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Book Design for Indie Authors & Small Presses Part Three

Crafting a Cover: Part Three, Making Relationships Work

Last time we covered the use of photography in your book cover to create a simple, attention-grabbing cover image.  This week we’ll look into why some colors seem to work better than others on bookstore shelves.  We’ll also investigate good layout and design practices when it comes to typography and non-photographic covers.  It’s all about relationships.

Natural Design…(Not necessarily on the test)

There was an important mid 20th Century school of design, the brainchild of Swiss-French architect and designer LeCorbusier, which at its root broke all design proportions down into fifths, corresponding to the five element of the human form: arms, legs and head. Because that is how we’re laid out, he intuited, we would be most comfortable living and viewing designs which incorporate these proportions.

I don’t know if he was right or not, but to me, layouts along these line intersections seem to “work” better than others.  If it works for me, and it may work for you as well. Of course, the idea is NOT to fill all these intersections up with content!  The idea is to set up natural alignments of only the necessary elements to your cover design. Create relationships between elements. Some of the individual elements may also be parts of your photo image.  Look inside the photo.  Considering also the typical eye movements of the reader. Combining these into an effective cover is our goal.  A cover with these kept in mind will be more effective, because it will tie-in to the reader’s mind and emotions naturally – not in a awkward, contrived way which sets up it’s own conflicts.

Design Color Points from Nature…

When designing a book cover, don’t make the mistake of minimizing the importance of color.  Color adds important elements to your cover and reactions in the reader all by itself.  The intelligent use of color will help elicit the intended response in your cover’s reader. Most of these reactions are natural and predictable, as their basis is nature itself.

Yellow animals, for the most part are dangerous to humans, including Yellowjacket wasps and poison dart frogs.  The use of striped yellow and black on barriers for protection is not just by chance.  The combination means DANGER, subconsciously and it seems to be hardwired into our genetics.  Color is an integral part of how our emotions are connected to our conscious thought.  There are color-relationships that have been proven in behavioral studies that you can use effectively in your choices.

Red for example, is connected with excitement and alarm. Blue with serenity and sleep. Green is naturally connected with healing and growth.  One of my favorite examples is how often the walls in maximum security psychiatric prisons are often painted a soft shade of pink!  Pink seems to calm us and is one of the most non-confrontational colors.

When approaching a color choice for your cover, first try to summarize the mood of your work. how do you want the reader to feel when reading it?  Is there a specific emotion that your book revolves around – an emotional “glue”?  Once you’ve determined what that is, you can choose from images, and design elements that will help communicate this instantly to the reader, side-stepping the need to read the title or other cover copy at all.  The point is – don’t leave anything up to chance here.  Control every step along the way.

Adding Conflict with Contrast…

One of the easiest ways to add a sense of conflict to a cover design is by creating areas of extreme contrast within the layout.  These might include large size differences of elements, extreme color contrasts or the use of display typography in contrast to other elements or to itself.

Look through covers and book jackets in your own bookshelves and set aside the six or so that are instantly exciting and attention grabbing.  Now, with your notepad, quickly jot down the first three things that come to your mind when viewing these, one-by-one.  The title or author’s name doesn’t count right now. Although the importance of recognition and/or “branding” can’t be dismissed, what we’re trying to do here is train your eye to see the emotional content of an overall cover design.

Set your notes aside, then come back to them later, and see if you’ve written down the same “feelings” for more than a couple of your chosen covers.  If that is the case, then, for you, those covers have effectively done what the designer intended.. You bought the books, didn’t you?

The Letter-perfect Cover design…

Having trained your eye to begin to separate out the Elements of contrast and color we finally move into the realm of Title and Author’s Name.  Typography is a tricky subject.  It involves both our emotional responses and our thinking.  Letterforms vary not just in size and shape. They are each small graphic elements that contain intentional stresses and suggest certain emotional responses completely apart from their utility as carriers of language.

Find a site online which sells typography – fontmarketplace is one I use – and look through some examples of display fonts.  Most sites will have typography pages that show entire fonts (all the letters, numbers and characters) Some of these will be extremely ornate – overpowering the eye unless used in very short, concise headlines.  If a type face design is very complicated, graphically, it has the tendency to confuse the eye, or lead it in too many directions – if confusion is your goal, this might work well for your cover – assuming a very simple title, of course.

There will be many others which are much simpler. They may contain very subtle differences in the “thicks” and thins”, called stresses by type designers, that lend emotion and recognition while still remaining legible even in smaller sizes.  These are the fonts you will probably find most useful.  Some of these, like the sans-serif (no little feet on the ends of ascenders or descenders or along the baseline) font Machine, can be very powerful in establishing high-contrast and conflict, based upon their ponderous letterforms.  Others, such as Eras, or the font I use in my cover for The Red Gate, Papyrus, are very subtle, open type designs that convey a very different emotional content.  Some fonts are almost serene – but you would not want to use these in titling an urban-disaster-themed novel, or an auto-mechanics do-it-yourself book, unless you were seeking to insert another emotional element: humor. Humor can also be an effective element.

The most effective covers – some of Elmore Leonard’s covers come to mind – are the ones with a heightened sense of emotion, conflict, or danger.  This can be achieved most effectively with the least number of individual elements.  Sometimes a large title typographic element paired with a small, but significant photographic or illustrative element placed for contrast and conflict will draw the reader’s eye and hold it as they figure out the image’s connection with the rest of the cover.

As you can see the choice of typography to convey a desired emotion is very subjective, yet if you “get it” when looking at a font, the chances are that the type designer did their work well, so if it works for you, chances are it will work for your readers, too.

Letter & Line Spacing Issues…

You’ve got your title, pared down to it’s most memorable essence, of course.  You have chosen a color to predominate, based upon how you want your reader affected. Now you have to put the title on the background graphic.  Alignment and legibility are everything. It’s a relationship thing.

Party of the alignment issue is how each letterform relates to its neighbors, above, below and side-by-side.  The spacing between letters and between lines can be adjusted beyond the standard spacing written into the font.  Expanding letterspacing can be very effective if you are working with a condensed font – a narrow style.  Tweaking the inter-letter spacing by opening it up without creating visual “holes” can require finesse, but it can make a hard-to-read title much more legible. Just don’t open it up so much that you see primarily “letters” not the word.

Another technique on heavy, compact fonts (wider, more ponderous) is to reduce the inter letter spacing, even overlapping letters slightly, especially where round letter forms meet.  It just requires that you finesse the space individually – which might require you to convert the type to curves in your layout/design program, so that individual letters can be moved along the baseline individually.  This letter-by-letter approach is called “kerning” a font, depending upon size, for best legibility and fewest visual holes in a headline, or in text.  Since your title is probably not too long, it won’t be that hard a job to get the best inter-letter spacing you can achieve. Be sure to get back, away from your monitor a few times the process, to check overall legibility and to make sure than you haven’t stacked up the letters to favor one side of the word!

Line spacing, is handled in a similar way, but here, the reverse is true in spacing considerations: the narrower the font, the more interline spacing is required visually, thus keeping the reading “flow” moving left to right, not visually jumping “up and down” with nowhere to go. If you use lower case letters in your title, you’ll have to consider ascenders and descenders in multiple-line titling. Make sure that the portions above and below the baselines don’t interfere with letters on the next line enough to affect their legibility.  You may also have a specific need to jog the letters off their baselines a bit.  This is one way to create a panicked, conflicted feeling in a title graphic. The appearance of kidnappers’ ransom notes, made up of individual letters cut from magazine headlines comes to mind.  If this kind of approach works with the “glue” holding your cover together, then use it, but remember: too much of a good thing is a bad thing – keep it legible.

Next, you’ll apply the same principles to the way your name or pen-name appear on the cover. Unless you have an established brand with your name being the most salient element on the cover, place your name below the title, both physically and in size.  If you need a subhead, or a descriptive tag line consider how adding more typography to the cover might dilute your design, damaging its impact.  Maybe re-thinking the title is a better idea.  If not, at lest make sure that in assigning its position to the cover page, it “belongs” visually” to the title, and you name remains its own focal point.

Relationship Issues…

In the vector program I use, a nice refinement is the ability to group objects so their interrelationships are locked in place, allowing you to move the object elements as a unit, apart from the background. This allows you to experiment with different locations on the cover for the best results.  You can also use the “duplicate” function to duplicate your titling and authors name and test other type fonts while keeping the relationships constant.  Don’t be afraid to move some of these elements off to the sidelines while you work on each element individually.  When you save the graphic file, chances are you’ll also be saving the empty or not-so-empty space nearby as well, for future tweaking.  Just be sure, when you have finally decided on your design, to delete all of these in the final file.

Vertical alignment is the final key to good cover typography.  If you set up your typography, within your program to “align” left, you’re not finished yet.  In headline sizes, the letter alignments within the font may not be the best possible solution.  This is true also for right alignments as well, but personally, as right alignments lead the eye off the page, I don’t usually consider that for a book cover. You want to hold them for a while. But rules exist to be broken…

One situation where a right-aligned title might be effective would be if, say “speed” is your book’s “glue” – rushing their eyes through the cover might support the content for specific readers, but it wouldn’t work as well, say for a family saga. A centered alignment may be best here, if stability and substance is the idea you wish to communicate.  A centered type design does not usually convey any conflict, unless the type consists of several lines and they are sized differently, or jogged a bit right or left.

The key to vertical alignment whether it’s separate lines of typography or title and authors name, is to find the strengths of the letter forms and connected graphic elements and use them.  What I mean here, is to use them to create a visual unit. Make it easy, or “natural” for the reader’s eye to find the beginning of the next line. The relationships of all the typography must connect visually, to hold the eye better.  On my cover, for example, you’ll notice that the author’s name doesn’t align at the left with the left end of the top of the “T”, but with the T’s ascender.

Left alignment exampleThat’s because in this size, the ascender has the stronger movement, and aligning the strong ascender at the beginning of my name with the ascender above moves the eye better. When in doubt, experiment.  You shouldn’t see the underlying rule of fives grid as anything more than a suggested framework upon which to work.  Your title typography and other elements may align best off the grid, for a specific effect, or for an intended conflict.  Don’t be afraid to throw out the rules, at least once for every cover, just to see what you can do – even if it ends up just an example of where you don’t want to go.

Next week: We’ll design your Back Cover and bring it all together….

Extra Information: Eye Movement Studies (This won’t be in the test, either!)…

Natural eye movements?  Again, there have been lots of studies of how a reader’s eyes move when scanning a printed page with photographic and graphics elements in combination with headlines and text. These studies have been the basis for many years of the science of ad placement and exploiting the findings improves the effectiveness of ad design as well.  It seems that with few exceptions, peoples’ eyes travel a repeatable and predictable path when viewing a composite page.  The average eye circles a page (your book cover) in two ways.  The primary circle will be clockwise, middle left, up and around, ending at the top right after a full revolution.  The secondary is counter clockwise, starting at the bottom right and circling around to end at the top left.  The primary is the one where the most important information is absorbed, and the secondary is the follow-up for remaining information.  It makes an ad more effective (your book cover) to take advantage of this phenomenon, or at least to manipulate it to your own uses in holding the viewers eye upon the page as long as you can.  Make ‘em comfortable before you sneak up behind them with the book pitch to end all pitches! Shatter their resistance gently and then take their money!

Link to the rest of the Indie Curmudgeon’s articles on Publetariat


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