7 Principles For Outstanding Book Cover Art

OK, lets make one thing totally clear:
"I don´t know it all!"
That´s why I´m here, writing about the stuff I´m passionate about and do my best in order to improve.

Here´s a little story about my youth that explains a bit about my ongoing fascination for cover art:

When I was a teenager, I often went into that indie- record store in town, with some mates after school. It was totally clear that we weren't able to buy all these great albums with their great painted cover art. But while my friends enjoyed to listen to the albums, I picked up always one that stood out the most, studied every detail for a long time and when I got home later, I did a colored pencil drawing from memory. I did that regularly. Later on in school I learned the raster tracing technique, I applied this when I was able to buy the albums to do my own poster art of them.

Back then, I was intrigued like most in my class, by Iron Maiden covers, later by the covers of Front Line Assembly, Testament and Skinny Puppy, not long until I found out that these were done by my all time favorite inspiration: Dave McKean. From this day on it was really clear to me that I wanted to create a similar impact on others and that awesome stuff could be achieved with the means of a computer.

Today I have to come up with gorgeous ideas to create covers that communicate and I use nearly the same technique like what I did in the record store - just in my head - with the right input, my mind comes up with some great ideas and I just pick up that one concept that I think is worth to be done.

The reason to write this post was inspired by a link from Jason Kristopher to a post about self-publishing cover design mistakes, which I find is a good starting point for any author.
I don´t care if a book is published by a big company or by an author. I embrace the freedom to create things that are new, taking chances and working with authors who are pioneers - instead of doing the same thing over and over. I mean, what Francis Ford Coppola says in his Interview inspires me, and also proves that I'm right.

So I decided to publish this little and hopefully helpful list of cover design principles.If you are in the process of finding a cover artist, read further and keep these aspects in mind for any decisions regarding book covers.

The Purple Cow, Weirder=Better

This might be helpful to some genre, such as belletristic, science fiction and fantasy, but probably not in nonfiction books. Ask yourself if your content can benefit from such a stylistic exaggeration or if it suffer from it, if there is the slightest chance that your book can suffer from it, simply stay away. There is also a pitfall in having a purple-cow-cover - it cannot stand out in a row of other purple cows, research the competition and find your niche.

(Exception to rule: Some scientific nonfiction books can benefit from science-fiction or character driven art to stand out)

The Rule of Consistency

For a story that is split into more than one book, its for sure the best way to make a whole series recognizable. This is common practice and for a reason. But its important to know if it is good for your content and how to incorporate the recognition factor from the onset, is it a specific color? An item? A character? Different characters? A specific mood? A specific typeface? (The exception to the rule of consistency would only be an intentional different look or if you´d be forced to find another illustrator, I am able to match styles and have finished a series another illustrator couldn't finish, but this should be an exception like the examples above)

The Mighty Face Recognition Machine

When deciding what to have on your cover, keep in mind that we humans have the ultimate "face-recognition-mode" - always turned on. This article illustrates quite good the mechanism and the power of faces in advertising. It can be powerful to catch attention and to draw a viewer into a composition. The only valid reason to stay away from this, would be if your content is about plants or animals, but even then I´d suggest to find facial features, as abstract as it may sound, when people recognize faces in clouds by accident, they´ll be happy to pick up a book with a plant that shapes a face by intention.

Sex Sells, Not Always...

..but very often. I´m more for the teasing aspect of this one, because it allows to be applied and shown to all audiences and there is nothing wrong if its done nicely and alongside a content that can benefit from the tease. This is even more a question than a fact: "Can your content catch up with the tease and come up with a golden thread in the readers mind?" If not this is definitely a thing to think twice about. (The golden exception to this would be if you don´t care what readers think or if you are out for a short term sale)

Less is More

I´m all for simplicity, it has been said that your book has only 3-5 seconds to attract prospects from the shelves or from the thumbnail. It is important to focus and use contrasts, colors and simple compositions to create the "tease" and create that important "first impression" that makes the viewer interested into your book. Sure some can come up with a fancy type or "that awesome idea" that turns out to be a whole universe as you get closer, but its rare that it works. I won´t say a fancy or sophisticated cover won´t sell, but advertising is about the catch; "if you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both" - go for the one simple eye catcher that communicates the message in a split second and create the golden thread with your content later. (Sorry, no exception to this rule)


Some people believe:"If it is on the internet, it is up for grabs"
While this is true for anything that fancies our personal or educational needs, it is risky to go with that saying into a commercial realm.
Musicians and authors who want to sell a book or CD are in that realm.
When you put an image on your product like the fan-art and double homage on the above, you are at risk to be beaten by at least 3 parties.
Licensing is the keyword here and asking the artist for further information. In many cases editorial use is possible but an artist who knows what he does can tell you which image is ready to use and which might require to manage rights with third parties.

These principles - or rather a combination of all these - help me to get the most out of my work and I'm sure it will do the same for you, regardless if you are an illustrator, editor or author. They are part of my daily process when I work on covers and if necessary or possible - I discuss these specific points with my clients.

Ask for the artist's choice

This is a special point and I believe there are not many artists who do this; Personal versions of already finished commission projects.

The following comparison shows the illustration finished for a client (left) and besides you see a personal makeover. Both personal versions below have received a Daily Deviation feature on deviantArt. Not that this is relevant, it just means that the majority of viewers agree with my choices.

Having that said, the clients were happy with their final version and I was too (for a few hours or days), but somehow, for myself it felt that - with a little more work, and without constraints - I could be entirely happy with the outcome.

The reason for the differences vary, most often it is that we artists stick to a given brief, but when looking at things from a personal point of view, we would tackle things quite differently. Most often these are brave changes and in a contract, these changes can not be considered as something to build upon. But if you want to benefit from the experience of an artist, ask them about their chice and if they would put the work in their portfolio.

From the onset, this can lead to remarkable differences.

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Oliver aka Fantasio is a creative blogger who likes to share his insights about art, marketing and social media. Follow Fantasio on twitter or facebook



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