Design Elements All Authors Should Know


Other than finishing your manuscript, almost nothing is as exciting as seeing your book’s cover for the first time. And for prospective buyers, nothing says “read me” like an outstanding cover. That’s why it’s so important that your book is designed to help readers notice, become interested in, and remember your book.

The FriesenPress Design Team has created thousands of book covers. We are experts in creating books that stand out on crowded bookshelves while staying true to the spirit of the story.

That said, there are a few fundamental concepts of book design that every author should know. Understanding these will help you communicate what you’re looking for in your cover and understand the choices your team makes when designing your cover.

1. Symmetry

People find balanced, symmetrical images more attractive. Text and images should feel like they’re working together and not competing with each other. Take a look at the covers in your favorite bookstore or library and notice how text and images work together to create balance on the page. There are exceptions to every rule but aiming for a balanced look is a great principle to keep in mind.

Here’s a very simple example. With balance and symmetry in mind, which cover do you find more attractive?


2. Simplicity

People notice and remember simplicity more easily. We are also more likely to believe what seems simple. Remember, a book cover’s job is not to tell the story but to suggest the kind of experience and/or information readers can expect. This is especially true in nonfiction where the central idea of the book needs to be quickly and confidently communicated.


In Fueled by Purpose, the cover uses simple visual language to suggest being driven by an idea. In The Cosmic Apex of Nebulae, potential readers can’t be too certain what this book is about.

3. Color

If you take a stroll down the aisle of your local grocery store, you’ll notice that many brands use very bright colours to try to catch your eye. Cereal boxes are often brilliant yellow. Shampoo bottles might be neon green. This can work well for brands that want to communicate a dynamic, high energy image. Other brands want to look more expensive and sophisticated. For these, muted and luxurious colors can be very effective.

The same principles apply to your book. Consider aspects like a designer would when making choices about color - aspects like mood, genre, competing titles, and even sales avenues (online, in bookstores, both?).





4. Contrast

In design, contrast refers to combining unlike elements (such as light and dark) that help an image or text to stand out clearly. Book covers with high contrast images and text are easier to see and read, but they can also help people to notice and remember your book cover. Imagine a potential reader is browsing books in a store or online. Most people will look at several titles (perhaps dozens!) before making a choice. And when it comes time to make a choice, people tend to choose books whose covers they can remember. The ones that made a strong impression. Strong shapes and high contrast environment can help make that happen. It’s also worth noting that a design might look vivid on your computer monitor but not in print, which relies on ink and external lighting. This is another area your designer can help you avoid pitfalls.


High Contrast


Low Contrast


5. Typography

Typography is a key consideration in ensuring your book cover performs well. The text should be easily readable, especially at small sizes - as when your book is a thumbnail in an online store. Imagine your cover shrunk down to postage stamp size. Would the key text still be legible?

Text should also be arranged in a way that leads the eye through the information, usually: title, subtitle, author. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but it’s best to know why you’re deviating from what’s been proven to work well.


6. Communication

The importance of having a quality book cover can hardly be overstated. That’s why it’s crucial you share information with your design team, but then trust them to make choices that will serve your book. As a writer, it’s natural that you’ll have some vision for how you want your book to look, but it’s important to remember that your designer has many years of training and will see and consider aspects of design you may not.

Some of the information you should share with your book designer includes:

  • What is the mood of your book?
    Happy? Sad? Professional? Anxious? Friendly and guiding? Dramatic?
  • Is there a central idea or element that could symbolize your book?
    If you can distill the essence of your book into a sentence or two, this will help your designer develop creative solutions. For example, writing “an adventure story about a doctor who survives a shipwreck” would give your designer some metaphorical or symbolic design possibilities.
  • Who is your audience?
    Knowing who your book is meant for will help your designer make good choices. Ones that will resonate with your intended audience. So be as detailed as you can be. Not just “smart people” but rather “thirty-something career women who thrive on challenges” or “elementary school kids who are curious about cool chemistry experiments.”
  • Do you have any strong personal preferences?
    Ideally, you will have an open mind and be comfortable trusting your designer’s judgement. In some cases, however, it’s important your cover echo or evoke something (a genre convention, a place, an object that is pivotal in the book). In these instances, be sure to let your designer know before they begin work on your cover.
Murder City, amazon-sized!

Murder City, amazon-sized!

7. Less is more

You don’t need to tell the whole story on the cover. Often, relying on one or two striking elements will make for a much stronger cover than trying to literally represent your story. Again, your designer will be able to take the information you’ve provided and create something that will work on the tiny canvas of your book.

Keep in mind that your cover must work in a number of settings, including postage stamp size on websites like Amazon. In a retail setting, your book will only have seconds to attract a browsing reader's attention. An well-designed cover ensures readers take a second look at your product.

Designing a great book cover is not an easy task and is best left to professionals. Beyond knowing the rules, they also know when to break them for best effect. For example, on the above sample called “Balance” it might have been interesting to create a cover that was intentionally off balance. As an author, the best thing you can do is to help your designer understand what your book is about and then trust their expertise to translate your words into visual language.


Written by Christian Fink-Jensen, FriesenPress Marketing Manager