Cover Design Concepts

Cover Design Concepts

by Charles Brownson
Along with proper editing, cover design is considered an essential element in selling your book. Authors are usually advised to hire a professional designer. Can you teach yourself to do your own cover? Maybe not. Can you teach yourself to recognize a good design? Probably. Here are some designs of my own you might want to try yourself.Brownson 1
Above is the cover of my latest book. The principles at work here are easy to understand. First, keep it simple. The title, the author, and perhaps a few words identifying the genre are all you really need. You want the reader to take in the cover at a glance, and not have to study it. The imprint can go somewhere else. Unless you are a brand name, the title is what counts. If the book is one of a series, say so demurely. This is not Barnum and Bailey stuff.
That, however, is not enough. It’s simple, but why would a potential reader look at it in the first place? It could be because of a striking image. That’s not the case here. The design may be another reason. Here, the eye focuses first on the title. The author’s name is close by, in a lighter area of the illustration to make it pop out. These two elements are bracketed by the birds, and the descriptive phrase is fit into a gap between one bird and the reflection below it. The whole makes a composition which flows from top to bottom in a single line, with nothing to pull the eye away.
Then there’s the typography. There are a number of elements here which I don’t have the space to go into. An important one is the font. Avoid using sans-serf (Helvetica or Arial, for example). They look industrial and are not restful to the eye as are the more traditional serif fonts. The other very important element is the spacing of the letters. Word processor spacing is not good enough. If you plan to pursue this seriously, you’ll want to invest in professional typesetting software — the standard is Adobe InDesign. A major feature of professional typography is kerning. Look at the “wn” in the author’s name. There is a slight overlap between the letters, with the “n” slipping just under the right serif of the “w”. Now look at the “ow” combination. Could be closer together. Step back a ways. You will see a variability is the spacing of the letters. Not good. Finicky, but it’s one of those things which will strike the reader subliminally as, well, unprofessional.
Now here’s a cover from another of my books. Unlike the previous one, the image is what first strikes the eye. Nothing should mute the effect. The white-on-black typography is prominent, but it’s very forwardness emphasizes the blackness of the tunnel and sucks the eye in. As for the green masonry, imagine what yellow or some stony color would do to the composition.  Brownson 2
Brownson 3Another one. Not so good. Busy. And there is a second issue: it doesn’t give an adequate idea of what’s in the book. It says it’s a detective story, and the flowers certainly suggest it’s not hard-boiled, but what is it, exactly? And if you would read the first few pages you might actually decide the cover is lying.

There’s more that I might say, but perhaps you get the idea. There is, for example, the question of continuity between the front cover and the back, and of the clichés that are so common on the covers of detective stories and science fiction.

Finally, here’s a professional cover. Think about it.Brownson 4


Charles BrownsonCharles Brownson is a novelist and book artist, not a professional designer. But he has studied hand printing, page layout, and typography, and has designed six covers for his books, three of which which he comments on here. He has an MFA from the University of Oregon and has taught occasionally to beginning writers. Charles Brownson’s website is where his books can be seen and purchased. His blog may be read at

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