Book Cover Design 101

white_canvas_by_smokedsalmon_of_freedigitalphotosdotnetBy Loretta McClellan (Originally published 4 October 2012)

Taking a break from writing my current book in progress, I’m putting my Artist/Designer hat on for a few minutes, to share some pointers on good design and typography as it relates to book covers. In addition to being an independent author and journalist, I’ve worked as a Creative Director and Communications Director for many years. I started my career as a Graphic Designer and was educated in fine art, so creativity has been my mantra for a very long time.

I have enjoyed designing numerous marketing pieces, including larger, environmental design and website design to collateral and corporate identity, in addition to the Misthaven of Maine and Misthaven of Maine: Journey to Beyond covers, to name a few. I have also painted many small- and large-scale watercolor and acrylic works over the years, incorporating two of them into my Misthaven covers.


One of the first principles taught in art school is composition. Just like maintaining the point of view/POV is important in a book, the center of interest is critical in executing a proper layout, no matter what you are designing for. Directional movement is another attribute that determines how favorable the piece will be viewed. Where does your eye land, then follow when you view the piece? Ideally a triangular flow works best. If your eye can’t decide what aspect to look at first on a book cover, it can become confusing. This is where feeling plays a vital role. When you view a work of art, or specifically, a book cover, does it feel impactful, as well as harmonious in appearance? Does the mood of the cover art match the story? Does it engage the viewer? Does the cover art feel creatively succinct in its message?

Imagine a paned window with four, equal quadrants. Ideally, in good design the center of interest is usually in one of the quadrants, and not in the exact center. For book cover purposes, ideally that would be the top two quadrants. Again, there can be exceptions to the rule, as book covers and design in general can make a serious impact in iconic design, where there is one, single image prominently displayed in the center vertically, and often, also horizontally, or in the foreground (lower quadrants) for added drama.

Another aspect in designing a cover that should be considered is contrast. Are the fonts able to be viewed against the background of the image, particularly when it is viewed as a thumbnail (small image/icon on a Kindle library, for instance), or do they get lost, due to being too similar in tint or shade? Additionally, the fonts should not overpower the image either. It’s all about achieving balance.

Complementary color is essential for impact. Imagine your color wheel study from elementary school, where the primary colors of red, blue and yellow have their opposite, secondary colors of green, orange and purple, respectively. For maximum impact, if a complementary or opposite color is used sparingly in the center of interest in a layout, it will produce astounding effects. For instance, if your layout is predominantly blue with analogous colors, adding a touch of orange will add to the drama. The same goes for adding some red to a layout that is mostly green. Please note: This is in reference to the image/art, not the typography/fonts.


Many authors opt for an image of a character from their book for the cover design, while others choose a scene from the book to create the first impression. Each can be effective, if done properly. For my Misthaven books, I chose the landscape approach for the covers, because the location was primary in the story, as well as the colonial lighthouse and boathouse were from my imagination; no photo was available. 😉 Choosing your image is one of the pivotal concepts in creating a compelling book cover.

Many publishers and indie authors handling their own design choose photographic images, as opposed to illustrations for their covers. If you choose to use a photo from a friend or professional, be sure to investigate licensing and royalty fees, including usage, as there may be restrictions. ALWAYS get a signed release for usage and hang on to it—even if the photo was given to you for free—as that cover may be in circulation for a long time, and copyright issues have a very lengthy shelf life. If you can use your own quality, high resolution (300 dpi minimum, preferably 600, or even 1200 dpi) photography, this can be avoided. Indie authors can also select from numerous stock photography that is economical and often royalty-free, with minimal usage or licensing restrictions from a wealth of websites. Be sure to read their restrictions/usage page before you buy, as each photo may have a different set of restrictions, as each photographer contributing to their catalog may pose their own rules.


In cover composition, typography is especially important. In most cases, fonts/type styles should be limited to a maximum of three overall, with type style ideally within the same font family for at least two of them (i.e. Perpetua and Perpetua Italic, as an example—not that I recommend them for cover fonts; they’re more suitable for the body text of the interior). Too many font styles misdirect the eye. Not all designers agree on this as an exact rule, as there are exceptions, but generally, this works for most projects.

In book cover design there is a lot going on. You have the image/s that is selling the book visually, plus the author’s name and title and perhaps a logo for the book title or series. Sometimes you have secondary text, like book award or review verbiage competing for attention as well. We want readers to see the cover and pick it up, or click on the icon to read the synopsis—to invite them into our world of words, taking them on a journey. The cover is the herald of the book, particularly the artwork, not the title or the author’s name (although bestsellers’ names do pose a serious draw, and a logo for the title can entice, don’t they? That is our goal, isn’t it?). That being said, is its sound of the trump loud and clear in its design, or is it muffled by a lack of clarity?

The effects of a well-designed image/s for a cover can be diminished by disproportionate fonts for the title and author’s name, particularly when they appear as an “afterthought,” tacked on at the very top or bottom, or too small off in a corner and not incorporated fully into the overall cover design. Plan on making not just the image/s as a focus, but the typography as well into the design of the layout.

Script fonts, whether formal or informal are generally not ideal for a cover, unless they are bold and easily readable from a distance (i.e. the script-like text, “of Maine” on my Misthaven of Maine cover in most views is readable). The serifs (the little “hooks” on the ends of the letters) on many script fonts, and even some italics may not be easily read, particularly in thumbnail views, so use with caution. Also be wary of fonts with thin ascenders and descenders, such as the left side of the letter “A” in Flagstaff, as they don’t view well in some instances. If the script is too thin for your needs, don’t despair; a designer can add line weight to the characters in Adobe Illustrator, customizing it; this is helpful for any type of font, whether script, serifed, or sans-serifed.

Serifed fonts are fine (i.e. Minion Pro Bold, or Brioso Pro Bold, among many others), as long as they are easily viewed at a distance. A serifed or script font is ideal for a timeless attitude or historical impression. San-serifed fonts, a smooth font with no “hooks” (i.e. Adobe Sans Pro font family, or Flyer, among numerous others), are ideal for book covers where your goal is a contemporary feel. Many fonts are available that offer a combination of some characters having serifs, and some not, offering a duality of impression. View the Adobe Font Finder to see the myriad of typography styles and themes available. No matter if it’s script, serifed, or sans-serifed, too thin of a font and you lose the impact; it renders a bold opportunity as lifeless. Your best bet is to try a few on for size, and make several mockups before you decide.

Good design is good design, no matter what format or medium, and proper design principles can apply for all shapes and sizes of layout or format. Look at book covers and find which ones draw you in instantly. Line them up together, particularly in thumbnail views and find what they have in common. Most likely it is good design in both layout and use of typography. With so many do-it-yourself design tools, knowing these principles can allow indie authors who don’t hire their own designer to make an even bolder statement in their body of work.

“Gorgeous, Loretta, with attractive branding and great illustrations.”
—Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer, e-Book Cover Design Awards regarding Misthaven of Maine book cover design

Loretta McClellanAn artist, author, poet, and journalist of several published works, Loretta McClellan leads McClellan Creative in contributing for nonprofits, startups, and conscious corporations in design, brand, PR, and marcom media.  Visit the About, Artist Bio, Artist Statement, Gallery, Words, Images, and Contact pages for more information.

Text and logo ©2012-2014, Loretta McClellan; all rights reserved.
Photo, “White Canvas” by SmokedSalmon of; used with permission.
Headshot photo by Frank Leonard; used with permission.

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