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What Makes A Great Book Cover Design?

Neil Lang is a graphic designer with over twenty years experience specialising in commercial book design. He currently works at Pan Macmillan Publishers Limited on some of the industry's most successful authors including Peter James, Ken Follett, and David Baldacci.

Book covers are a point of huge tension, between authors, publishers, designers and retailers. The competing desires and pressures can often result in blandness or generic styles and motifs. Thankfully there are covers that come out fighting, through brave choices and the exceptional use of materials, information and design elements.

The D&AD Book Design category is split between type of publication (ie., Culture / Trade / Children & Young Adult) as well as between Entire Book or Cover. Ahead of serving as a Judge on Book Design for D&AD in 2016, Neil Lang takes us on a whistle-stop tour through some of the most successful examples of book covers from the past few years.

Neil Lang Pan Macmillan Book Design

All designers should know better than to judge a book by its cover, but I’m guessing we are probably the worst culprits.

I remember seeing the Iain Banks early black and white covers years ago and buying as many as I could. I still think they stand out as brilliant covers even now. 

 
Ian Banks Book Cover Complicity

Recently there has been a resurgence of classic reissues from all publishers. These have some great designs as they usually allow for more freedom when it comes to the covers. Penguin’s recent Little Black Classics are so simple, but for that reason so effective, especially as they used the same design in the marketing, using quotes from the books to grab attention.

Penguin black classics cover

It’s hard to choose favourite covers because all will have had different influences imposed on them, but Jamie Keenan’s Metamorphosis is one that instantly comes to mind with its reworking of an old typeface to create the insect.

Jamie Keenan metamorphosis

David Pearson’s Yellow Pencil-winning 1984 cover is such a clever idea that fits so well with the subject matter. I can just imagine the response in the cover meeting where that was first shown, "So we are going to cover up the title and the author name?..."

But it just shows how recognisable Edward Young's cover template is, you already know it's a Penguin book before you try and find the title!

David Pearson 1984 Book Cover

Mass market titles can often be the most frustrating to work on but occasionally publishers are brave enough to break rules. I am Pilgrim designed by Richard Shailer was a mass market title that didn’t have the author name on the front, relying on the title as a statement in bold type. Whilst Gone Girl – for once – was a cover that didn’t show a silhouette of the girl and was all the more stand out for that reason, although I’m sure that helped influence the trend in the use of fluro Pantones.

Gone Girl Book Cover

Tigerman designed by Glen O’Neill is a clever cover as the more you look the more you see. The stripes instantly give you the impression of the tiger, but when you look more closely at the black stripes you see the outlines of the tiger and face. 

Tigerman Glen O'Neill Book Cover

It used to be the case that gold foil was for big brand authors. Thankfully not anymore, with special editions such as Coralie Bickford Smith’s Pencil-winning Clothbound Classics and F. Scott Fitzgerald covers. The Book of Strange Things designed by Rafaela Romaya was another great use of foil I have to mention, giving people the tactile quality you can never get on an e-reader. 

Michael Faber Rafaela Romonya The Book of Strange Things

Great designs aren’t limited to the adult market either, the symmetrical cover of Birdy designed by Jet Perdie, the confidence of a photographic cover like We All Looked Up by Lucy Cummins, and Thirteen by Rachel Vale (which won a Pencil last year with a design not limited to the front cover) are all great covers.

We All Looked Up Book Cover Lucy Cummins

Cover design does seem to be recognised and talked about much more than ever before, with blogs and articles both online and in print, and individual designers being noticed for their work. It seems the book will thankfully be around for a long time to come. Speaking of which I’ve work to do so I’d better stop there, but not before wishing good luck to everyone entering the awards this year.

The D&AD Awards celebrate creative excellence in art direction, design and advertising. If you think you have a campaign worthy of a D&AD Pencil, why not enter your work into one of 27 different categories and see if our judges agrees. Nothing Matters More. 

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