Book Cover Design Tip # 1: Avoid Lazy Graphics

Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Design | No Comments

I see a lot of non-fiction book cover designs that fall into the trap of using lazy graphics. These will kill your book sales faster than a 1-star review on Amazon.

cropped cover image
(Why listen to me? I just won an industry award for non-fiction book cover design for this cover.)

 What on earth is a ‘Lazy Graphic’?

Any image that is vague or general in meaning is a lazy graphic. Often these are industry clichés, (e.g. woman in a business suit holding a baby and looking frazzled). Designers (and self-publishers) often fall back on them because they are safe and guaranteed not to upset anyone. Unfortunately, that means they are also guaranteed not to excite anyone. And there goes your sale.

Sometimes a Lazy Graphic can fool you. The image may be strikingly original: crazy angle, gorgeous color, moody lighting. But if the content is too general or vague, with no specific story, there’s no chance of an emotional connection or even sustained interest. It’s just superficial decoration. It may even prove distracting. This is often the case with stock photos. Think about the images you see on the website of your bank or a business school. Do you care about the people in the photos? Do you even remember them? Boring, boring, boring. Don’t let your book cover suffer the same fate.

Does Your Cover Pass the 3 Second Test?

If you did not speak English, and you had only 3 seconds to look at the cover:

  1. Would you know what the book was about? Or could it easily be misunderstood as a book about something else?
  2. Would you know what the book promises to deliver (peace of mind, happiness, success)?
  3. Would you have a sense of who the target audience is, or is not (toddlers, CEOs, teenagers)?
  4. Would you know what the tone/angle is (critical, optimistic, pragmatic, irreverent)?

If your cover design clearly answers these 4 questions, Congratulations, you have a hard-working cover design. If not, keep reading.

How to Avoid Lazy Graphics

Now that you know what to watch out for, how the heck do you decide exactly what image(s) to use on your cover? Well, that depends on what the book is about.

Is your Topic Concrete or Abstract?

If your book is about a concrete activity or visible product (e.g. Birdwatching, Motorcycles, Renaissance Art) the cover should generally depict a literal image of some aspect of that thing or activity. (That doesn’t mean it has to be boring or generic.) Assuming you find an image you like, you may think that’s all there is to it. Not so fast.

If you want a *great* cover, you need that cover image to get off its butt and work harder.

For books that are more abstract in subject (e.g. Mental Health, Time Management, Copyright Law, Start Up Investments), you are better off avoiding a literal image and seeking something more poetic or philosophical that communicates the offer or promise of your book. (More on what the promise or offer is in this article.)

Think about it: if you’re not excited by images like an office worker looking at a computer screen, or yet another graph with an arrow pointing up, do you really think anyone else is? And don’t think you can rescue a vague or safe business image by tarting it up in PhotoShop using special effects or filters. That will only compound the mediocrity and prove distracting. Plus, all those tricks have been done to death.

Warning: finding a meaningful image for a book with an abstract subject can be a young designer’s worst nightmare. Fortunately, more experienced designers relish the challenge. Choose wisely.

Separate Your Content from Style

Get very specific about what you need in terms of content. For instance, say you have a book that’s a guide to beekeeping. To avoid confusing a potential customer, the cover should probably include a hive, and/or a person in a beekeeper’s outfit, rather than just a photo of a jar of honey (“Is this a collection of honey recipes? A health book? A book on home canning?”). Similarly, while a historical illustration of a bee may strike your fancy, it may prove disorienting for the customer. (“Is this a book about the History of Bees? Bees in art? 19th century botanical illustrations?”) You may still decide you want an image that is rendered in a lovely ye olde pen-and-ink-wash style, but the content needs to be more specific i.e. show the specific activity of beekeeping, not just a big ol’ bee.

A Design Brief, aka, Whaddaya want, lady?

Write a succinct description of the elements that must be included to accurately convey what this book is about and for whom it’s written.  e.g. “a beekeeper wearing protective gear, grinning as she lifts the lid of a hive to reveal honeycomb.” Would it appeal more to your audience if the beekeeper were a man or a woman? Or should that be ambiguous? (Hey, a beekeeper’s outfit can hide a lot.) Is there more than one beekeeper? How old are they? Do they need to look relaxed, excited, awestruck – what are they feeling? What is the story you’re trying to tell?

To test it, read it aloud to half a dozen people and ask them to draw it (stick figures are fine). You’ll immediately uncover anything that’s unclear. You may also be pleasantly surprised by ideas you hadn’t thought of. (“Why did you add a moon? The description doesn’t say anything about it being night.” “Well it didn’t mention day, either…” “Oh. Good point.”) However, just because several people draw the same thing does not mean you should go with that composition. In fact, it’s more likely to be a cliché. The goal is to find deficiencies in your description.

This document is what’s known as a Design Brief. It will force you to clarify what you really need and ensure that you avoid falling for lazy graphics.

Start Your Engines:  Composition

With a design brief hammered out, you can now confidently hand it off to a cover designer, who will begin by experimenting with different compositions. (But hey, if you have the time and interest, go ahead and give it a whirl yourself. I guarantee it will give you a new-found respect for designers.) This stage is usually restricted to rough black & white sketches, to keep you from getting stuck in one set look.

Is the woman behind the hive? In profile? Visible only from the shoulders up? Do we only see a pair of gloves? Different viewing angles will also shift the meaning of elements within an image: do we see the view from the bee’s point of view, or the beekeeper’s? From grass-level looking up, or an overhead shot? You could also adjust the level of detail to shift the focus: if the hive has more detail than the face, the focus will shift to the hive.

The style factor

Once you have chosen a final composition, you can go to town with different rendering styles: watercolor? photo? woodblock print? cartoon? Also, try different color palettes. By this stage, it’s unlikely that you’ll need special effects, but if you have the time and money, go ahead and try them. Make sure whatever style you choose reflects the tone/mood of the book. Most importantly, the style and colors must appeal to your target market if you want to sell this book.

The Holy Grail of Book Cover Design

Having a written description to work from makes it much easier to select the right image(s). It also guides the designer in creating an original composition with a single focus, even though it may include multiple elements (including type).

The end result will look deceptively simple and harmonious, while also conveying the book’s offer with crystal-clear clarity. This is the Holy Grail of book cover design.

Why Bother?

All this takes more time and work than just using a good-enough image. So why bother? One word: sales.

It’s not enough to have visuals that vaguely complement the title: the images needs to be able to convey what the book is about without the support of the title, and vice versa. This ensures that people understand immediately what the book is about, no matter how they learn about it. Some may hear or read the title (via radio/tv show, conversation, conference talk, email). Others may only glimpse the cover (on Amazon at postage-stamp size where the title may not be legible, or or on a shelf with dozens of others). Most of the time, a potential buyer learns about your book via these brief encounters before they get the chance to see the cover at full size in all its detailed and nuanced glory.

So don’t depend on the combination of title and image to carry every sale. Insist on both being capable of standing alone. Then, when your prospective customer finally sees the cover in detail, you will benefit from the combined impact of both elements working together.