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What Makes a Good Book Cover Design?

By Lewis Agrell

The best covers are those that are the most beautiful. Billions of dollars are spent every year in advertising, fashion and manufacturing to infuse more and more beauty. Why? Because beauty attracts the eye. That's why the most beautiful models, actresses, cars, houses and boats cost the most money. Beauty is a precious, treasured commodity.

Beauty has specific qualities: harmony, balance, unity, synthesis, and refinement. Designers struggle to make the colors and design elements—fonts, photos, illustrations, and other graphic elements—work in such a way that the greatest beauty is attained.

Designer Attributes

Why are some designers better than others? This is not a simple question to answer. Designers must be trained in the basics of graphic design, particularly color theory. The other qualities that are necessary are:

  1. Experience: it helps to have tried many different approaches to design work, and learned what does and does not work;
  2. Intelligence: reading as much as possible about the industry is very helpful, because it is important to stay current, not only with the latest design movements and techniques, but also the tools of the trade (computers and software);
  3. Worldly awareness: it helps to know what is going on in the world, because world events are often reflected in design work. Witness particularly the dynamics of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, when many social shifts occurred. Designers and illustrators exploded with new ways of working, as a reflection of the dynamism of the period;
  4. Sensitivity: A designer must be sensitive to the material with which he/she is working, as well as to the needs, desires, and expectations of the client.

"As He Thinketh, So is He"

An individual's consciousness can vary tremendously. Wherever a person places the bulk of his attention will indicate the level of awareness. People are generally focused physically, emotionally, or mentally. It is best for a designer to have as high an awareness level as possible. Why is this critical? Because a designer, or any creative person, cannot create beyond his or her level of awareness. When a high level of awareness is attained, that individual also has a connection to the lower levels, having passed through them, at some point in his or her maturation. For example, a designer who is entirely focused on the physical realm would not do well with a project focused on matters of the heart. A designer who is swept up in the world of emotions would not do well with a project that has deep philosophical leanings.

In the mental realm, there are three areas of focus. The lowest is the subconscious. Designers who are focused on this level create work that is very dark and mysterious—perhaps even very ugly and horrifying—and certainly distorted and misshapen. The primary color in their palette is black. The next mental level is that of the concrete mind. This is the realm of logic and reasoning. This is the area of scientists and mathematicians. The design solution from an artist focused on this level will be very balanced and harmonious. The Golden Ratio, or Divine Proportion (approximately 1.618) might be very important for a designer on this level of consciousness. Someone who has a mental focus labors very carefully to determine a proper approach, utilizing logic, reasoning and analysis. The highest level is known as the superconscious. In this level, symbolism is very important to the designer. Also, this designer will use a palette of very bright, cheerful, and uplifting colors. Designers who work on this level are identified by a wide variety of creativity or understanding and that they generally "know" immediately what the best solution will be for various projects. The "Eureka!" moment is very common for these designers. They will usually have a vivid mental image in mind before a person finishes explaining a concept to them. They think very quickly. Many designers specialize in one particular area. This is because they have a strong physical, emotional, or mental strength, and design in that area.

The "Grunge" Look

If beauty is so important, why is there a "grunge" movement? The reason for this may be a temporary backlash to the "perfection" that can be created by computers. A world saturated with the unwavering perfection that computers are capable of creating can become a bit maddening to designers who like to put a more human touch to their work. Consequently, designers are fighting against the coldness of computers with "grungy" designs—those that appear as though they are not created from the computer, even though the computer remains an indispensable tool for production. The grunge look will become overused and will be rejected in time, in the same way that the psychedelic look passed away at some point in the early ‘70s.

Great beauty will always be the sine qua non for designers. Deviations from beauty are only a temporary stylistic meandering. For example, ugliness will never gain a foothold in auto manufacturing because of the importance of high-volume sales. When one particular car—the 1958 Edsel—was not beautiful, the car’s sales were dismal. Car manufacturers don't want a repeat of that noted failure.

What catches the eye besides beauty? Newness and uniqueness. An example of this is reflected in the story of the designer who needed to create a new cereal box to be displayed in grocery stores. He saw that all of the boxes had bright, vibrant colors. So, what did he chose to do? He created a cereal box that was mostly white. This "non-color" stood out from the rest of the boxes on the shelves, gaining that valuable eye-catching quality.

Genre Design

There are genres of books that have a "standard look"—a look that the buyer expects to see. An example would be the romance novels. All purchasers of romance novels want to see an image of a strong, handsome, romantic-yet-masculine man embracing a beautiful woman on the cover of the book. To deviate from this "formula" is to risk loss of sales. The same is true with fantasy novels. Buyers want to see a careful rendering of a dragon, or some such fanciful creature. Wouldn't it be odd to see a biography without a painting or photo of the person about whom the book was written? The challenge for the designer, when dealing with these genres, is not a simple one. He/she must create something similar, yet unique and powerful.

How to Select a Designer

The easiest way to select a designer is to examine his/her Web site. Is there a style that is similar to what you imagine for your book? If you like what the designer has done, but don't see something that you are looking for, simply send an e-mail to the designer and ask if he/she has done anything similar to what you have in mind. Very often, the designer will have work that is not on the Web site. If you still have doubts about the artist's ability to create what you want, you can always hire the artist to do a concept sketch. If you are less than happy with the concept sketch, you can then either ask for another sketch, listing your desires, or you can thank the designer (be sure to send a check for the hard work!) and then move on to another designer.

Designing Your Own Cover

Don't do it. That's my answer to all writers who want to design their own cover. You have put a lot of energy into your book. You want the cover to reflect as much energy and power as your carefully groomed text. The person who can provide that energy and power is someone who is trained in graphic design. Graphic designers have spent years, or decades, perfecting their art. Keep in mind that they work eight hours a day, five days or more a week, twelve months a year, year in and year out, to perfect their craft. They have tried and failed, so they know what doesn't work. They have succeeded, and their work has been tested in the marketplace. Simply put, they know what they are doing.

You wouldn't rewire your house yourself; you'd hire a professional electrician. The same goes for book cover design. Hire a professional. Sure, it can be expensive, but the extra "oomph" that you get in the professional design may translate into an increase in the number of books sold. Covers do sell books. If you want to sell books, save your pennies and hire the best graphic designer that you can afford. When you see the results, you will be grateful that you did. Please, don't take my word for it. Talk to authors who have used professional designers to create their covers. You might be surprised by what they say.

–Lewis Agrell has been an award-winning professional designer and illustrator for thirty years. He worked as the Chief Artist for the New York Times Company at its largest regional newspaper for ten years. He and his wife, Kathryn (a writer/editor) are the principal owners of The Agrell Group, a graphic design/creative writing firm, located in Prescott, Arizona. To contact them:, or, or

phone: 928-445-7038.



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