By JD Smith
Poor image choice, bad cropping, stretched imagery, tacky Photoshop manipulation, terrible font choice and typography, hideous colours … pretty much everything.
But are the fundamentals of good cover design? What is a ‘bad’ font choice? How does one know? I was once asked to tell someone what was wrong with their cover design which they’d cobbled together themselves on some awful software which should be relegated to the 80s. The crux was, they didn’t understand what was and wasn’t good design.
The fundamentals of good design are good imagery, good font choice, good composition, good colour choice, good typography. The problem lies in choosing those elements well, bearing in mind a number of aspects including the genre and market, and then making them work for you.
It’s really hard to explain why something is good (or bad) without doing a workshop and showing examples - pointing out how this lines up with that; how putting this image here and adding this specific gradient gives X amount of space in proportion to Y, and thereby giving ample space for the title if you a have it like this, how boosting the contrast here and muting it there makes the whole ensemble punch ... etc.
You can be born with a talent and a passion for design, but you don’t just go on a course and become a good designer, you have to learn through experience. I spent years presenting work to senior designers to be signed off before it was put in front of a client. And I spent years having it sent back to me telling me it wasn’t good enough, and having to learn why and how to improve it. Moulding a cover together with so many factors being taken into consideration is something that eventually becomes second nature. Bit like writing really. It's easy to point out spelling errors and 'the rules' of writing to someone, but when a piece of writing is 'okay' it's difficult to pinpoint and explain and demonstrate exactly how and why it hasn't got that X-Factor: change this one element of the plot and it will sell in the millions – it just doesn’t work like that.
Another thing to bear in mind is that design, like everything else, follows trends. This doesn’t affect generally whether a design is good or bad in terms of layout, but it can mean that even a good design, rather than ‘standing out,’ can be perceived as dated. The same applies to genre. A good cover placed on the ‘wrong’ book can really affect sales. A romance style cover on a sci-fi book, for example, will cause the book to be overlooked by sci-fi readers, regardless of the content.
JD Smith (Jane) lives and works in the English Lake District. Having worked as a graphic designer for over 12 years, her passion for books and everything literary took over and she now works predominantly on book cover design and typesetting. She is the editor of the writing magazine Words with JAM, and the author of historical fiction.