A polished design promises the reader the same kind of attention to detail and proficiency on the inside; and because the images of the book covers are often the only point of reference people have when they begin to shop, it must meet a standard of professional quality.

The appearance of all book covers should reflect the quality of their content. For those in self-publishing, this can be easier said than done. Making great book covers starts with knowing how to design book covers that include all the small details that make it look professional. Often, all it takes to move the design in a professional direction is proper use of smaller graphic elements. This sections explores the benefits of smaller scale images for book covers.

In addition to effective layout and good typography (read Layout Part 1: Rule of Thirds & Diagonal Scan and Typeface and Font for Book Covers), a few graphic elements and stand alone images can improve most book covers dramatically. This before and after example illustrates how basic graphic elements can change the ordinary front-page of a government report into an great design that someone might actually be inclined to read–or even pay for.

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Make Book Covers Better with Color Blocks & Lines

Color blocks refer to the solid bands commonly found near the top or bottom of professionally designed book covers. They can run across the page from edge to edge, or work like banners, whose four borders sit inside the margins.

Thin lines create borders when they sit on the top and bottom edges of a color block. Alternatively, they can be used to separate lines of copy. Thin lines are often black, white, or grey, but appear in a range of colors.

Images of book coversIn place of an image, several thin lines and a wide color block provide visual interest and structure to this cover design. Text is either black or white, to create contrast with the color behind it. The bright yellow color block becomes a focal point and allows Leadership to stand out boldly, even on a thumbnail.



book covers exampleA combination of color blocks, a border, and a floating horizontal line create emphasis and desirable locations for copy. Here, the priority of each text element corresponds with the size of the color block it’s placed upon.



Color blocks are a great way to add color, contrast and interest to book covers. They can also improve legibility for copy because they can provide a clean background (no pattern) and a high-contrast setting for text. As shown below, a color block can transform an illegible book cover into a stand-out design.

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Design Book Covers with Stand-Alone Images

Graphics that have been separated from their backgrounds are referred to here as stand-alone images. Usually small in size, these objects can be neatly dropped into a design, resized, rotated, flipped, and generally repositioned for a variety of purposes.

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Because of their flexibility, stand-alone graphics are a popular alternative to larger background images for a wide range of book covers. They work well with color blocks and other graphic elements, and they can be used alone as focal points or addition to a layout.

book covers example White space makes up a substantial portion of this anonymous book cover, bringing our initial focus to the boxing gloves. The shadow helps bring dimension and life to this simple design. The string points up toward the author name and the gloves point down to the title (convergence). The cover is enhanced by the addition of a thin black line that sits inside the boundaries of the page.




book covers exampleHere, the graphic is in the area most likely to be ignored on the Gutenberg Diagram, and therefore, doesn’t detract from the visibility of the title. Instead, it works as a convergence tool. Not only does the arrow point to the title, it delves into it. And, because it is lightweight and minimal, it doesn’t disrupt the upper-left to lower-right diagonal scan created by the text.




Images of book coversA money-tree is sized and positioned to extend beyond the edge of the page, which creates a sense of girth or weight—in this case, abundance (too much to fit on the page). Similar to a previous example, the graphic physically links the title to the author. It points toward both, and also overlaps the color blocks that belong to each of them. (Note the tree appears to be sprouting from the word rich.)




Shadows on Book Covers

Images that include a shadow pop off the page with a sense of dimension that makes them appear tangible and real—a desirable quality for many book covers. When using shadowed graphics, be conscious of where the light comes from and how it affects the overall feel. We have a preference for objects that are lit from above, probably because we are conditioned to shadows created by light from the sun. The brain perceives objects lit from the top (especially the top left) to be real, or natural. When lit from below, objects and environments are more likely to appear unnatural or foreboding, which may or may not be the intention.

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Position in Space

Small images offer tremendous flexibility in where they can be placed and how they can be manipulated (rotated, inverted, etc) on book covers to fit the needs of the designs. When adjusting the original form, pay attention to how the plane (flat surface the object appears to rest on) affects the believability of the picture. Some images can be turned and flipped without any drawback, while others (especially those with shadows) work best in their original, intended position.

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Relevance and Symbolism on Book Covers

Graphics should be more than simple decorations for the book covers they accompany. Images that relate to the material and support the message make the design more powerful and potent. Graphics without meaningful relevance to the book miss the point and fail to provide value to the consumer. Images can be literal (pea pods on a cookbook), or can be used as symbols that represent something else (a pea in the pod to symbolize pregnancy).

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Small images are less often used for narrative purposes on book covers, and are more frequently chosen for their symbolism of ideas and concepts (a flag for patriotism or a bird to suggest freedom, for example). Symbolism has broad applications and almost unlimited opportunity for use on book covers.


Image location will depend on the layout, but a few prime spots include Rule of Thirds intersection points, locations that contribute to preferred diagonal scan, or places that allow the image to serve as a convergence tool (points to key words in the title). Front and center works well too. Read Layout Part 1: Rule of Thirds & Diagonal Scan and A Focal Point that Gets Noticed for more on layout.

Note  True stand-alone images (those with nothing behind them) are available, but the majority of them come on a solid black or white background. Most graphics programs can remove it.

Next Article: Best Colors for Book Covers

Previous Article: Buying Graphics and Images

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By Stacie Vander Pol