London Book Fair Seminars: Cover Design

One of my favourite book designs is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

One of my favourite book designs is Vintage’s “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

I attended the Principles of Successful Book and Cover Design seminar panelled by Fiona Marsh, Damian Horner, Martin Topping, Stuart Dwyer, and Karen Healey Wallace. The panel discussed the “golden rules of design” and how design plays into advertising and marketing.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion:

  • the “musts” for covers – legible title, correct hierarchy, colour to withstand poor supermarket lighting, contains main theme elements from content
  • book design is your biggest advertisement, use it to communicate the genre and tone
  • conduct a “blink test” – in only a brief glance, what is the one thing you want consumers to remember about the cover design?
  • consider your title a major design feature as well as an important tool for SEO
  • be CLEAR before you’re clever

Discussion: design is only as good as the brief

Author Karen Healey Wallace claimed during the seminar that a design is only as good as the design brief put in. She went on to explain that the design brief needs to articulate what the story “looks like” and what the book browser should experience when they see it. This idea that the design brief is as important, if not more so, than the design execution itself gives a lot of power to editors who are responsible for briefing designers. No one at a publishing house probably understands a book better than the editor who is the book’s champion, understands the content’s themes and tone, and has consulted with marketing about the target market. It makes sense then that the editor’s understanding of the book and how it come across to readers should drive the design.

What’s difficult is balancing the design between fitting the book’s content and fitting the expectations of the market. Damian Horner from Hachette posed the question “Do you want to be designed as part of a group?”. Creating a cover design that imitates other books within that genre is one way to let readers know what the content and tone will be about; it plays to audience expectations. But using a stereotypical design is not going to let a book stand out from the competition. In a bookshop, and even more so with online retail, readers have a huge selection of titles to choose from; if the design does not stand out enough and is not able to convey the unique quality of the content, then it is unlikely to be picked up by consumers. The challenge for editors, marketers, and designers is coming up with a cover concept that will be identifiable to the target market but will also grab a browser’s eye on a bookshop shelf.

Which books do you know that are particularly well designed? Did the design draw your attention because it was unique or because you knew in just a glance that it was in your favourite genre?


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