A book designer gives form to content but also manages a balance between the two.
So far, I’ve written four books: three traditionally published and one self-published. Every time, I’ve been intimately involved in the design process, as I think every author should be.
I know this is the digital age and all, and here I am telling you these things on a blog, but I still prefer print books. I love the typography and interior design, how the use of artwork can tell a story.
Most of all, though, I love what a book cover communicates. Books don’t just speak with words. They also speak with the way they are designed.
Unfortunately, a lot of authors, and sometimes publishers, get this wrong. In fact, we may be facing a problem in the world of publishing, as we are seeing more people take ownership of a process they don’t fully understand.
Many self-published authors and indie publishers (which I celebrate, by the way) thinking that a good book design is just about having a pretty cover. It’s not.
I’m no expert, but ever since I became a marketing director of a nonprofit years ago and now run my own online business, I’ve made it my business to become a student of design — an amateur aficionado, if you will. So here’s what I know.
The cardinal rule of book design
According to renowned book designer Chip Kidd (who designed the cover to Jurassic Park and many others), good book design is about giving form to content but also appreciating the balance between the two.
In his quirky Ted talk, Kidd explains that on his first day of graphic design class in school, the teacher drew a picture of an apple, then wrote the word Apple and said: “Listen up. You either say this,” pointing to the word apple, “or you can show this,” pointing to the picture of the apple.
“But you don’t do this,” he said, pointing to a picture of an apple with the word Apple beneath it. “Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”
In other words, you can show or tell, but don’t do both. Don’t treat readers like they’re stupid. This is the first rule of book design.
Respecting your audience
The second rule is to know and respect your audience.
Books are not created in a vacuum. They are not merely a manifestation of the author’s creativity. The content needs a form, and the form will influence the way the content is consumed.
All art has an audience, and books are no different. Good book design, then, is not just an expression of the story or idea behind a book. It is a piece of the marketing. As such, it needs to matter to the people it was intended for.
Chip Kidd says as a book designer, he has a responsibility to three groups of people:
- The reader
- The publisher
- The author
The ultimate goal of a good book design is to get people to respond. For the reader, you want people to say, “Wow! I need to read that.” For the publisher, you want them to say, “This is something we can print.” And for the author, you want them to say, “Yes! This expresses my idea better than I could!”
How do you do that?
You make something that matters not just to you, but also to the audience.
So let’s summarize. There are three things most people don’t understand about book cover design:
- Book design is about giving form to content but understanding the balance between the two.
- A book cover should not show and tell. Don’t treat people like morons.
- Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Respect your audience and understand your responsibilities as a creator/designer.
Personally, I think good design is a little counterintuitive. A book cover should make you think, should make you puzzle a little, wondering, “Now what’s that about?” You can see how I did this with the cover for my book, The Art of Work.
It doesn’t make complete sense at first. You have to think about it. And that’s intentional — it’s rule #1 and #2 of good book design. But be careful with this. If you do this too much, you’ll confuse the reader. If you do it too little, you will bore the people you are supposed to be wowing.
Good books don’t just tell you what you want to hear. Good books provoke. They make you think. And so should their covers.
This was the process I went through to design my latest book cover, and I think it works quite well. Hopefully, it will help you make something that matters. To find out more about my book, go here. And be sure to watch this video:
What kind of book cover catches your eye? Share in the comments.