People judge books by their covers. It’s the first, and sometimes only, thing people will see to help them decide if they should stop for a closer look or move on without a second glance. Without a cover that gets noticed for the right reasons, it will be hard to attract interest and convert to sales. Successful books don’t just happen by accident. They are carefully strategized visual retail products with a very particular consumer market in mind. The packaging, or in this case the book cover, is the primary sales tool to attract those consumers. You could have the most amazing story, but if it isn’t packaged the right way, it will not sell.
I have put together my top five tips for good picture book cover design. All of these principles can be applied to interior illustrations too. There is so much more to layout, composition, and design than what I can include in this post, but these are the basic rules that I recommend you learn to use regularly. These five simple tips will help you consistently create good book covers that, not only your clients can be proud of, but more importantly, will increase their sales and success. As their success increases, so does your income as an illustrator, either through royalties or by being able to increase your fees, as the demand for your services grows.
Before you start drawing, you need to have a game plan, the same way an architect needs a blueprint before they start building. Your game plan, as a children’s book illustrator, starts with layout and composition. The layout and composition helps you decide where to place the different elements, what size they should be, and what direction they should face. Good composition within your layout will draw the reader in. Bad composition will turn them away.
MY TOP FIVE TIPS FOR CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK COVER DESIGN:
1.) Rule of Thirds
There’s nothing wrong with a basic front-and-center composition and it does have value, however, one of the easiest ways to elevate your artwork is to apply the Rule of Thirds, an off-center composition, to make your artwork more appealing and give it more structure. The idea behind this principle is that you can divide your artwork into thirds, rather than in half, and place important elements along the guidelines and at the intersection points that the one-third sections create. If you’re drawing a landscape, an easy way to apply Rule of Thirds is to place the horizon along one of the horizontal guidelines. It doesn’t have to be measured out exactly.
Take a look at my illustration below to see how I drew the horizon near the lower horizontal guideline. Had I placed the horizon along the middle of the page or even along the upper horizontal guideline, it would have really taken away from the feeling and focus of how majestic and grand a sky with northern lights can be. I wanted the sky to really grab your attention here. You could even say that the sky itself was also split into a second Rule of Thirds grid and the lights were drawn in such a way as to utilize the nine equal portions within the sky giving the artwork continued structure and balance.
Part of learning about different composition tools is figuring out when it’s beneficial to apply a rule and when it isn’t. There are times when an off-center composition, like the Rule of Thirds, is not beneficial. For example, you do not want to cut off important details just to put an object in this position.
Here’s another example. Take a look at the cover I did for Monty the Manatee. This book cover received a book cover design award from Kids Shelf Books in 2018. If you split the artwork up into thirds creating nine equal spaces, you can see that the title of the book falls along the top horizontal guideline and the two “M’s” fall near the upper left intersection point. Monty, the main character, is then placed near the lower right intersection point with his body along the right vertical and lower horizontal guidelines, facing upwards and onto the page and not away.
2.) Preferred Diagonal Scan
For native speakers of Western languages, where we read top to bottom and left to right, we have been conditioned to feel most comfortable when our eyes can move diagonally across artwork from the upper left to the lower right. We will even subconsciously dismiss designs that makes our eyes move opposite to this. Simply put, it strains your eyes and makes it more difficult for your brain to process what it’s seeing.
There are several layout options that take Preferred Diagonal Scan into account. The two that I use the most in children’s book illustrations are the Gutenberg Diagram Layout and Z (or Reverse S) Layout.
When applying the Gutenberg Diagram, your layout is divided into four equal quadrants, with the top left and lower right areas receiving primary and terminal attention. Our eyes tend to sweep across and down the page in a series of horizontal movements. Each sweep starts a little further from the left edge. This is why the lower left quadrant is the weakest area. This sweeping motion is called Reading Gravity. You can use this layout for both typographical elements and illustrated elements, but it’s especially useful with multiple blocks of text. For example, a title, a subtitle or series name, and author/illustrator names. You would probably not want to put important text, like the title, in the lower left quadrant.
Z – LAYOUT (sometimes called The Reverse S Layout)
Z-Layout is similar to the Gutenberg Layout in that your eyes will start and end in the same places. However, with Z-Layout, you bring the eyes down to the weak fallow area in the lower left quadrant before one final sweep to the terminal optical area. Z-Layout is especially useful with multiple illustrated elements.
Below you will see diagrams for both the Gutenberg Layout and the Z-Layout and how I applied them to my work. The pink arrows are where most people’s eyes will want to move. You do not need to bring out your ruler and utilize these diagrams to exact precision. You don’t want your artwork to feel stiff. But it is very important to keep in mind how a Western reader’s eyes will naturally want to move around and through an image. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at amateur or DIY book cover designs and my eyes are moving all over the place and not in a way that is natural or comfortable. It completely turns me off wanting to purchase the book.
In both of my illustration examples above, you can see how I have combined both the Rule of Thirds and Preferred Diagonal Scan tools to create an aesthetically pleasing design that will allow the viewer to effortlessly absorb all the elements in preferential order.
3.) Focal Point
Another important aspect for a good book cover design is to create a focal point. Here are a few of basic principles you can use to easily create primary and secondary points of interest.
Larger elements will command more attention over small elements. Elements that are equal in size might compete with each other. When creating your book cover, decide if you want the title or the main character to be the primary focal point and make it larger.
Surrounding an element with white space helps it to stand out. If there is too much clutter around a main element, it will be harder to focus your attention on it.
Elements that are placed front-and-center of a design will grab more attention than elements placed along the edge or sides of the artwork. This is one of the simplest and most commonly used principles in book cover design.
Contrast is most easily created by using color. A brighter object will pop out at you when surrounded by duller colors. A darker element will command more attention on a lighter background. A complimentary color will stand out more when it’s placed next to it’s opposite color [on the color wheel]. I will explain more in detail about the use of color later in this post.
POSITIONING OR DIRECTION OF A CHARACTER’S GAZE
In most cases you want to have any character looking into the page and not off the page. This will help to bring a reader into the artwork and not turn them away. Look at the cover for Monty the Manatee above again. He is facing inwards and up towards the title. A gaze can also be used to create really good preferred diagonal scan as well.
In this book cover I did for Scruffy the Scruffiest Puppy, I did a few things to create my focal points. The title is the largest element overall, placed directly in the center, and I made sure to isolate it in the sky, giving it plenty of breathing room and “white” space around it. Had the sky been full of texture and details, it would be less likely to stand out. The title is also a very dark color on a very light background to bring it forward. All of these principles were also applied to the puppy too. I increased his size to be larger than real-life compared to the size of landscape elements in the foreground. He is also placed front and center and fairly isolated and alone in the grass. But this is where it gets a bit more complex and when a more experienced designer is important. Although the title is larger than the puppy, by using a less bold font, I’ve drawn the viewer’s attention down to the Puppy, so they can make a connection with him as the main character. You might be asking yourself right about now, doesn’t having a primary focal point in the lower half of the illustration defy the principle of Preferred Diagonal Scan? Keep in mind that you do not need to use every single tip I’m writing about here every single time in every single piece of art. Close your eyes and open them again. Where do your eyes travel next? Although you might look at the puppy first, your eyes will likely immediately move upwards and reading gravity will then bring you from the title, down to the puppy again, and finally end at the lower right corner. Some viewers might look at the title first anyway, which is just fine too.
Unless you are an experienced designer and know a lot about pairing various typefaces, lettering, and applying font cases and weights, my best advice is to limit the typefaces that you use on the cover (and on the interior pages) to one or two. If using more than one typeface, only one of them should be decorative or styled in nature. In the same way, be careful of mixing too many bold, underlined, and italicized versions of the same font or mixing cases. You also need to be aware of the kerning (space between letters) and the leading (space between lines of text). Adjust these to make a word more legible as needed.
Take a look at the book cover mock up I did below. The book title is in a hand-lettered trendy typeface. If I were to use another overly styled font for the author name, it would compete with or distract from the title. Also keep in mind sizing of letters and text. Apply the principles of size found in my focal point section above. In both “right” examples below, I increased the kerning, or the space between letters, to make the author name more legible instead of increasing the size of the font. As much as we all love attention on our own name and proud of the accomplishment of publishing a book, this is not where you want a focal point. When in doubt use a classic or simple serif or sans-serif font for your secondary font on the cover and use this same font for the interior pages within the book. Keep it simple and you can’t go wrong! Too many times, I see too many font pairings or stylizations that have no business being next to each other, or the author’s name is huge, and it’s a dead giveaway that the book was self-published less than professionally. And just because two fonts are hand-lettered or two fonts are script fonts, doesn’t mean that they match!
You can also apply for the basic color principles mentioned below for your typography as well. If your illustration is in a dull earthy color palette, don’t necessarily put the title in bright primary orange. This will attract attention in a negative way. Either use black, white or pull out a complimentary color that is part of your artwork for the title, like I did below using the red from the sweater for the title. A turquoise title on a blue background would have just gotten lost and a white title would have made the composition off balance.
Color Psychology is a very extensive topic. I’m working on another blog post just about color! There is so much that goes into it and it is one of the things that most people are least aware of how important it is. It’s often one of the most overlooked elements that separates bad book covers from good book covers. Did you know that green children’s book covers are statistically sold less than other colors? Who knew, right? That doesn’t mean you can never include green in your book cover, if it’s appropriate to the mood, feeling or environment you’re trying to portay.
Different colors convey different emotions and moods. I’ll get into this more in detail in my upcoming blog post, but you can easily research color psychology online in the meantime. To get you started, there are two easy things to remember . Opposite colors (on the color wheel) are called complimentary colors. Red compliments green. Blue compliments orange. Yellow compliments purple. Using complimentary colors will create contrast and can really make an element pop. On the other hand, analogous colors, which are next to each other on the color wheel, can create a more relaxed, tranquil and harmonious feeling. Examples of analogous color pairings are blue and green, yellow and orange, red and purple, and so on.
In this illustration below, the background and environment are all various shades of dull blues and greens. This creates a tranquil mood. You can almost feel how still everything is in the forest as the snow falls down quietly. To add just a bit of contrast, some of the small plants on the ground are a shade of orange (orange being opposite to blue on the color wheel). It’s so subtle, you might not have even noticed if I didn’t tell you, but it keeps the illustration from looking flat. To make the character pop out, I used a brighter shade of red-orange for the girls jacket. Had a I used a dull orange, there wouldn’t be enough contrast to create a focal point. And since there are bits of orange in the plants on the ground and orange highlights on the tree trunks, she doesn’t feel totally out of place within the scene.
I know this is probably one of the longest blog posts you’ve ever read (or that I’ve ever written), but I truly hope it’s been helpful for those of you starting out your illustration and book design careers or for those of you attempting to DIY your book covers. Keep in mind that these five tips are not all-encompassing of the complex ins and outs of graphic design. There are, of course, exceptions to the rules and an experienced designer will know when and how to bend or ignore a rule.
Thanks for following along if you’ve made it this far! Please feel free to post your comments or questions below. And I would love to see examples how you use these principles to rework an old illustration or cover design. Send me the before and afters please!