7 sure-fire ways to a killer book cover or poster design

Alex Bigman

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, at the risk of undercutting a very admirable expression, covers are important — we in the design world know this. They bear the crucial responsibility of grabbing viewers’ attention, luring and teasing readers into picking up the product. To this end, good book covers and posters cram a whole lot of suggestiveness and visual impact into a fairly confined rectangle.

Here are seven example-illustrated ways that the best ones do it:

1. Turning text into something more


The lowercase “i” is a humble letter, usually dwarfed by its stand-alone, uppercase counterpart. In the above book cover, though, “i” carries the whole concept with effective, whimsical force. Separate the letter’s usually inseparable parts and the sense of loneliness is palpable.

The High Fidelity movie poster is another exemplar of simplicity. Concentric circles don’t mean much by themselves, but add a record player arm-shaped title and you’ve got a fitting image for this rock ‘n roll themed film.

2. The font can say it all


Book covers require at least two textual centerpieces: the title and the author’s name. Authors and publishers will probably want them nice and big, so, in many cases, font is the weapon of choice.

The confident, ribbony scrawl adorning baseball-themed The Art of Fielding, executed in dark blue and off-white, mirrors the iconic logos of teams like the L.A. (formerly Brooklyn) Dodgers, in effect bringing the book’s subject to mind with gripping vividness. Likewise, the hand-jotted marker and typewriter print on A Cultural Dictionary of Punk immediately evokes the individualistic spirit of the early punk movement.

3. Up close and personal

book cover designs

If you’re striving for an awkward, self-conscious, utterly unexciting book cover, then a photo of a person at medium distance is probably the way to go (head, torso and crossed arms rising halfway up into a white void, generic lettering floating listlessly above — we all know this bargain table book).

If your aim is to actually make a visual impact then close ups are often an effective choice. So often when we read, we are looking for sensuousness or psychological intimacy. The above examples illustrate how well a close-range body feature can convey these qualities.

4. Metaphor is your friend


Visual metaphor should be at the top of any graphic designer’s conceptual arsenal. These basic meaning structures are more common than you’d think; they operate on a very deep level. Consider the phrases “I’m on top of the situation” and “the situation is under control” — two alternate visualizations of a single spatial metaphor.

With this in mind, it is no wonder why the cover of The Opposite House is so effective. Upside down-is-opposite is a striking and easily comprehensible visual metaphor for an idea that, in the actual book, is probably a lot more complicated.

5. The power of the iconic image


Books and films often contain images that come into a fame of their own. Sometimes they are to be expected, as with the all-seeing-eye in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel about a future totalitarian government. Other times, iconic images that few people would have anticipated emerge — the trembling glass of water from Jurassic Park, for instance, that famously indicated the T-Rex’s dreaded approach.

These simple, memorable images make for great cover material.

6. The power of the iconic image, part II


But say you’re designing the cover of a book or poster that has yet to gain fame, and whose potential iconic images have yet to emerge. Don’t despair — there is already quite a large store of pre-existing, culturally well-known iconic images ripe for original modification.

For example, check out The Belief Instinct and how it puts a clever spin on the world-famous The Creation of Adam — part of Michaelangelo’s painting of Rome’s Sistine Chapel ceiling — or Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? and its utilization of The Statue of Liberty, combined with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous black power salute from the 1968 Olympic games.

7. If all else fails, go for a good pattern (or an equally good lack of one)


True, The Chess Machine‘s cover is a combination of chess pieces and machine gears — obvious enough. Seen from across a bookstore or as a small thumbnail image, the cover exudes a different kind of appeal, simply as an intriguing, ornate pattern. Oppositely, Flying Leap‘s commitment to minimalism and white space is just as arresting, in its own way.

For more examples of killer book cover and movie poster works, head here, here, here or here!

Have you seen any fantastic covers or posters lately? Share them in the comments!

Header photo: susivinh (via Flickr)

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