How to design a contemporary book cover

By Roman Picisan | 09/10/2018


The fine art of book cover design is a tricky one to master. Consider: when the graphics on the packaging of Heinz baked beans are changed, or the typography is modified on the wrappers for Kit Kats, the alterations are barely noticeable to the untrained eye. The design of household brands is tampered with as little as possible.

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An even more stringent, no-tampering rule is applied to album covers. No record label would dare think about changing the covers of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side of the Moon or Nevermind. It appears that the packaging design of baked beans, chocolate bars and pop music is treated with more reverence than the jackets of literary fiction. 

Literature is universally accepted as high art, which might lead us to think that the covers of literary classics are free from the need for frequent stylistic updates. Not so. It is common practice amongst publishers to update the covers of the classics almost constantly, in much the same way that Nike updates its trainers.

book covers for These Sense of an Ending and 1984

One of Suzanne Dean’s collaborations with Julian Barnes (left); David Pearson’s 1984 cover (right)

Book cover design challenges

Sinem Erkas has been designing book jackets for eight years, and her typographic covers for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels are a lesson in putting a fresh spin on a classic text. 

“At the time, Fitzgerald’s stories were out of copyright, so loads of publishers were republishing his books, and I imagined many of them would end up as pastiches. I wanted to avoid that, so instead took the opportunity to draw inspiration from beautiful Art Deco typography and the Jazz Age, but making my own custom typefaces that felt contemporary and hinted at Art Deco rather than looking like they were from the 1920s. There was no budget for finishes, so we decided to stick to a monotone colour palette and uncoated stock.”

The challenge of designing a new take on a ubiquitous text is good news for designers. And even if designing a cover for a new edition of On the Road may not be as financially rewarding as tweaking the Kit Kat logotype, I know which I’d rather do. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald series By Sinem Erkas book covers

F. Scott Fitzgerald series By Sinem Erkas

Designing book covers is in one way like designing album covers: most people do it for love rather than reward. I spoke to some book cover designers to find out more about working in the field.

Why be a book cover designer?

David Pearson is one of the UK’s leading book jacket designers. He studied at Central Saint Martins, and after a period working as a text designer at Penguin, he now runs his own studio. “My inclination to overthink, fuss and fiddle could only be accommodated by the relatively slow-moving nature of publishing,” he says. “Working within constraints – be they because of brief or budget – also seems to speak to my nature.”

Pearson’s career in publishing began while he was at university. “I was fortunate to be asked by my tutor, Phil Baines, to lay out a Phaidon book. Part of the job was to present our ongoing work to the great Alan Fletcher – at that time, creative director of Phaidon – for his feedback.” 

Later, during his time setting the type for the interiors of Penguin books, Pearson was to discover that he was working in what he describes as, “a nice, sedate job.” There was room to focus on the detail and lose yourself in the book. Plus: “Nobody really had an opinion on your work, unless you did it wrong.” But this all changed when Pearson began to design book covers.

book cover designs for Metamorphosis and The Communist Manifesto

Jamie Keenan’s typographic illustration for this Franz Kafka cover (left); David Pearson’s design of The Communist Manifesto (right)

In contemporary publishing, the cover is subjected to the same intense scrutiny as any consumer product. It’s also the case that many authors care deeply about the covers of their books. In his acceptance speech on receiving the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his book, The Sense of an Ending, the novelist Julian Barnes paid generous tribute to the book’s cover designer, Suzanne Dean. 

He said: “Those of you who’ve seen my book – whatever you may think of its contents – will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Not only must a book cover attract attention by reflecting the content, it must do this online, in bookshops and as an e-book. It must also satisfy the demands of publisher, author and designer – not to mention the book buyer. This is quite a lot to demand of a few square centimetres of card.

Next page: Do you need to read the book to design a great cover?

To read or not to read?

Erkas stumbled into cover design after a “frustrating job as a junior designer working in corporate branding”. Does she always read the book before designing the cover? “Ideally I would read the whole book, if the deadline lets me,” she says. “What I sometimes like to do is read the book only halfway, or three quarters of the way through, before I start sketching some ideas, and then I'll finish reading it before I complete my first round of roughs.”

For Pearson, reading the text first is desirable, but not always possible. “Ideally, you would read the book – key themes and ideas present themselves so readily that way – but it’s important to remember that the book isn’t always written by the time a designer is summoned,” he explains.

 “Often we receive only the vague promise of a book, with design work regularly taking place even before a title is settled on, which is one of the disadvantages of the cover having to be produced so far in advance. In this instance, I would look to speak to the book’s editor or, better still, the author, to try and build a sense of the book’s tone and temper.”

6 book covers as part of a series designed by David Pearson

Éditions Zulma By David Pearson

The covers for Éditions Zulma presented Pearson with a particular problem. “It’s important to point out that I’m not a French speaker, and as a result I have to lean on some incredibly visually literate editors who convey the essence of the books to me,” he says. 

“This process [of discussing books] plugs everyone into the design process and makes us feel collectively responsible for the outcome. It also ensures that I don’t shoulder all of the blame when the books fail to sell!” Pearson adds that the French book market is less visually aggressive than in the UK, which allows him to create more quietly suggestive covers.

When designing a cover for a fiction title, Faber & Faber in-house designer Eleanor Crow, insists that reading the text is always essential. “I would find it impossible to get the tone of the writing, and a sense of the readership, without it,” she claims. “Also, small details and less obvious, but still significant, strands in the novel might lend themselves to a cover.”

Jim Stoddart at Penguin Press also advocates a close reading of the text. But he adds a caveat. “With new books, the ideal set-up is to be given a finished manuscript 12 months before publication, which allows three months to read, digest, come up with ideas, create visuals, get approval for one chosen route, and complete final artwork.

However, it would also be wrong to design a cover that only makes sense once you’ve read the book. The people we are aiming to appeal to are those that haven’t read the book, that may be browsing in a bookshop and literally know nothing about the book – you may have only two or three seconds to grab their interest before their eyes drift to the next book.”

Next page: Design considerations for shelf appeal and online thumbnail

Books as merchandise

As with any commercial project, the merchandising of books is paramount. Although bookshops were widely tipped to be on the way to oblivion a few years ago, they are making a comeback, and regardless, book covers are designed to have shelf appeal, even if the ‘shelf’ is a page on Amazon.

For Pearson, being aware of related titles is becoming ever more important, since books are often grouped this way in bookshops. “Knowing what you are siding with – or indeed kicking against – can really help get the design process moving,” he says. 

“Time-honoured classics are invariably sat alongside alternative editions of the very same book. This can present some exciting possibilities, since your own edition can do something the others are not prepared to, making them look plain by comparison.” You can even remove key content from your own design since it will be ‘filled in’ by those around it, Pearson adds.

Everyone is keen for something visually arresting, rather than giving away every last plot detail on the cover

David Pearson

While many designers complain about the restrictions imposed by retail conventions, Crow strikes a more upbeat note. “It’s quite liberating now,” she notes, “as there has been a great deal more press coverage for book covers than in the past. Everyone is keen for something visually arresting, rather than giving away every last plot detail on the cover.” 

This means that covers can be more reductive, and smarter, than in the recent past, Crow continues. “Retailers are keen for things that will look striking in the window, as well as be legible in a tiny thumbnail online.”

Penguin Modern Classics by Jim Stoddart

Penguin Modern Classics by Jim Stoddart

In developing an update of the Penguin Modern Classics series, Stoddart and his team worked through 100 book covers, a job that involved new picture research as well as new imagery. “I’ve really enjoyed consolidating the covers for John Updike’s Rabbit series by reviving iconic Penguin covers,” he says. 

“In fact, the 1960s Rabbit, Run cover featured an illustration by Milton Glaser, which we’ve put back on the cover. We also asked Milton Glaser (now aged 88) to do a fresh illustration for the last in the Rabbit series, which he was kind enough to do for us, completing the circle 57 years later,” he explains.

Next page: Creative media ideas for book shelf appeal

Illustration, typography or photography?

Looking at current book designs, it’s hard not to conclude that illustration is enjoying a fertile period. Coralie Bickford-Smith is widely celebrated for her illustrated covers, which use naturalistic patterns and motifs.

When asked whether she thinks her work is representative of a preference amongst book buyers for illustrated covers, she says, “It is more likely a trend that is coming from the number of illustrated covers coming out of the publishing houses that end up adorning the bookshops, rather than the book buyers making a deliberate aesthetic choice.” Bickforth-Smith adds that the use of photography and illustration on book covers seem to go in cycles of popularity.

Although she has previously used photography in her cover designs, Bickford-Smith isn’t keen on doing so. “A shoot is usually over in a day, and the results are final, bar some great Photoshop work,” she says. 

“I like to work slower than that. I like time to consider the idea. I need to stare at rough work a lot. I really think it’s a personal thing. Also, given how I’m obsessed with pattern, right now illustration is a perfect way for me to express those ideas visually.”

The Fox and the Star book cover

The Fox and the Star, written and illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, who also designed Penguin’s Clothbound Classics series

For Pearson, the choice is easy: “I cannot illustrate covers – I have to rope in others to do that – and I’m terrified of photography – cropping other people’s art to fit a cover shape makes me feel sick. That leaves typography, and I tend to lean on it for everything. Using lettering in place of representational imagery can also help to activate reader interpretation – I think we enjoy working for answers.” 

Pearson adds that typography also presents a lovely challenge for a designer – to sum up an entire book using such limited graphic means.

“I think typographic covers are great for being timeless, not revealing too much, and they work particularly well if the title is just brilliant,” says Erkas. “Illustrated covers are great for capturing feelings that photography can’t. And photographic covers are great for showing something real, but can also be dreamy, abstract and illustrative.”

Books online and e-Books

Just as record cover designers had to adjust to the loss of the 12-inch square album cover, replaced by the reduced canvas of the CD, book jacket designers are learning to adapt to the e-book format. But what is the role of a cover in publishing e-books?

In Pearson’s opinion, “beyond working as a thumbnail at the point of sale in the online shop”, there is no role for a cover in electronic format. “When the e-book is purchased and installed, there seems no good reason for a cover image at all, especially if it takes up more memory than the book itself,” he argues.

Crow takes a similarly stringent line. “I have never read an e-book. I read manuscripts on an iPad, but a paperback isn’t much heavier than an e-book reader, and I prefer real pages. Our covers are used to sell e-books online in any case. It would be less interesting to buy a book from a list of titles without some visual trigger to hint at the contents,” she says.

book covers for The Waste Land and We Could be Beautiful

An Eleanor Crow’s cover design for Faber & Faber (left); Design by Emily Mahon, art director at Doubleday (right)

For Stoddart, the need for a book to have an online presence is factored into his thinking from the start. “One recent project I’ve been very excited about is an update to the Penguin Modern Classics series, initiated with a casual discussion about whether we could make [the series] more visible as online thumbnails." 

"This is a contentious issue – many people will argue that more and more books are bought online and their visibility at a small size is fundamental. Yet books listed on websites are usually accompanied by text, a reiteration of title and author, and a bucket of metadata.”

To find a solution, Stoddart turned to colour. “A recent update of the Modern Classics template uses Penguin ‘eau-de-nil’ – a muted light turquoise which has evolved from other parts of Penguin’s history. This eau-de-nil is a beautiful colour that works well in the flesh and online. I’ve moved it onto the spines (which were an all too crisp white) and the back covers, and have used it as a brand note on the front cover titling.”

It’s flashes of creativity like this that keep the field exciting. “If all bookshops ended up having to stock books with giant titles and images, the world may as well be over,” Stoddart concludes.

This article originally appeared in a 2017 edition of Computer Arts magazine. Subscribe here.

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