The Cover Design Process

There are as many ways to generate a cover as there are books themselves—you may be making one yourself or you may work with a freelancer. You may work with a professional author services firm. If you’re working with a publishing house, they may have their own in-house art department, or they too may contract out the work to a freelance designer. We could tackle the specifics of these processes, or we could dissect the technical and artistic side of the process, inspecting the literal steps a designer takes. Then again, everyone has their own process. As such, we’ll instead discuss the larger, philosophical evolution of a cover from nothingness to a polished product. We’ll also talk about how most designers and their clients get there.


Identifying the goals of a cover:

Before we can get our hands dirty, the designer and client need to be on the same page about the goals of the cover. A good cover should at least do the following things:

  1. Catch the eye, making the viewer want to further inspect the book, the read the synopsis, etc.
  2. Be legible, even at smaller size.
  3. Look professional.
  4. Communicate something to the audience. (Vague, I know—but we’ll talk more about it.)

The single most common mistake self-publishers make when working with professional cover designers is over-dictating design choices. Rather than taking advantage of a designer’s experience and know-how, many authors will come to the table with very specific ideas about what they want. They may, in many cases, ask the designer to do things the designer knows are a bad idea. The designer, however, is probably going to do them, because the designer is being paid to keep the client happy.

Frequently, what authors want is for the covers to try to literally tell the story of the plot, which doesn’t serve much of a purpose for the reader. For one, it creates a very busy cover—the more that’s going on, the less likely they’re going to really focus in on anything in particular. Covers like this also rob readers of the chance to use their imagination: when every character and plot element is pictured together on the cover, their minds don’t get to fill in those blanks. That’s not to say picturing many elements from the plot is always a bad idea, but it’s not the only idea.

Crowding the cover too much is also one of the easiest ways to make the book look less professional. Trying to cram disparate elements together also increases the likelihood that the book will have a Photoshopped look, which is a no-no. Bad typography, likewise, speaks to a lack of a professional eye. The cover is the first thing people see—when they think “unprofessional,” that judgment extends to the rest of the book as well.

Most successful books feature one striking, central image that leaves some mystery. And what they communicate is something less tangible than specific plot elements—it will be a feeling, perhaps, or a theme. A good cover should have a sense of atmosphere.

So, what sort of process is a good designer likely to employ?


1. Learn about the book.

To properly represent the content of a book, the designer must first understand the book. A surface-level idea of the book’s content is rarely enough; the designer should develop a sense of the book’s thematic concerns, the author’s style, and the general mood of the work. Much of this is subjective and instictive, but that’s how creativity—and art—work.


2. Consider conventions of the genre.

Whatever the genre of the book, chances are there are certain trends we see in covers within that genre. The designer will familiarize themself with them (if they’re not already familiar) to know what others are doing. The goal isn’t necessarily to do what everyone else is doing—but they might put a new spin on a conventional approach or tackle it from a different angle.

This is also useful because, depending on circumstances, the publishing house, designer, or author may involve third parties. Many sci-fi and fantasy covers, for example, feature intricate illustrations—often that portion is contracted out to an illustrator, if the budget allows. The same goes for photography; the cover designer is rarely the same person who took the photo.

From a marketing perspective, it can be useful for customers to be able to instantly categorize a book. If they’re out browsing for a romance novel, they probably have an idea of what romance novels look like, and as a result they’re likely to pause when they see something familiar. The designer wants to be unique but also aware.


3. Brainstorm concepts.

Armed with an understanding of the book and its underlying themes, the designer will brainstorm several ideas. At this stage, they’re likely to draw thumbnails, try some sample layouts and font choices, and generally pare down the options to a few possible choices.


4. Conceptual mock-ups.

Once the designer has a few options they’re happy with, they’ll make a few mock-ups to present the available concepts to the client. At this stage, things still aren’t polished—they’re just trying to communicate the basic design idea.


5. Picking a direction and polishing it.

The client, publishing, author, or whoever else involved will choose a final direction to go in based on the mock-up options. From there, the designer will begin polishing and refining the design. This is typically an iterative process in and of itself that involves sending versions in, getting feedback, and further developing the cover. This takes elbow-grease and patience, but with a little hard work, the design goes from rough draft to polished piece.

Once the cover’s done, it serves as a calling card for both the book and the author. A striking, professional cover will stand out in the minds of viewers for years, and that’s why they’re worth doing well.

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