Design as Art: 5 Principles of Book Cover Design

Hello writer friends,

In case you missed Writers’ Digest annual conference, I’m thrilled to share a summary of one of my talks. On day two of the conference, we discussed best practices in book cover design.

First, we defined brand as a concept that encapsulates the UNIQUE positioning, differentiation, relevance, and meaning of a person, product or service. It’s a PROMISE. Which is differentiated from Visual Identity, your brand promise translated into physical and digital assets (logo, typeface, website design, business cards, book covers, etc.)

At last year’s Writers’ Digest conference, I spoke about defining your author brand (for more info, check out The key is that it’s important to know your promise, how that translates visually and then to keep certain aspects CONSISTENT, so that your brand is recognizable. After all, attention spans have dropped to 9 seconds and most decisions are made subconsciously.

Ways to build consistency include:

  • Use a brief when working with designers. This provides a systematic way for you to think through and communicate your target audience, the single most important thing to communicate (design is best when it’s single-minded), and any mandatories (best to minimize these). These are some examples of critical information. Each designer may have their own format for the brief, or questionnaire.
  • Assess your designer’s work against the brief, not against personal taste. Provide feedback on what does and doesn’t meet the brief, but not how to address it…thereby respecting the designer’s expertise and giving them the creative freedom to best meet the design objectives.
  • Think long-term, not just about this book cover but over your body of work. People see shapes and colors before reading numbers or letters, so it’s important to keep certain elements – like your author name – consistent over time (in font and placement).
  • Design is an art and science that needs to do the hard work of landing both breakthrough (being seen and noticed in a busy world) and meaning (able to communicate the critical hook of your book). Know your genre’s norms so that you can set the reader’s expectations (or if you choose to break the genre norms, do so purposefully).
  • Assess design in context, recognizing that book covers may need to break through and land meaning as a thumbnail among many digital titles, via the book’s spine when shelved with other titles or in grayscale on a Kindle or e-reader. Even if you’re lucky enough to get display in a physical book store, assess the cover in context vs nearby titles, as your book will be fighting for attention among a slew of choices. 

Traditionally-published writers aren’t often granted creative discretion on their book covers. Armed with the above knowledge, you could make a case that you’d be a better-informed partner and negotiate for input in the design process.

For indie and self-published authors, these tips should make you a stronger client and therefore result in more effective design outcomes. Over my career, design projects have been some of the most creatively rewarding parts of my work!

If you’d like a glimpse at how fun book cover design can be, take a look at one or both of Chip Kidd’s TED Talks:

Feel free to let me your own book cover experiences, or reach out to discuss speaking / coaching opportunities.


Carol Van Den Hende, MBA

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