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Cover Design Don’ts

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content=”One thing all publishers have in common, whether they’re the publishing giants seen weekly on the best sellers’ lists, smaller independent presses or self-publishing authors is the necessity of good design”>One thing all publishers have in common, whether they’re the publishing
giants seen weekly on the best sellers’ lists, smaller independent presses or
self-publishing authors is the necessity of good design

 

 

Cover Design Don’ts

 

by Cathi Stevenson

 

Did you know it costs just as
much money to create a bad cover as a good one? Or that you can make a great
cover mediocre with a few small changes? Even an award-winning image can fall
flat if it’s paired with a poor font choice, or manipulated in a way that
distracts from the overall impression the cover was intended to convey.

 

Many things can contribute to a
poor cover design, but most of them stem from simple lack of knowledge. The
most common mistake may be using an image that doesn’t properly demonstrate
what the book is about. Remember, your book is selling the solution, not the
problem. If you’re publishing a diet book, you’re selling fitness and slimness,
so do not put an obese person on the cover. If your book is about raising a
happy baby, do not display a picture of a crying toddler.

 

If there’s no way to illustrate
your solution, then use a text-only cover or one with an abstract background
that provides graphic detail but without any feature photo or illustration.
Plenty of bestsellers have no images on them. And fight the urge to illustrate
a word in the title improperly. If your book is called <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>A Blueprint for Happiness
,
do not put the blueprints for a house on the cover. Your book is not about
building houses.

 

Another mistake is what I call
image desperation. Either no suitable images are available, or a publisher
whose budget is too small to pay for an image decides to make do with free
artwork. It’s never okay to put a typewriter on a guide for modern writers.
Likewise, don’t use a photo of tattered old leather-bound books on a manual for
publishers (except, perhaps, if it has a significant amount of material on
using antiquarian books or library resources for research).

 

Then there’s the cliché. Puzzle
pieces, chess pieces, and light bulbs have pretty much been done to death.
Unless you’re confident that you’ve thought of a completely fresh way to handle
these common images, don’t go there. The paper in the typewriter, the close-up
of the keyboard, the giant calligrapher’s pen—they’ve all had their day
too. Let them rest in peace. One of the worst examples of the cliché mistake
that I’ve seen was on a business strategy book. Its cover featured a photo of a
chess piece—the pawn.

 

But it’s not just images and fonts
that are important. It’s the details and way they are handled that give a cover
that polished, professional look.

 

Problem areas frequently include
font selections and kerning (the space between letters). Inexperienced
designers often leave too much space between letters, or make spacing uneven.
As a general rule, tamper with default kerning only if type is 18 points or
bigger, and make sure you or your designer uses the proper software, such as
Illustrator, InDesign, Quark. or PageMaker, for laying out the full spread.
PhotoShop should be reserved for image manipulation or creating the title and
front cover. It is not designed to lay out small text blocks.

 

As for fonts, it’s rarely a good
idea to mix one typeface with another of the same style (script, sans serif,
serif). If you want to use a script font for the title, then find a serif or
sans-serif font that goes well with it, instead of using another script font.
And avoid inappropriate and trendy fonts. Comic Sans has no business on a book cover,
and Papyrus, while it is popular, is now being overused.

 

Look at top sellers in your
favorite bookstore. How many fonts do you see on each cover? Rarely more than
two. You will not often see small red lettering on black; it’s difficult to
read in color and impossible to read when reproduced in black and white. Red
also doesn’t print well on many shades of blue and vice versa, and it’s very
hard to stare at for more than a few seconds.

 

To see examples of poor color
combinations, visit tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/accessibility/color.html
and scroll about three quarters of the way down to “Vibrating Color
Combinations.”

 

Cover design does not have to be
expensive. Sometimes simply being creative with the title is enough. Look at
the cover of Richard Florida’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Rise of the Creative Class
. The title is
bumped up so it appears to be rising—effective and very inexpensive. On
the cover of Bill Buford’s Heat, the eye-catching letters appear to be melting on a
solid yellow-gold background.

 

Sharman Apt Russell’s <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Hunger: An Unnatural
History
is a great example of a well-chosen photograph; a
wonderful picture of a well-worn fork and spoon piques interest in the
contents. And to see an overused image idea with an innovative angle, check out
the paperback edition of The Archivist by Martha Cooley. The stack of books is
just great.

 

Cathi Stevenson is a
book-cover designer and a journalist. She has designed more than 700 book
covers and published more than 2,000 articles, many about publishing. More
information about her and her work is available at www.bookcoverexpress.com.

 

 

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