Book Design Basics

As a writer, the process of designing books can be overwhelming. Self-publishing is great for new authors or authors not interested in a traditional publisher, but it means you are in charge of every single decision. Even if you go with a traditional publisher, it can be really helpful to understand basic design so you can have more informed ideas and opinions. You already know what good book covers and interiors look like, and you probably already know some of the basic concepts of design, but you may not know the right terms to use. In this post, I will outline the basic design principles and connect them to the specific parts of a book’s design so you can get a general understanding of how these terms apply to the book design process. I will also add some links to some helpful resources for designing books.

The book cover is a really important part of designing a book—it’s the first impression your readers get—but so is the interior of the book. The interior of a book is easy to overlook because we don’t often think about it, but if the interior isn’t designed well, everyone will notice. The interior is meant to present the text as the central focus so the reader can, well, read.

Much like writing, every aspect of a design needs to have a purpose. There are seven basic design principles: emphasis, balance and alignment, contrast, repetition, proportion, movement, and whitespace. All of these apply to the cover, but they also apply to the interior.

  1. Emphasis in book design is important for the cover because the reader needs something to focus on first, like the title or a prominent part of the design. In the interior, this would translate to the text as the key focal point. The reader wants to keep moving through the story, so if there is something besides the text that is emphasized, the reader may be distracted from the story. Sometimes this is done intentionally so there is a purpose behind the design choice.
  2. Balance and alignment are represented by a cover and also in the white space of the interior. Pages cannot be completely full of text because that would be very overwhelming for the reader. Alignment is often shown in books as centering or justifying the text—not squishing it all into one area of the page.
  3. Contrast creates depth and space within a piece, making it more memorable. This is represented by the typeface on the cover, the chapter heading, or body text. Contrast can be achieved through different weights in one typeface or different typefaces.
  4. Repetition is represented in the interior as the text being aligned the same on every page, the chapter headings being in the same font and size, etc. Readers expect the interior to be consistent so they can continue uninterrupted.
  5. Proportion is a way to convey what the audience is supposed to focus on and what is most important. In book covers, this is conveyed by the size of the title in comparison to a subtitle. In the interior, this could be the size of a chapter heading compared to the body text.
  6. Movement is how you direct the audience to view the piece. So in a cover, the most important information is the title, although placing the author’s name in a way that draws attention can help create movement.
  7. Whitespace gives the viewer room to breathe. In covers, white space can give something importance without making the object larger or creating clutter. The interior is full of white space, and it is super important. A huge wall of text is intimidating, and margins are one way to make the text less overwhelming.

Now that you know the basic terms and principles of design, there are lots of online resources to help you learn more. These are a great place to start. Here is a link explaining book design basics like repetition and the rule of three. This article talks about hiring a graphic designer for your book. You can get some tips for designing the interior of a book here.

Book Covers and Bandwagons

Before I dive into the complex world of book covers, I should confess that my rudimentary and frankly half-hearted initial search quickly turned into a passionate and intense hunt for cultural trends, typography, and design. It turns out that book covers are fascinating and not altogether unlike clothing fashion. Just as I wear styles first adopted by fashion icons who convince me of their chic-cool factor (I’m looking at you, overalls and turtlenecks), there are design bandwagoners for book covers as well.

I will be the first to admit that I scan library shelves for interesting typography and art along with the best of them, but it’s also important to note that book covers are actually a critical and effective means of visually placing books into their respective genres. We would probably do a double-take if we saw the newest Stephen King novel sitting next to a Rupi Kaur poetry book on a store shelf, and rightfully so. Book covers not only attract consumers’ eyes in bookstores, but they quickly identify genre. Although similarities in wider genres are to be expected, when I searched a little harder, it turns out that there are many trends to consider with regard to cover designs.

In January, The Booklist Reader examined some young adult book covers and made a few observations. Perhaps the most noticeable of their observations is how far-reaching the influence of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is. Variations on Green’s book cover, with its bright colors and hand-drawn font, are still being echoed in the typography of newly released young adult books, including Claire LaZebnik’s Things I Should Have Known. Hand-drawn fonts are having a big moment, as are whimsical drawings. Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park has a beautiful and memorable cover, and like Green’s cover design, the drawing of Rowell’s two main characters seems to have ignited a character-depiction trend— a design direction seen in the recent bestseller, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Marketing company Envato put it bluntly when they declared that “hand-drawn everything” is big right now. Ooligan Press’s own The Ocean in My Ears by Meagan Macvie certainly supports the idea that hand-drawn typography and colorful backgrounds are currently enjoying their time in the spotlight.

Book cover trends also extend beyond the young adult genre, and it turns out that 2017 isn’t all about hand-drawn fonts and whimsy. Retro throwbacks are currently appearing on book covers, and in another article, The Booklist Reader points to 70s styled fonts in particular. In designs that harken back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, authors like Lena Dunham and Jojo Moyes have chosen to depart from the whimsy of hand-drawn type and lean into the resurgence of text-heavy serif fonts. And while hand-drawn, colorful covers don’t seem to be going anywhere, the increasing number of throwback covers makes me wonder where the bandwagon will go next. I’m betting on a continuation of retro-themed covers—designs to accompany the bold return of Birkenstocks, choker necklaces, and double denim. But what do you think? Write us a comment below with your predictions. Where is the future of book covers headed?