The Book Cover


I have to admit, the book cover is my favourite part of designing a book. It has a different approach than the inside pages.

a cover

A standard printed book cover (see image above), has 3 parts to it:

  1. The front cover
  2. The spine
  3. The back cover

The Front cover

I could talk about the obvious technical elements to take note of when doing a cover, but the book cover is a lot more interesting than just talking about the right and wrong way of doing it.

In printed and digital books, the first thing we look at is the cover. So it must have impact. It must grab attention. It must look interesting. If you are browsing a bookstore, and not looking for any particular book, the title of the book, and the cover will grab your attention. As a book designer, if I’m browsing a book store for any random book, I admire the one’s that look interesting. Half of the time, the books I buy are for the content alone, and has nothing to do with the cover design. The other half is bought purely out of admiration and a need to have it in my hands. This I usually find in children’s books. Like the book of Pinocchio below. When I bought this book, the lady at the book store said she was surprised I bought it. I asked why, and she said because it doesn’t sell very well. Why would a beautifully, illustrated book like this not sell well? Perhaps it’s too dark and scary for kids. Nonetheless, I simply LOVE this! and so does my 7 year old daughter 😉
















There’s many tricks designers use to grab attention on their book cover designs. Some use colour. Others use typefaces laid out in weird and wonderful ways. Texture. Then there’s those who can USE the author, and in a good way! I’m talking about those well-known, award-winning authors. The ones who’s name alone sells the book. This is taken into account and exaggerated by the designer by enlarging the author’s name. So much so that it’s larger than the book’s title itself…


The Spine

The spine works hand-in-hand with the front and back cover, and is a continuos element. Its actually the most important part of the book. If you think about it for a moment, it actually receives the least attention. Sometimes an after-thought. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can create interesting spines, especially for book series. Take a look at some examples below. The spine of a printed book could be really interesting and a piece of art in itself. And it doesn’t even have to be for a book series. It’s about how creative you want your book to be. What are you willing to give your reader? Just a book? Or a piece of art too?

The Back cover

So the back cover is mainly kept for the blurb of the book. In school books, its a huge marketing tool and can go through at least 10 proofs before it’s signed off. The blurb of a book is important, and again, needn’t be done boring. The ISBN number, website, and sometimes author photo are all the kinds of elements you will find on back covers. What if you changed this typical scenario? What if the blurb was placed elsewhere on the cover? Book design needs to follow certain rules, but what if you challenged the status quo?

While writing this blog, it has inspired my next book and cover design I’m busy on. So when that’s ready, I’ll be sharing this with you… Watch. This. Space 😉

I’ve had the privileged to work on 3 self-published books. It’s a different approach than a traditional published book – which have larger budgets than the self-published ones. As a designer, I have to say, its a lot more fulfilling 🙂 The knowledge I’ve gained through working in publishing for 8 years has laid down a good foundation for me to take on self-published books with confidence and expertise I’m happy to share!


Cover Design Brief

In publishing, the editor needs to provide the relevant information to the designer. Below is a checklist of elements to provide to the designer at the handover brief:

  • book title
  • author name
  • 1-3 rough concept ideas  – to discuss with the designer at the handover
  • isbn number
  • website details on cover?
  • publishing house logo?
  • page extent  (spine size)
  • final blurb for back cover (printed out and sent electronically to designer)
  • any other logo’s / text which needs to appear on cover
  • book size
  • colours – is it full colour? 2-colour? or b/w?
  • paper grammage ( not necessary for all books but in dictionaries it affects the spine size)
  • image references  – supply electronically as well
  • book synopsis or full manuscript (it’s wise to read the book – especially for fiction book covers)
  • if illustration – is it photographic or both?
  • if illustration – any specific artists you’d like to use? Not all book designers can illustrate too 🙂
  • style of the illustration – realistic or abstract? Or both?
  • deadlines and print date
  • any other information which may affect the cover

At the design handover the editor goes through all of this info in detail. It’s more of a discussion than anything else. So the editor will say this is what they need, what do you think? We’ll talk about the concepts and come to an agreement on which one would look best – visually and editorially.

The designer has to ensure that the image and concept used are strong and represents all aspects of the job – visually and literally throughout the book.The designer and Creative Director (CD) will choose which concept works best. Once a concept is chosen the designer gets to work on a rough concept. As a freelancer I provide 3 rough concepts to the client. We discuss and the client chooses 1 concept. From there, I work on that one concept taking it to the 1st proof stage.

For rough concepts, I draw rough pencil thumbnails or I create rough concepts by using Photoshop and/or Indesign with the editor’s image references. I place the images roughly together as a collage. This is to give a rough feel of the cover. It then gets circulated to everyone. If the concept is approved, it either goes to the illustrator to illustrate, or the designer to design to final. If it is going to be illustrated, then the designer has to prepare an illustration brief. I’ll talk a bit more about cover artwork and how that process works in later posts.

Remember, when showing a client the 1st rough cover concept, give it in black and white. This forces the client to look at the structure – not the colours. If you show colour, you’ll be having a conversation about colour. You can discuss colour once you’ve got the structure right.

If you want to get the true essence of a book, then read it. This way you get a unique perspective. Your own perspective. Do you read the book before you design it? I designed a lot of African Language Literature covers, so reading the book was not an option as I’m not familiar with the language. I relied on the editor explaining what the story is about. Most of the time these handovers felt like story time 😉

So when I’m designing a cover for a story which is perhaps dark or sad or visually dull, I sometimes look for a symbolic element to bring through the feel of the book. For example, one book’s story took place in a courtroom. Instead of showing an illustration of a courtroom, we used a close-up of the man accused in handcuffs, and we zoomed in on his hands. There’s ways and means of getting around showing an entire scene on a cover. Keep it focused. Keep it interesting.


An important lesson I learnt in book design – any design for that matter! – is to involve the author (or client) in the design. Something so small, but yet extremely helpful. I got this from a book I read called, IT’S NOT HOW GOOD YOU ARE, IT’S HOW GOOD YOU WANT TO BE by Paul Arden. Buy it! It’s a great read and the design and page layout is superb!


My next post will be about the cover proofing and the development of an illustration on a cover. Stay tuned 😉 Stay curious!

I’d love your comments or answers you may have to the questions I presented in this post. It’s always appreciated.

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