Book Cover Design from a Scientific Approach

I’ve been pursuing book cover design in the past year because in a small publishing house like Ooligan Press, book covers play more significant roles than in large publishing houses that hold big name authors and titles. I am interested in the effects of book cover design on consumers who do not know the author or content, and what information a book cover should include in order to attract consumers.

Several useful websites provide tips for effective book covers. For example, Canva states, “Show, Don’t Tell,” and gives readers examples of color use and typeface choice. Thriller writer Ben Sobieck suggests avoiding Comic Sans and Papyrus. These principles are experiential, but as a graduate student in Book Publishing, I wanted scientific proof for effective book cover design.

I found two experiments that focus on eye-tracking and duration when people look for books. Dr. Arūnas Gudinavičius and Andrius Šuminas at Vilniaus University studied preferred color and time to decide a book based on sex and age group.

A total of 180 respondents—90 male and 90 female respondents, 60 in each age group (age 18-35, 36-55, and over 56)—participated in Gudinavičius and Šuminas’s experiment. Before the experiment, the researchers conducted a questionnaire about the participants’ reading habits and discovered that women and older people tended to read more books than men and younger people. Then participants were shown eighteen randomly selected book cover thumbnails on a computer screen equipped with an eye-tracking device and asked to click one that they liked.

The study revealed that younger women tended to prefer cold colors, but that the preference disappeared as the participants’ age got older. In contrast, men over 56 preferred warm colors. The researchers also found that both men and women liked orange but disliked yellow, green, black, and white book covers. Men chose blue and red book covers, and women selected multicolor and violet color covers.

In terms of duration, women between 18 to 35 were the fastest to decide on a book they liked, and the gap between men and women was widest between the age of 18 to 35. In other words, the difference between the decision-making time grew narrower as the participants got older. Thus, younger women are quicker to choose a book by its cover.

Although Gudinavičius and Šuminas’s research disregarded words on book covers, Dr. Sho Sato et al. at Doshisha University discovered that gaze duration was not affected by color but instead varied by typeface. The researchers asked twenty-three undergraduate students, aged 18 to 22 and wearing eye-tracking devices, to pick a book from a shelf. They prepared warm and cold colored books and books with Ming-style and Gothic typefaces. It turned out that while there was no gap between color difference, the respondents spent more time on Gothic typeface than Ming-style. Thus, recent book cover trends that focus on typography are likely to attract more consumers.

When I first read the result of these experiments, I was convinced that part of the success Ocean in My Ears was due to its beautiful cover. Its violet-colored cover matched the target audience’s preference. Sleeping in My Jeans should be successful in part because its cover targets young women and uses multicolor and purplish blue. Although the second study demonstrates the power of typography, the sample sizes were quite small, and further investigation is needed to better learn what typefaces attract consumers. In addition, we need to understand how these preferences could change over time. Book cover designers need to understand universal rules of effective covers and be attuned to current trends.

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