is like solving a mystery, gather all the clues you can. Ask for adjectives that they feel they want the cover to convey. Make sure the client is not giving you only his or her personal preference as this cover will most likely be chosen by a group. Request a copy of the publishing transmittal for the title, if they have a copy. This document is usually compiled by a joint committee of editors and sales force, it will help you understand what the publisher is hoping the cover will do, who the book is targeted towards, how many copies they are printing, etc. The more you dig up, the easier it will be to get a design approved that you, the client, and ultimately, the proud owner of the book can fall in love with.

Take what the client has given to you and temper it with your own feelings for what the project needs. Say the adjectives that the client gave you out loud, re-read the transmittal. How does this information translate to your design sense? The project is in your hands now, it's up to you to breath life into it and make it yours.

Get Into It

You may have some ideas right away. You may have none, but you should sit down and begin working, regardless. If you do have some ideas, it's best to get them out right away, sometimes an initial idea seems great. Then you see it. Don't be discouraged, bad ideas often beget good ones. Work yourself into a design zone, a visual stream of consciousness where you can't stop trying out different ideas one after the other, using the copy/past keyboard shortcuts like a lunatic. Try anything out at this point, do something that you know is stupid, it could lead to the most amazing idea of all time—go crazy, you're in the zone!

When you emerge from the primordial ooze of the design continuum, you will have multiple versions of the cover you are working on. Many versions are bunk, merely steps to a more finished idea. When you survey all the monsters you have created you will begin see at least three that you can pull from the wreckage and work more on.

Sweat the Details

Its all about details. Once you have a few covers that you see great potential for, you should start sweating the small stuff. Thoughts and choices that you make here are the magic. Close attention means making decisions about everything and really putting in the extra effort to create eloquence. Examine the kerning between every letter, look closely at how you've cropped images, double check to make sure an element wouldn't look better if it was two points to the left. Laboring over minutia, in a good way, really raises the bar and makes your work stand out.

Once you've labored and vexed, tweaked and fussed, and otherwise squeezed out every last drop from the creative sponge you call your mind, and you are convinced that to do any more would be destructive, you are ready for the show!

The Show

You'll have your favorite but you should show at least three. The comps should all be printed nicely in color, trimmed, and mounted—don't skimp here. If you are showing the comps in person, show the two that are not your favorite first, pointing out elements that could "potentially" be trouble areas and then show your favorite and explain why it is the best solution.

When the client hired you, they liked your work. When you met the first time about the project you listened carefully and discovered what this book cover needed. When you slaved away blissfully for hours in the design zone coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas, you were working your magic. It is now time for the client to review the three equally impressive covers you have presented. Make sure they take their time, offer to call them in a few days while they let them sink in.

The client will have to show your designs to others for feedback before they tell you which cover they like best. Be prepared to make some kind of alterations to the cover they decide they like most. They will probably have something that they feel should be done differently. Again, listen carefully here.

Close the Deal

At this point your beautiful cover could be trashed if you don't take this revision process as seriously as the original job. When you get back to your workstation, think about the change. Is it actually a good idea that enhances your vision? If it is, great. Or is it an appalling demand that makes you really mad?

Calm down, think of why they want the change. Come up with some solutions to the problem they saw—including the solution they wanted you to do. When you present the adjusted cover, show all the solutions. Again, pick your favorite beforehand. Show the solutions that you feel are weaker first and then present the cover that has the strongest design, with the best possible solution to whatever it was they felt needed adjusting.

Listening carefully, going crazy in the zone, sweating the details, and presenting professionally, will all contribute to a happy client, a great book cover, and a satisfied designer. Have fun!