Can you judge a book by its cover?

Can you judge a book by its cover?
NLA Publishing designer Louise Dews discusses the tenets of good cover design
9 May 2017

One of the biggest challenges a book designer faces is to create a cover that is not only engaging but also reflects the content within. Covers speak to readers. They may say ‘I am for a young reader', ‘I am historical' or ‘I am a funny'. Many decisions made by the designer affect the readers' assumptions about the contents of a book and encourage or—though we try to avoid this—discourage them from picking it up and exploring it further.

When designing a book cover, attention is given to many design factors. These include image selection, the psychology of colour, the effect of layout and the impact of typography. Below, four recent covers designed by the NLA Publishing design team have been reimagined to illustrate how changing just one element can dramatically alter the cover message.

Take the following two covers, for example. The Beach: An Australian Passion by Robert Drewe is a celebration of beach culture. The appeal of this subject and breadth of the material covered in this book is wide and this needed to be reflected on the cover.

The Beach covers

Readers put their own interpretation on an image. But sometimes the image can send the wrong message.

The cover on the left is the actual book. A hazy image was chosen to evoke a nostalgic feeling and set the tone of the book. The readers can put their own interpretation on it. It may rekindle memories of romantic walks, fun times with family or a particular holiday location, depending on the readers' own experiences.

Change the image and you get a completely different impression. The cover on the right shows how the choice of image can give a new meaning to the title. This book looks like it belongs to a different genre altogether and implies quite a different type of passion.

But choosing the image, although incredibly important, is just the beginning. Colour is another element that can affect the ability of a book to attract the desired target audience.

The book below, What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia, is about a wide range of protest movements. The cover design needed to capture the strong emotions of protesters. It was carefully chosen to depict a protester who could be part of any protest. She could be from the women's movement, she could be protesting for peace, she could be a trade unionist or an environmental activist ... you get the idea. 

What Do We Want? covers

Red is universally seen as a colour of passion and action, while the rainbow has come to symbolise LGBTI pride.

The cover on the left is the one you will see on the shelf at the bookshop. The designer chose a red background for the title because it is strong and eye-catching and, just as importantly, is not associated with a particular protest movement.

Imagine if the designer had chosen a rainbow background for the title. Although it is still eye-catching, the reader may wrongly assume this book is about a specific type of protest.

Careful consideration is also given to the arrangement of the cover elements.

The first image below is the cover of the children's book Amazing Animals of Australia's National Parks. The designer used an informal composition to create a dynamic layout. This is achieved with organic shapes, a variety of image sizes and bright colours. All these things contribute to making this cover exciting and attractive to a young audience.

Amazing Animals covers

An informal layout using organic shapes creates an kid-friendly cover. A centred design is seen as more traditional and conservative.

Consider the second design. By using the same images in a formal layout, no size variation and a conservative typeface, the designer has created a cover more suited to an academic report. A young animal lover is unlikely to pick up a book with this cover.

Of course, the way the words are treated on the cover is also critical. The designer makes decisions about type placement, font, size, weight, colour, case, line length, line spacing and letter spacing.

The typographic design on the cover of Famous Detective Stories: True Tales of Australian Crime, below left, was inspired by the pulp fiction genre. The vivid magenta and yellow reflect the pop art aesthetic of the time. By placing the title on an angle the designer has given the cover a sense of immediacy and action. The broken typeface was chosen to reflect the nature of the content. It is gritty but not too scary.

Famous Detective Stories covers

A grungy typeface in striking colours reflects the pulp fiction genre. Unsophisticated hand-drawn fonts tend to imply that a book is for children.

In contrast, the image on the right sends the wrong message. The colours are still vibrant but combined with this typeface create a more playful feel. This design would be more suited to the children's section of the bookshop and the typeface suggests that a more appropriate title would be Famous Detective Stories for Preschoolers.

There are so many factors that are taken into consideration when designing a book cover, many more than are covered here. Thanks to artist and designer Liz Faul and NLA Publishing's senior designer Amy Cullen for redesigning the covers of Amazing Animals and Famous Detective Stories to illustrate what not to do. It must have been incredibly difficult for them to create something that goes against all their excellent design instincts! But the redesigns above do show that even small changes can dramatically influence the perception of the reader—and readers certainly do make assumptions about the content of a book based on its cover. The age-old adage ‘you can't judge a book by its cover' is not true. You can judge a book by its cover, but only if the designer has done their job well.

I love your type comparisons; great to see how the variation in typography affects the intent of the book design.