A Designer’s Take on Cover Design

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September 2015
by Lon Kirschner

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Independent publishers do not have deep pockets, and for some designers, that can be a problem. On the other hand, I’ve found that when I work with an independent publisher, there’s the publisher and there’s me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. Just us.

And, to some extent, the authors. After more than 20 years and hundreds of covers, I have become very aware of the authors and their desire to be involved with book cover design. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to let an author be involved? I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely on it. What I can say is that when I stop and listen, I sometimes get a better understanding of the author’s intent. With Marty Shepard of the Permanent Press, I have developed a policy for authors expressed like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.”

No matter how authors’ suggestions play out, I have found that things go more smoothly when both publishers and authors understand how designers think about cover designs. Here’s my approach, as an example.

Initial Ideas

To start work on a cover, I like to read the complete manuscript. I have been asked many times if doing that is worth the time and effort. My answer is that more than once the idea for a cover has come to me as I read the last few manuscript pages. This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, but something anywhere in it can spark an idea that becomes the basis for the cover.

Judging by my work with publishers of all sizes, there are three types of cover design projects.

  1. The cover practically designs itself (this happens pretty infrequently).
  2. The idea for the cover comes quickly, but the visual needs a little pushing and pulling to make everything work together.
  3. The birth is difficult (having read the whole book, I don’t have a clue how to present the story or what imagery will convey the essence).

With a difficult-birth project, I usually let the story roll around in my head for a while and then start looking at images of things that seemed to stand out in the book. They can be anything at all. I call this visual free association. It has always worked but can be a long and sometimes frustrating process with false starts and a bit of aggravation. It is also the main reason I try to read the entire manuscript if it is available; it is much harder to solve the problem with less information.

As I hope you will see in terms of the examples below, my main objective is always to design a cover that conveys the attitude of the book, not one that illustrates the story.

The Cover That Designs Itself

a-movable-famineA Movable Famine was a joy to read. Quirky, funny, with a totally engaging main character. I knew right away that the cover would feature a portrait of him.

I rarely show a character. I don’t want to impose my idea of what someone looks like because what I love about reading is that everyone sees characters differently. We are all reading the same script but watching a slightly different movie on the screen.

So here is the problem. How do you show someone without showing them? The answer was, Use the first line of the manuscript. When I read it, I knew it was the defining line of the book; it set the tone; it was the character. With that opening line plus the retro-looking suit and tie and a splash of notepad yellow, I had a cover evocative of a time when poetry was written in longhand or tapped out on the black-and-white keys of a battered Smith Corona.

The Cover That’s Almost There

the-three-nine-lineI have done covers for all David Freed’s Cordell Logan mystery titles, each of which featured a graphic that involved the hero’s plane, a beat-up Cessna, coupled with a graphic mystery element. The Three-Nine Line called for something different. It is a dark tale set in an exotic land with the memories and experiences of American soldiers who were prisoners during the Vietnam War at its core.

The author had sent me some images of the book’s setting. One of these showed the Huc Bridge of Hoan Kiem Lake. I knew this was going to work on the cover, so I researched images of the bridge and found one that had the right amount of ominous mystery. With some color manipulation and the addition of background to make it fit my format, it became a strong cover image.

But I felt it needed something. I tried adding elements to tie it into the war. When that didn’t work, I stripped the cover down to the foreboding bridge image and title. Everyone loved the image but agreed something was still needed to tie things together.

After staring at the cover, I saw it. This was a story of prisoners of war. I needed to convey that. So I underscored the title with barbed wire. That was the missing element. Although the final cover took a fair amount of work, the basic imagery was there from the very beginning.

The “What Do I Do with This?” Cover

grendels-gameGrendel’s Game was a tough project but one that I think proved very successful. An eerie story with a fair amount of brutality, it takes place in Sweden, and it has complex and well-developed characters. Because it is essentially a psychological thriller, a gory murder cover would have done it a disservice.

For a while, I did visual free association. Then one image kept coming back to me: the meat hook. This was not what I would call a pleasant visual experience (if you don’t believe me, search for images of meat hooks and see what comes up). So I knew I had to turn down the gross factor and turn up the creep factor.

The solution was using meat hooks to hang the title on, and adding a distressed background environment to give the title a home. The resulting cover let you know that this was a chilling book.

The Job in Just a Few Words

Although these three covers came about in different ways, they have one important thing in common. Each cover was built on a concept. We live in an age where it is possible to do anything graphically. But if the concept isn’t sound, then all the technology isn’t worth much. The first part of my job is to conceptualize. The second part is to make a concept come to life.

Many years ago, the creative director at Bantam said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of Internet bookselling and online browsing, the rules may have changed slightly, but the basics haven’t. If I can get them to pick it up or click on it, then I have done my job.


About the Author:

lon-kirschner-altLon Kirschner and his wife, Nancy Potter, are principals of Kirschner Caroff Design Inc. He works in areas such as corporate identity, packaging, and entertainment graphics as well as in publishing, and he has designed logos, packaging, and film posters as well as book covers. This article is based in part on a post he did for thecockeyedpessimist.blogspot.com, publisher Marty Shepard’s blog. To learn more: lonkirschner.com; lk@kirschnercaroff.com.

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