My final day of college was yesterday and I spent my final semester with a project that analyzed book covers across contemporary young adult literature. Interesting, right?
As a writer and reader of the young adult market, this type of research was exciting. As a design student also, I was further intrigued that I had the chance to compare covers and see which covers are offering some powerful designs and are revealing unique features of the story before the reader skips to the first page.
Compiling my research, I put together a tip sheet for beginner book cover designers and even for beginner writers who hope to self-publish, starting their journey of advertising and promoting their story.
Across all genres, there are structural similarities of the placement of text, imagery, and other qualities. The examples of covers I provide display strong aspects of design with the tips I offer. Each will be based in the YA romance and general fiction category, following the scope of my semester project.
*Excluded covers does not indicate poor design. Some books referred to will be published later in 2020.
Tip #1: Visual hierarchy
“Visual hierarchy is the arrangement of graphic elements in a design in order of importance of each element. The visual weight defines the importance of an element in a design’s hierarchy, communicating to a viewer’s eyes what to focus on and in what order.”99Designs
All designs tell a story, they communicate a message that the reader must decipher and decode. Design must bring enthusiasm and appeal or else the viewer will lose interest and the message will never be solved. Book covers represent the story and must grab the attention of any bookstore browser. Just think about how crowded a single shelf can be. Many times, a book’s full cover is not displayed, but rather just the spine. Now, designers are trying to play with visuals in a smaller area.
There is psychology behind how people look and interact with a single design and designers must anticipate these interactions. Visual hierarchy helps to establish what information is most important. On novels, it is usually the author’s pen name, the title, or even the phrase #1 New York Times Bestseller, or the alike.
In Sarah Dessen’s novels, her covers have always used visual hierarchy, from her first novel to the latest. While the covers featured below are of rebranded/redesigned covers, the original versions also use visual hierarchy in establishing her pen name and phrase #1 New York Times Bestseller. Whether a familiar or unfamiliar eyes falls upon the cover, Dessen’s name pops into view first, building reputation and recognition as all imagery falls beneath.
When designing your book cover, consider what information is most important and position the elements toward the top of the cover. For a well-known, successful author who has sold millions of copies world-wide, Sarah Dessen’s name is the most meaningful.
Tip #2: Movement
“Movement is controlling the elements in a composition so that the eye is led to move from one to the next and the information is properly communicated to your audience. Movement creates the story or the narrative of your work.”99Designs
Design is meant to flow, to produce the feeling that it’s moving. Design is not at its best when stagnant and stiff. Through placement of elements and even the use of lines, designers can offer the essence of movement to create a more interactive, exciting experience. Movement also creates a “path” for a viewer’s eye to follow which should feel natural not forced as they scan the novel’s cover.
Applying movement to a book’s cover should be tame, never wild. Too much movement can distract and cause the eye to glance in multiple directions at once, unsure of how all the pieces are fitting together for a cohesive message.
Movement can be produced through lines, showcased on Turtles All The Way Down by John Green or through illustrations that convey lines seen on What I Carry by Jennifer Longo and Letting Go of Gravity by Meg Leder. Repetition can also assist in the sensation of movement, especially when the imagery falls off of the page, rather than pausing before the edges, seen on A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck. On Keep My Heart in San Francisco by Amelia Diane Coombs, the tilted bowling pins convey movement, especially through the nearly-fallen bowling pin to the right.
When designing your book cover, offer movement across the novel’s surface. Make a browser’s eyes follow a “path.” A cover without movement can feel stagnant and stranded, a quality a reader might assume follows into the actual story and never open to the first page.
Tip #3: Typography
“Typography is an important element of design because it literally conveys the message you want to communicate…if used in an intentional way type can also be a striking visual element or a shape, as well as provide structure between the content and the visuals.”99Designs
A design isn’t an essay, meaning the default font is not Times New Roman. Design offers the space to experiment and use unique type to express a feeling and to reveal an aspect of the story. This can happen more often than we believe.
The title of a story is communicated through typography, which in turn brings to life the book’s name. Whether a simplistic or sophisticated style, typography should complement the plot, but also work cohesively with the cover’s artistic features.
On Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, the title is placed in Bernadette’s glasses, creating cohesion, while the wavering of the type could resemble Bernadette’s untraceable behavior. In the story Frankly in Love by David Yoon, the layered appearance of the type reflects the story’s complexity of love and culture. Interestingly, the typography is the sole artistic element of the cover. This trait pushes the typical boundary of graphic design. This style is also conveyed on A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi.
On The Universal Laws of Marco by Carmen Rodrigues, the typography interacts with the sky through constellations in the shape of each letter. The type on the cover of Where I End & You Begin by Preston Norton uses an alternating style to reflect a transition, while The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin uses a thin font to further communicate the “lightness” in which the title suggests.
When designing your book cover, think about how your font can express the story’s tone and can become more than just a title, but a strong design element.
Tip #4: Color
“People decide whether or not they like a product in 90 seconds or less. 90% of that decision is based solely on color. Traditional romance novels tend to prefer soft colors: lilacs, pinks and golds.”99Designs
Traditional colors of romance literature are often seen across contemporary novels. The softer tones are reflected on some of the provided examples. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti use softer colors to promote the love story. On The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory, A Girl in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel, and Virtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash the traditional tones are traded for something more bold and vibrant. However, some tamer shades are still used that stick to tradition while also pushing the envelope forward, catering toward the bright and bold trends many browsers enjoy.
Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith utilizes that soft, pretty pink, but also uses a blue background that still offers a romanticized feeling. So Much Closer also sprinkles in some green, straying from tradition, but pairing the color with romantic feelings.
When designing your book cover, utilize the palette that is traditional to the genre, but also takes some leaps and bounds forward to excite and delight.