Book Cover Design Explained

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A book cover undoubtedly makes the first impression. Just one look—and we are either urged to start reading a book right away or put it aside indifferently. The book cover speaks about the content; all its elements complement each other and are designed to match the book’s characters and story. They work together to produce the desired effect and communicate the author’s ideas in the best way possible.

Yet, sometimes we are so hasty to get to the text that we don’t even notice the cover itself. We no longer expect a book cover to wow us because we mostly read books upon recommendations. We also tend to overlook textbook covers—after all, is it important what a Chemistry textbook looks like?

Nonetheless, there is much more to a book cover than meets the eye.

History of Book Cover Design

The first book covers were never designed with the idea of an aesthetic in mind—their primary purpose was to protect the book’s content and keep the pages together. However, depending on the owner and the book’s purpose (usually religious), the book could be very elaborately decorated (e.g., ornate, embroidered, with hand-engraved or embossed bindings, jewels, gold, etc.).

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Courtesy of Livemaster

Until the mid-19th century, bookbinding was a separate trade from publishing. Books were sold without covers, and the buyer had to take a freshly printed book to a bookbinder to get a personalized cover in the style and design they liked and could afford. The higher the budget, the more decorative design a book cover could have. Indeed, such book covers were extremely expensive. They took a great deal of time and effort to be created, and only rich people could afford to commission them. 

The Industrial Revolution changed every aspect of book printing. The entire publishing process became cheaper; books were no longer hand-bound. The book covers of that period mostly looked like embossed textures with simple geometric patterns decorated with a gold print.

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Courtesy of Grapheine

It took a while before the mass production of books (as we understand it today) began, and books became available to everyone. It also took a while before book covers started to serve marketing purposes and abide by certain design rules; before they became an artistic medium and the voice of the book’s content.

Here are some prominent examples of the Dutch Art Nouveau book covers:

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The first example of striking commercial cover art is the book cover created by Aubrey Beardsley—The Yellow Book. Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, and the Russian avant-garde also greatly influenced and advanced book cover design art. Here are the examples of Aubrey Beardsley’s covers for The Yellow Book:

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Courtesy of Artforum

The invention of paperbacks in 1935 made books available to everyone. In the later periods, book covers continued their graphic and design evolution, playing with typography and various compositions. The 1950s were focused on a vintage style. The 1960s were all about prominent text, minimalism, realism, and the influence of photography. The 1970s went after extremely vibrant graphics (more asymmetric than ever before) and free form. The 1980s brought back bright and bold book covers. The 90s were marked by a two-dimensional poster aesthetic.

Nowadays, we’re living in a digital era where pretty much any type of book cover can be designed and manufactured. Moreover, everyone can write and self-publish a book. However, the book cover hasn’t lost its prominence even in an “age of statement wallpaper and fatty text.” It has also become (more than ever) a marketing tool that sells the book.

Book Cover Design Elements

Let’s take a closer look at the main elements of book cover design. Depending on the book genre and the type of narrative, designers use different means to convey the book’s message (and make sure it sells well, of course).

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Front Cover

When you take a book, the first thing you see is its front cover. It is what you pay attention to at once. If it’s good, you are intrigued. If it’s brilliant, you buy the book. The front cover usually contains the title, the author’s name, and an image/background image. The better these things are combined, the more captivating the book is.

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Imagery

The imagery on the front cover grabs attention; it is also what a reader is likely to remember. Illustrations, photographs, or a combination of the two are the most frequent imagery choices for the front cover. However, depending on the book type and theme, a book cover can contain only abstract elements or present a solid color background.

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Title

Did you know that the title is as much a part of a book marketing campaign as the entire book cover design? In some cases, authors don’t even name their books; instead, the marketing and design team decides on the best title and how to visualize it.

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Typography

Fonts set the mood as much as imagery does. The fonts used on the front cover speak about the book’s character quite elaborately: conservative and strict fonts are common for popular classics, something more frivolous can be seen on the covers of romantic novels, bold and expressive fonts are characteristic for drama books, etc.

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Back Cover

The back cover is not the first thing you check when you see a new book, but it’s also important. It is the “call to action” part of the book, where you provide the author’s image and/or biography, book reviews, barcode, and ISBN. It helps readers understand the book’s message and personality better.

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How Book Covers Are Designed

Book cover design is a complex process that involves a lot of people: designer, editor, marketing, sales, and production teams, to name a few. Large publishing companies have design departments specializing in book covers and illustrations. Smaller companies may work with part-time or freelance designers or oursorсe the entire book cover design process. There are several phases of book cover creation:

Research

Everything starts with research. In a publishing company, in-house designers get assignments for the upcoming titles each month. Usually, an art director distributes the tasks and workload. Then designers research and discuss their ideas with the editor to make sure they got the book’s message correctly. Some designers read manuscripts from cover to cover, while others don’t. Each designer’s approach to work is different.  

Creation of the Visuals

This step can also be as different as the designer who works on the book cover in question. Some designers prefer to sketch on paper; others do it on a graphic tablet. Many create mood boards, pin ideas to the wall, cut and glue different pieces together, combine different materials, create color palettes, and finally, come up with several vision samples that they are ready to share.

Review

Once the visuals are ready, they are presented at the meeting with the editorial team, the art director, and other stakeholders. At this point, the editors play a crucial role, as they help to pinpoint the visual that works best for the book. Depending on the case, there can be just one or several such cover meetings.

Approval

After a series of meetings where the best possible visual option for the future book cover has been chosen, it is finally sent to the author. Then other parts of the book are also approved (back cover, spine, endpapers), and finally, the book sees the light of day.

Some Book Cover Design Examples

Here are some examples of book cover designs that we at BooksRun find worth looking at and are willing to share with you. The list is based on our subjective judgment and personal opinions; therefore, it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than that. Here is Sketch: Houses by Alejandro Bahamón:

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And a few books from our collection; from left to right: Longman English Grammar by I.G. Alexander; The Novel Cure by Ella Susan and Berthoud Elderkin; The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín.

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We recommend checking the list of 50 great book covers of 2021 selected by the Print Magazine. You can see how different and fascinating all the book covers presented on the list are. Take O Beautiful by Jung Yun and Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie, for instance: 

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Courtesy of Print Magazine

We also strongly recommend visiting the Spring collection of the Folio Society and their entire collection. There are so many beautifully illustrated books there. Take a look at these examples: 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte, illustrated by Davide Bonadonna (the earlier version can be found on BooksRun), and the most recent edition of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Angela Barrett. 

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Courtesy of Folio Society

Academic Book Cover Design

Academic textbook cover design is a very specific niche of book cover design. The reason is that textbooks are more complex than other publications and, therefore, they are both very demanding and quite restrictive when it comes to visualization. They allow far less freedom than literary fiction (no dramatic illustrations or expressive photography), as their primary goal is not to engage and entertain but to help learners understand the subject better. 

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Yet, we are not trying to say that all textbooks look dull and monosyllabic just because they are textbooks. Nowadays, plenty of academic literature can present and illustrate a complex topic beautifully.

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Moreover, we’d like to mention Academic Presses’ books (and their book covers) separately, as this sector specializes in publishing scholarly works. An academic press is a publishing house associated with a large research university (e.g., University of California Press, Columbia University Press, etc.). Most large universities have their presses, and they publish a great number of books each year.

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Courtesy of the Association of University Presses

These publishing houses have in-house design teams that create book covers for the nonfiction produced at the university. Moreover, the Association of University Presses holds an annual show to choose the best designs and honor the design and production teams. The Book, Jacket, and Journal Show dates back to 1965 and aims to “recognize meritorious achievement in design, production, and manufacture of books, jackets, covers, and journals by members of the university press community.

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Courtesy of the Association of University Presses

Each show produces an annual catalog, where examples of excellent design can be accessed by everyone. The event aims to spread the knowledge that good design is important in scholarly publishing no less than in any other field. After all, learning materials don’t have to be dull; they can serve their educational purpose and be beautiful at the same time. 

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Courtesy of the Association of University Presses

You can see the Book Jackets and Covers chosen in the previous years and check the 2021 catalog.

How to Become a Book Cover Designer

Behind every book cover is a book cover designer. If you’ve always been fascinated by the publishing process and wanted to create book covers for new bestsellers or repackage classics, you can become a book cover designer.

No specific degree will lead you straight to the book cover art career. Book cover artists usually come from illustration and graphic design, so it is recommended to get a degree in these fields. You can major in either and gradually narrow down your interest to book cover art. Alternatively, you may start with photography or fine art degrees and shift to book cover design later. 

Here are a few examples of colleges and universities where you can study graphic design:

Parsons School of Design

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The Communication Design BFA is the oldest undergraduate program of its kind in the United States. In this major, you learn the theory and craft needed to combine words, images, and ideas to visually transmit information and project human experiences in print, on screen, or in space.

As a graduate, you’ll be able to pursue careers in various design fields: brand and editorial design, exhibition design,  UX/UI design, and data visualization, to name a few. There is no book cover design art specialization, but the acquired skill and knowledge will help you become a designer in publishing if this is what you want to do.

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The Undergraduate Communications Design Department prepares students to be effective visual communicators, inspired makers, critical thinkers, and versatile creative professionals.

Pratt Institute offers two degrees you can pursue if you want to work in the book cover design field: Communications Design, which has an emphasis on illustration and allows exploring contemporary illustration at all angles, and Communications Design, which focuses on graphic design and provides a choice of a broad range of graphic design specializations.

Rhode Island School of Design

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The undergraduate program in Graphic Design allows students to fully absorb an informed design process that provides lifelong support as they go on to engage in real-world design opportunities.

At RIDS, you’ll be studying all aspects of graphic design and have an opportunity to create all types of graphics, from logos to books. 

What’s Next?

Once you’ve finished your degree, you are out in the big world. So, what’s next? 

  • Enter design competitions. They are a great way to expand your portfolio. Besides, it’s a great experience that will give you insights into the publishing industry and what to expect from a designer’s job. It is a chance to “try on” a career and get rid of illusions. 
  • Get an internship. Most degrees presuppose that students participate in summer internship programs during their studies. We also recommend that you find a graduate internship program. You have higher chances of landing your dream job if you have a portfolio to show—the one you’ve developed while working in an actual publishing house.

The Final Thoughts

As you can see, the world of book cover design is beautiful and diverse. Book covers have come a long way. Nowadays, they no longer just protect. They set expectations. They promote. Nowadays, designs have to be good. They have to be brilliant—to draw readers in. Therefore, the art of book cover creation—the process of giving a form to a manuscript—is complicated and challenging; at the same time, it’s rewarding. At BooksRun, we hope that every student aspiring to become a book cover artist today will be creating stunning book cover designs in the future. After all, there is no such thing as too many beautifully designed books.

Natalie Song