The art and science of book cover design is ever-changing. With the realm of digital mediums taking over the reading and publishing market, we’ve seen book design trends and styles change as well.
While there yet remains a number of brick and mortar bookstores in which you can experience walking from shelf to shelf gazing at the latest titles, much of this process has migrated to the realm of the web.
This situation has had an impact on recent book designs. While many of the bestsellers over the years leaned toward a simplistic style, this principle has become even more pronounced with many buyers only getting a glance at a cover at thumbnail size via an online retailer.
For book cover designers, this poses an ever-increasing challenge: convey the heart of the book’s core message or story in the most concise and memorable method possible.
Book Cover Trends Go in and out Like Tides in the Ocean
As a book cover designer myself, it’s been remarkable to watch the trends come and go. Early in my career, I was able to witness a trend explode specifically in the Christian market. Rather than a design trend, however, this was a book genre craze that led to some pretty consistently similar book designs. What was this boom in book trends? Amish fiction.
This situation came to a point where it was almost comical. Just about every major Christian publisher and imprint had at least one Amish fiction title (many had multiple titles, often within a series).
As you might imagine, this led to an onslaught of book designs that followed a pretty consistent pattern: simple, smaller typography with a prominent bonneted younger woman dominating the front. If it were further on the romantic side of the spectrum, an Amish man would grace the background.
The big takeaway from a design standpoint was how many publishers felt compelled to follow a consistent look to tap into the Amish “boom.” This is only a single example of what we see taking place in the book market regularly.
While there’s not always a genre trend prompting design similarities, there are similarities nonetheless. The question then remains: if it’s not a specific genre feeding the need to grow similar design concepts, then what? Also, why do so many book designers and publishers feel the need to follow so closely the trends?
The answer to the first of the hypotheticals is the market. Book designs and their look and feel (very similar to that of web design trends) all appeal to a specific market. Markets largely separated by things like gender, age, ethnicity, interest, income, and endless other purchasing factors.
As such, a decent amount of research goes into determining what appeals to these specific demographics. Once a publisher, designer, author, or any combination of the three hit a successful chord, it’s likely you’ll see it emulated among other publishers. This is the exact concept we witness with the Christian, Amish fiction and precisely how a book cover “trend” is born.
This concept isn’t altogether different from that of web design. While some could argue that web design trends are a little less based on things like target market purchasing habits—trends are nonetheless a prominent part of the equation.
Take for one specific example: the parallax scrolling feature so popular in many of today’s websites. Like trends in book cover design, a small handful of designers discovered parallax worked well and created an exciting user experience that quickly led to a tidal wave of parallax websites. Unlike the book market, however, the motive often is less about appealing to a specific demographic and more about doing the next cool thing. This isn’t always the case—there are plenty of designers and developers aiming to implement a style or feature to meet a specific client need, but more often than not, some could argue it’s form over function.
The big takeaway? An important thing to keep in mind for the art of book cover design and building websites is the reason for which the design decisions are made. As I touched on earlier, many publishers and designers find and follow trends because it helps their work appeal to a specific audience—an audience for whom they want their product to immediately associate with. This means the designer, publisher, and author must all set aside personal tastes and likes and honestly consider what best fits the market into which a book will be deployed.
Likewise, web designers and developers will do well to set aside preferences toward specific design patterns, styles, and trends. This helps one to most effectively and accurately craft a site that fits the needs and interests of clients and customers first.
Current Trends in the Book Design Market
Apart from the Amish fiction example, much of what has been explored thus far has been conceptual. While helpful in a basic sense, it’s best enforced with concrete design examples to provide a glimpse at what trends the current book market currently houses.
I’ve found this practice useful in numerous ways. Now and then I’ll study the design choices for magazines and other periodicals to understand the reasoning behind specific design choices. Picking apart designs and the processes within can exponentially help us deepen processes of our own.
With that said, here’s a few highly-prominent themes and styles finding its way in today’s book market.
As I touched on in a section previous, titles being recognizable at thumbnail size has become vastly more important as bookshelf browsing giveaway to mobile thumb-flicking.
This means titles must be readable, noticeable, and clear at a variety of differing sizes. Much like the principles of a successful logo design, clarity and simplicity are key. While it’s true many trends and designs don’t jump on the massive type bandwagon; the trend is difficult to ignore.
Here’s a collection of recent book designs that leverage a typographical focus for its design.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed
This design, as to many others in the typographical category, utilizes large, faded type with contrasting, opaque type overlaid to create a clever, readable effect.
An oddity about this design, however, is that it seemingly breaks a fundamental rule of book cover design: make the title prominent.
As an instructor once told me in one of my college design classes: “you have to know the rules of design before you can break them,” as is the case with this design. The reason having the subtitle more opaque (or prominent) in the case of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is likely because it immediately gives a potential reader insight into the book’s core appeal. Furthermore, who’s the book’s likely target market? Writers. It’s not uncommon for writers to find fascination with other writers—especially in historical instances.
As such, in most cases, words, not necessary illustrative or graphically-heavy designs, appeal most to those that write for a profession.
The Boy Who Drew Monsters
The Boy Who Drew Monsters utilized shaky, stressed typography that help accentuate a fearful, suspenseful overall look and feed for the book’s design.
Beyond the style created by the typography, notice how there was no need for additional imagery or illustration to convey the previously-mentioned mood. The type style gives the feeling that it was actually written by “the boy who drew monsters” and as such, can rely fully upon the typography to get across its point.
Code of Conduct
On the book cover design for Code of Conduct, an illustration shows through the lettering and even interlaces itself beyond the typography’s boundaries.
Another typographical practice popular among bestselling authors is employed with this book. “Brad Thor” dominates the top of the cover in the clearest, largest typestyle on display.
By positioning the intertwined illustration toward the bottom portion of the cover, this further leaves clarity and readability on the author’s name, again, the prominent selling point.
This typographical trend isn’t on accident. Publishers and marketers know that it’s the author’s name, not the title itself, that has the largest appeal in this case. Booksellers take for granted this author has become well-established enough that many will buy his latest title because he’s developed a trust, reputation, and name recognition—not necessarily because the title (or even design) caught their eye.
Ready Player One
Utilizing bright, bold colors, this title relies almost entirely upon typography with the only and slight exception of the pixellated player and key.
While this section is focused mainly upon typography, what makes this book’s design most impacting is it previously-mentioned color scheme.
The bright, arcade-like colors of the larger-than-life typography give the overall style a light-hearted appeal. While typestyle has a large deal to do with the mood portrayed in a book’s design, the color palette has an equal part to play. Ready Player One uses this dynamic combo to its advantage with an overall eye-catching design.
Between the World and Me
Including strong block typography with an old, faded newspaper print style adds a much-needed flair to this otherwise simplistic cover design solution.
A portion of the design to notice as well is the “grunge” texture applied to the title. In most cases, this type of imagery is meant to convey an element of suspense. The case with this book appears to be more of an “aged” appearance as the author points back to events throughout America’s history.
Brush Back is the one of the typographically-focused book designs that depend upon ridiculously large lettering. One of the challenges of such an approach is the tall, narrow form of the average book jacket front. Because this title happens to contain shorter words, the designer was able to utilize a thick, tall typeface for maximum impact.
Similar to the Code of Conduct title we already explored, the author name is massive. Unlike Code of Conduct, however, the title typography is in white separating it from the author’s name. Were these two parts of type the same color and similar size, they would risk canceling each other out and creating a less diverse array of elements.
In addition, the “cut” and grunged appearance of this typography, in addition to the dark overall color scheme, help give this book it’s suspenseful mood and appearance.
Similar to the previous title, Daring Greatly looks to leverage a short title to large typography. However, unlike the previous example, this designer turns the type on its side to bypass the aforementioned limitation of the tall orientation common to books today.
Turning type on its side isn’t an altogether unusual tactic when working with the typically tall orientation of a book cover.
By rotating text, it enables the designer to make the title even more impacting at first glance. Proportionally, it leaves a large strip on the right-hand side of the cover for the author name, endorsements, and other information.
As we’ve seen with the titles explored thus far, typographical balance can vary greatly depending upon the book’s desired emphasis, mood, and overall appeal.
The Girl on the Train
Rather than utilizing Photoshop blurring techniques on the text, The Girl on the Train showcases a blurred background with customized and stacked typography to achieve a movement effect. Also, the scattered placement of the type help add to the overall distressed feeling of the book’s style.
The Girl on the Train also employs a typographical arrangement that is becoming more and more common among book designs—especially those in the teen realm. That is the uneven, yet balanced, arrangement of typography.
As you’ll notice, contrary to many other designs listed, the type starts left, then swings right until finally centering with the final two lines. To balance these things, “A Novel” as well as the endorsement swing to either side of the cover rather than remaining neutral to the overall balance by being centered.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Relying heavily upon typography doesn’t require massive or bold typestyles. This design style utilizes a simplistic, subtle type styles with a contrasting red to remain readable as well.
When it comes to marketability, however, there’s mixed reviews in terms of how well this approach works. In today’s digital realm, having a design that works well at a thumbnail size is becoming more crucial. When the design’s core characteristics are small in the overall composition, the risk of not being able to read the title at smaller sizes remains. Even more concerning, is the chance of the title not to be noticed at all.
Hold a book design with a muted color palette and small typography against one with boldness in both, and you may be able to see the reasoning for the concern.
Emerging largely in the teen fiction realm, patterns and illustrations have moved from an obscure fringe of book designs to the mainstream. There’re some differing guesses for why this could be. One of which has much to do with the mood and style of the book. Another would be the difficulty to find fitting photography. Still another, just a design fad that onlookers have found visually appealing.
For many of the titles we’re about to explore, including a photo or other iconic imagery could easily distract from and even undermine the book’s core appeal. As such, many designs of this variety depend upon patterns, illustrations, and other uniquely abstract imagery to convey a style apt for the book’s mood and audience.
As such, here’s a collection of relatively new book designs that follow the trends of illustrative and pattern-oriented design.
Last to Die
When it comes to utilizing an illustrative approach, the retro propaganda style is a common theme among military or politically-centered books—whether fiction or non-fiction. Last to Die uses this style well in its illustrative design style.
Part of what makes the illustration so effective in the case of Last to Die, is the combination of the photographic plane with the faded painting background. The “sun rays” of the Rising Sun Flag are covered with a smattering of flak (anti-aircraft artillery). This helps not only to re-create the intensity of flight for a WWII pilot but adds distress and age to the appearance of the overall design.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People
The consistent illustrations throughout this design piece help convey the focal point of the book where the title does not. “The Almost Nearly Perfect People” could apply to just about anywhere, but the flags (and subtitle) help clue a potential reader in.
Similar to The Girl on the Train book design explored earlier, this title also goes with the uneven type treatment. However, rather than the staggered text creating a distressed, suspenseful feeling, the overall color scheme and surrounding illustrations give it a more lighthearted feel.
While decorative borders aren’t nearly as popular as they have been in years past, this title resurrects the style with a classic, fitting, historical look and feel.
The design for Nathaniel’s Nutmeg harkens back to look and feel that was popular twenty or thirty years ago—while maintaining a fresh spin.
Beyond the more obvious “vine” border lies a subtle secondary theme that helps take the design a step further: the nautical markings and a look that lends it to an aged sea map.
Admittedly, the term “retro” is fairly subjective and can be applied to different styles. The Stager, however, seems to fall into this category with aged illustrations and a desaturated color palette.
Beyond the “dated” overall appeal of this design, however, The Stager has an overall style that’s unique and memorable as a result.
A typical maxim in the realm of book cover design is “less is more.” While this design borders the complicated end of the spectrum, it keeps everything simplistic enough while splitting the design into four differing, visual interesting, and meaningful sections.
A Poet of the Invisible World
The typography all on its lonesome isn’t anything extraordinary for the title A Poet of the Invisible World, however, the pattern overlaid upon the text makes for an excellent visual illusion. This subtly moves the type slightly to the background.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of this design, however, is the fact that it seemingly defies the rules of readability. An off-the-cuff critique of the design for A Poet of the Invisible Worldcould be that the typography may get lost at smaller sizes.
Despite an overlapping illustration, however, the typography remains readable at a small size.
Thanks to the unique use of the pattern, the designer has successfully given a “ghosted” appearance to the typography without relying on overused filters or modifying opacity.
The Rosie Effect
Sporting a custom, handcrafted typeface, this title may have just as well belonged in the Typography section of this article. However, the fitting and well-themed illustrations of this design work well along with the subtle but effective addition of the pink stork.
Out of the various designs visited thus far, The Rosie Effect is far more on the simplistic side of the spectrum. When it comes to utilizing illustrations, the “less is more” methodology can be quite effective.
Notice the previously-mentioned pink stork that stands out not only because it’s the only pink element of the design, but also because the design isn’t crowded with other needless patterns or background noise.
The Water Knife
The Water Knife is yet another title that may have just as well been placed in the Typography section. However, its completely illustrative title lends it not only a unique style but one that’s well fitting of the book’s title and content.
While growing in number, the design for The Water Knife is one that relies almost entirely on illustration. As mentioned, the typography for the title is an illustration as well as typography giving a wholly unique look to the overall design.
Imagine the design with an overused typeface like Trajan and you can see why the illustration is so effective.
In an almost “Tron-esque” style, this book cover design utilizes a color-scheme and illustration style all-too-familiar to retro video game enthusiasts.
While the previously-mentioned Tron-style color scheme helps the effect of the overall design—the shapes play no minor role.
Similar to many early games, a simple triangular shape was commonly used for a spaceship. Seeing that spaceships were not uncommon in these early games, it’s no shock that the cover designer decided to incorporate them into the illustration dominating the cover design.
The Memory Painter
Utilizing a distressed, brush-stroked background, this book’s title fits well within the overall composition by retaining a slightly faded appearance in the areas where the painting is more weathered.
Beyond the distressed look, however, this book draws similarities in execution with one of the earlier books we explored, namely, Last to Die. You may recall the painted “Rising Sun” flag in the background overlaid with an intense war scene. In The Memory Painter we again have the brush-stroked appearance in the background with a more prominent aged and cracked typography in the foreground.
Faces, Faces, and More Faces
To be fair, this trend isn’t necessarily new. In fact, the big, bold face has been around for many years and typically comes into play when the author is the book’s largest selling point.
I’ve seen numerous fiction titles that employ this tactic on the book’s back cover. That is, rather than endorsements, reviews, or a bio; the back cover simply contains a full-width and height photo of the author’s face.
The reason the “face-focal” trend is always important to keep in mind, is because there are many websites that benefit from the same concept. This concept is of course that the person in question dominates the design and is the main reasons from why users visit the site.
To bring this back around to a previous point, however, is the reason for making a person’s face the design’s focal point. This again comes down to what appeals to the book’s particular market.
As with the typographical-heavy design style, publishers, designers, and authors have found that “person-centric” books appeal to their markets because of either who wrote them or the person on which the title focuses. Again, the focus is on the market’s wants rather than whims of design or fancy.
These things in mind, here’s a collection of book designs that rely heavily upon an individual’s appeal to make the book’s design sellable.
One common theme we’ll see among many covers in this section is a large, prominent name to fit the portrait. This is especially important if, for whatever reason, a potential reader doesn’t recognize the person by his or her portrait alone.
Another portion of this design worthy of note is the background. In many of the covers we explore in this section, its common to see a plain background. However, given the topics intertwined with the book’s biographee, the photographer and designer made an effective decision by interweaving a setting fitting to the content and mood of the book.
The biographical style of the book lends itself to the “scandal” or negative side of the spectrum, we’ll often see the color scheme shift to a more ominous tone. Vendetta is no exception utilizing bold typography with a black and red color scheme.
A distinction to make from other books in this section is the fact that there’s two people listed on this design. This may seem obvious as it’s not about a singular person as are the others. However, it’s interesting to note the way in which the two photos were incorporated. Splitting a face down the center isn’t an uncommon tactic—the movie poster for Face/Off comes to mind.
For the Vendetta book cover design, however, placing portraits facing each other give a better “showdown” then would an implementation similar to that of Face/Off. Another important thing to note is the difference in timeframe. The fictional story of Face/Off is more modern than the non-fiction account of Vendetta—hence the grayscale photos.
I Am Malala
While each of these covers afford a portrait as its focal point, it’s interesting to watch the changes and variation in typestyle. Much different than the previous examples we’ve explored, I Am Malala utilizes a thinner, serif typestyle that clearly gives the overall design a more soft, feminine feel.
Another interesting part to note about this design is the vibrancy of the colors. Many times, it’s easy for a designer to use lighter, finer typefaces on covers targeting a more feminine market as was done here. The photograph on the cover for I Am Malala more than makes up for any subtleties in the typefaces chosen with a bold, eye-catching photograph that pitches pink with teal for a powerful contrast.
Branding is everything when it comes to an effective book design—biographies and memoirs are no exceptions. That’s why MLB Pitcher Mariano Rivera’s book features him in his ever-recognizable Yankees uniform.
Similar to the cover forElon Musk, imagine for a moment if the added touch of the Yankees uniform wasn’t included in the photo shoot for this cover design. Imagine instead, if it was simply a photo of Rivera in a business suit facing the viewer. While diehard Yankees fans may recognize him, many casual onlookers may not. By wearing his uniform and standing in an easily recognizable pre-windup stance, the impact and memorability of the overall cover are intensified.
A Time for Truth
In the design for the New York Times Bestseller A Time for Truth, we again see a focus on the person over the title in the clear dominance in the author’s name. This goes back to an original point: That is, publishers and designers often select the part of the design that gives the book the most weight and authority with potential readers.
Part of what pushes the appeal of this particular design, as simplistic as it might be, is the author’s apparel. The standard appearance for a Senator is a finely-tailored business suit with either a red or blue tie.
Fitting well with his background and personality, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is depicted instead in a leather jacket and flannel shirt. It’s not uncommon for photographers and designers to work to capture their subject manner in a way that not only depicts the person accurately but gives insight for what you may expect as you begin to read the book.
And the Good News Is…
One element among all the covers we’ve seen in common thus far is simplicity. And the Good News Is… is no exception as the author casually sits on the books clean and friendly jacket design.
When it comes to creating an effective book cover design, an important role of the photographer and designer is to produce imagery that serves as a compliment to the book’s title.
If the design for And the Good News Is… included a setting with a dark background or more formal attire, it would’ve contradicted the mood set by the title. By utilizing a bright, white backdrop and casual clothing, the title and photography work together in perfect harmony.
As clearly shown in this book design, simplicity doesn’t have to dictate a particular style or mood. With the use of grayscale typography and photography, this design successfully gives a dramatic, serious tone to the overall design.
When comparing Rousey with the previous title we explored, one thing that’s interesting to notice is that they both utilize a white background. This is the case despite the fact that the mood they portray couldn’t be further apart.
By utilizing a grungy black and white photo, Rousey takes the other side of the style spectrum. Intensity is captured well here as opposed to the lighthearted and positive mood of And the Good News Is….
Hiding in the Light
In the trend of using portraits as a prominent design feature in a book design, there’s typically two main approaches. The first is photographing the individual on a solid background, or secondarily, shooting in a specific setting.
Hiding in the Light utilizes the latter approach by including an “in-scene” photo for the prominence of the design. Beyond this, the portrait is taken from a “profile” perspective in a unique implementation of the portrait design approach.
Rather than displaying a more standard portrait with the subject facing the viewer, Hiding in the Light places you in the scene. While not always portrayed in the writing itself, profile-style portraits are used many times to place you “along side” the book’s character rather than the character addressing you directly.
We’ve already explored cover concepts using the black and white style. However, Reagan uses it in a way that helps convey the “looking back” viewpoint of the person in question.
Naturally, Reagan was president during a time in which color television was readily available. However, the use of black and white in this context helps to give the potential reader the feeling they will be taking a trip through history.
As a slight aside, you’ll notice that is yet another design utilizing a white background. If you’re familiar with the Self-Help market, you would know that white backgrounds are just about one of the most common trends out there.
Differing from the lighthearted style of And the Good News Is… and the intense mood of Rousey, Reagan goes an entirely different direction by portraying a more classic, regal style by which so many remember the 40th President of the United States.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom
Similar to other titles we’ve explored, A Thousand Miles to Freedom takes a familiar look and feel, and softens it with the use of more thin, decorative typography.
Much like the title Hiding in the Light previously explored, A Thousand Miles to Freedom takes a more “in-scene” approach to the portrayal of the book’s subject. Rather than depending upon bold, vibrant colors in the photography similar to I Am Malala, this title keeps the background subdued which helps the blue typography to stand unopposed in the overall composition.
As so many of these titles have powerfully demonstrated, contrast is a key component to a compelling, impacting, and memorable book cover design.
The topics we’ve explored in this article only scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the trade and marketing tactics common among so many successful authors, designers, and publishers. That said, here’re a few additional resources that may prove useful in gaining a better understanding of the trade of book cover design.
- Why You Shouldn’t Have Your Book Cover Designed on Fiverr exposes the ever-growing trend of cheap book cover design.
- The Importance of Multiple Book Cover Design Concepts goes into the process of, and the need for, a wide variety of design concepts to reach the perfect design.
- Rising Book Cover Design Trend: Handwritten Typefaces explores another trend that’s on the rise: handcrafted typography.
- Watch the Book Cover Design Unfold for ‘Elizabeth’s Promise’ to see a book cover design being created in live-action.
- Book Covers That Sell is a short, simple, too-the-point Ebook that gives insights into art and science of book cover design.
Whether designing for the web or print, learning more about another design medium can be valuable for a wide variety of reasons. For one, it can show us new ways designers are breaking the mold while at the same time fitting into specific patterns when they become successful in a given market.
If designing for the web, for example, it’s increasingly helpful to watch the trends prevalent in specific markets. This helps us to know how a designer can best craft his designs to fit the market for which his design is intended.
My hope is that designers of all kinds will take a little time to explore a trade parallel to, or even converse to, his or her own. Finding the best way to communicate a topic visually is a big part of what lies at the foundation of successful design—and studying design trends is an excellent way to accomplish this goal.