Home » Covers » Cover Design Primer – Small Changes Make a Big Difference

Cover Design Primer – Small Changes Make a Big Difference

13 October 2012

From author J.M. Ney:


This summer I attended a publishing workshop. Cover design formed part of the conversation, and I learned some critical details about it. My architecture background and my previous publishing experience meant I was doing a lot right, but I could do better. Not surprising! Architectural design classes don’t include typography and other elements of graphic design.

When I returned home from the workshop, I dove into tweaking all the covers for my stories. I’ll show the before and after versions. I find it fascinating that such small adjustments make such a big difference.

. . . .

There are six main categories of fonts.

Old Style – Traditional serif fonts that have been used for centuries. They are easy for the eye to follow, guided horizontally by the bottom serifs. They feature gentle transitions between the thick and thin strokes forming the letters.

Goudy, Baskerville, Garamond, and Palatino are examples of old style fonts.

Goudy, Baskerville, Palatino, Garamond

. . . .

Three rules for choosing fonts for a book cover:

• Never use more than one font from each category.

That is, Braggadocio (modern) and Helvetica (sans serif) might work well together, but Skia and Charcoal will not.


Because the human eye likes patterns to be either exactly alike or clearly different. Similar, but not the same, makes the human eye struggle.

. . . .

• Do use two different fonts.

One font – say all Palatino – is overly calm, sedate, even boring.

Two fonts is interesting, but doesn’t overwhelm the eye.

Three fonts (each from a different category, of course) starts to be cluttered and busy.

Link to the rest at J.M. Ney


17 Comments to “Cover Design Primer – Small Changes Make a Big Difference”

  1. This will be incredibly useful to a huge number of authors. Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention!

  2. PG, thank you for featuring my post! I hope my fellow Passive Voice-readers find it interesting.

  3. PG, thanks for the link. I went straight to the blog to read the remaining details – and bookmarked the post for use in designing my own covers (coming soon, I hope).

    The best part of the six lessons is that Grimm shows exactly why something is better – with the covers of ebooks before and after the six categories were addressed. They were okay before, but the difference says ‘professional design.’

    I have bought several ebooks since I started because the cover was so compelling – and, at a reasonable indie price, I HAD to have it. Example: Gaughan’s ‘Into the Woods’ is so striking I bought it – but didn’t get in more than a few words because I don’t read horror – I’m literally afraid to read the story and have his images in my head (I have trouble forgetting things). I’m glad I have it – the cover is gorgeous – but I may never read it.

    Grimm’s covers make a very nice brand of a set.

    Another post, on cover copy, also went into the bookmarked category. The title of the post is odd – Eyes glaze over? Never – but again, examples of cover copy before and after applying the principles (2 this time) made a good argument. I even followed a link to a genre I never read, and looked at Inside the Book. This one I didn’t get – this time – but I may go back for it. The ‘after’ cover copy WAS better, IMHO.

  4. Very interesting and thought provoking, thank you.

    Zapfino (gorgeous!) is a much adored font of mine, but I find it impossible to use anywhere except as a watermark for my photos. Script is difficult to read and practically disappears in thumbnail size.

  5. It’s good to know why things work. I don’t think I’ll go back to designing my own covers again, but the information is great.

  6. Thanks for this info, P.G. and J.M.

  7. Thank you for this! I have been scrutinizing and studying covers for a little while, and looking for primers. This is an excellent guide and puts into words some things I got instinctively but didn’t have a clear understanding of for “why THIS works and THAT doesn’t.”

    Even if I end up paying someone to design my covers this will help me to be a “smart shopper” and speak the designer’s language. Thank you.

    PS — I liked your post on back copy, too. My approach is always to pique the curiosity of the reader with tantalizing, intriguing details to [hopefully] compel them to read the story. I always second guess myself on whether I’m holding back too much, and after reading your post I’m going to breathe a lot easier.

  8. This is a great post, J. M. I’m bookmarking it. I don’t think there’s anything in it that I didn’t know at some level, but it’s great to have it all spelled out and in one place–and with examples!

  9. May I ask which publishing workshop did you attend, and who taught it? Did they put this together about the styles and fonts etc? Was it part of a handout? Just wondering what the source is so maybe there’s more guidance about book covers, type and design, etc if we know who wrote it?

  10. No handouts, I’m afraid. I wrote my blog post using my notes, taken while attending the workshop. (Any errors are my own!)

    I designed and created all the visuals in my post myself. (I’m a Photoshop aficionado.) Obviously the graphics showing the different font categories were very straight forward.

    Those showing the design results of combining fonts took more thought.

    The images for composition choices were hardest of all. I initially did not have any ideas and slept on the problem. Luckily, I awoke inspired!

    The workshop was Think Like a Publisher, and there were two teachers. Dean Wesley Smith organizes this and other workshops. He brings in supporting teachers where he believes their expertise will deliver a better learning experience to the students. Scott William Carter taught the unit on cover design.

    • Thanks JM for telling us the workshop and the teachers. I went to Dean Wesley Smith’ website and see they teach this class on covers again, and that they are preparing to teach several of their many regular workshops/ classes online. Wouldnt that be great if the one on covers was online. Save so much travel time and expenses for those who have day jobs and families or care of elders. I think YOU could teach a great online class on Photoshop JM, your skill is great! For a lot of us, the visuals really are ‘a pix worth a thousand words’. Love your befores and afters. Again, pix are useful for many. Now if someone would just do a step by step series of pix to teach about setting levels in garageband and audacity for Mac, life will be complete. lol

  11. Yes, I had a feeling this might be Dean and Scott’s workshop. What a wonderful education that must have been, and it shows in your blog article, which is full of good and easy-to-understand information that will inform all my cover designs.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.