Books tell their stories over hundreds of pages. They grip readers with the twists and turns of a narrative, with tales of characters that we come to love and root for. A book cover, however, has only one visual to work with.
That single piece of design serves an important role as the face of the book. Through a combination of type and imagery, book covers can pique readers’ interests, convey complex ideas at a glance, and expose just the right amount of the story without giving it all away.
There are three main uses of book covers that are important to keep in mind when designing one:
Getting more eyes on the book: A book cover is somewhat like a poster, in the sense that it should be strong, catchy and instantly captivating. A good cover design can make a book stand out on store shelves and draw enough attention so that it’s picked up, leafed through and, ultimately, read.
Capturing the essence of the book: A book cover reflects the content of the book, and can even provide insight on its main themes. With a single image, the cover can communicate some of the ideas brought up in the book, allude to the place or time period in which it takes place, or bring up some of the feelings that arise during the reading experience.
Establishing a genre: Most books fall clearly under a certain literary genre. In those cases, incorporating certain design conventions into the cover can help the book reach its appropriate audiences. For example, extraterrestrial landscapes send a clear message of a sci-fi novel, while a calming sunset photo is a good indication for a self-help title. However, make sure to use these visual norms in moderation, and highlight the book’s own, unique perspective.
We’ve collected 30 remarkable book covers that throw the old ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ out the window. If you're a freelance graphic designer, looking to become a freelance graphic designer or illustrator looking for inspiration, these masterfully crafted designs will get your book cover ideas flowing. Book covers not your thing? There's still plenty of inspiration take away here for your graphic design portfolio too.
01. Typography that bears a message
A book’s title and author name can be so much more than mere information to be reported. In some covers, the typography becomes a living, breathing design element. It morphs, tilts, skews, and glides around the page, telling a visual story with little more than the letterforms themselves.
For the cover of On Haiku, designed by Rodrigo Corral, the title and author Hiroaki Sato’s name stretch around all corners of the page, with Hiroaki’s name rotated 90 degrees to vertical. The large all-caps type is accompanied by orange circles that replace the O’s and aimlessly float around the page. The resulting composition is as intriguing as it is playful and creative, not unlike haiku poetry at its finest.
Edge by Koji Suzuki is a horror fiction novel about catastrophes traced down to the quantum level. Designer Peter Mendelsund’s cover for the book depicts a classic sans-serif type on a grid background, distorted by a vertical line that runs down the page. This clean design speaks of natural disaster while refraining from any kind of gore, drawing on the book’s chilling cerebral style.
02. Hand lettering implies honesty
Hand-lettered typography can carry the marks of a pen hurriedly jotting down a note, or the precision of a trained calligrapher’s stroke. This personal and intimate quality complements books that delve into the tribulations of the human psyche, or alternatively are written in an honest tone, like a heartfelt message to a friend.
Artist and Wix user Adam J. Kurtz’s book cover is a good example of the latter. His book Things are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives is, like much of his work, entirely handwritten. With equal doses of empathy and humor, Adam writes words of encouragement for anyone in the creative fields. His hand lettered cover is relatable, unassuming, and at eye-level, just like his writing.
The cover for Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, designed by Jaya Miceli (with art direction by Helen Yentus), features a more ornate script. The large white type is contrasted against a background of trees, with subtle interactions between type and leaves, as if they’re physically sharing a space. The novel describes an abusive yet loving father-daughter relationship. The high-contrast cover is suggestive of the complexity of the characters’ relationship, while the lettering evokes the deep sensibility and lyricism with which the story is told.
03. Ornate geometric patterns for a classic look
Geometric patterns are reminiscent of the early days of bookmaking, giving off a classical, vintage feel. This style can be used to mark iconic titles as esteemed, or to set the book in a certain historical period, giving off a sense of grandeur.
In her work for a series of F. Scott Fitzgerald titles, designer Coralie Bickford-Smith achieves both. On her website, she writes of the series: “I designed the patterns in an attempt to give these books something of the elegance and glamour of the art deco period.” Her designs, combining geometric patterns with metallic foil, bring to mind the jazz age that Fitzgerald’s work is almost synonymous with, while also honoring his work as a major American fiction writer.
Penguin Books’ Great Ideas series celebrates some of the world’s most renowned nonfiction writers, with reprints of texts by Sigmond Freud, Marcel Proust, Albert Camus and more. David Pearson’s design for the series reflects this reputable ensemble using a limited color palette, an emphasis on type, embossed printing, and geometric patterns.
04. Silhouettes put characters at the forefront
Books leave much open to the reader’s imagination. In line with that notion, book covers tread the line of depicting an enticing visual, without forming too particular of an image in the reader’s mind. One way of going about this is by using a silhouette. The contours of a character can elicit many associations, from a missing element that feels vacant, to classic Victorian portraiture. No matter the style, a silhouette draws our focus to the book’s main character while leaving plenty of room for personal interpretation.
In Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov, the cover is part of a series of silhouetted figures by Melville House. The series prominently places the main character of each book in perfect profile on the cover. In this case it’s a beautiful canine silhouette, as the book is told from the perspective of a dog. The series’ cream-colored portraits act as a metaphorical window to the character’s internal thoughts and motives, inviting us to explore further within the pages of the book.
For A Book of American Martyrs, designer Anna Morrison chose to showcase a few different profiles in silhouette. Joyce Carol Oates’ novel follows two families on the opposing ends of the abortion debate. The cover portrays the topic with much sensitivity, with faces on either side of the page to represent the rivaling families. One can almost expect the negative space between the faces to form a vase, but the asymmetrical composition makes it clear that this is a story of dispute and not one of perfect harmony.
05. Abstract forms call for intriguing interpretations
Abstract cover designs have a way of communicating a message while leaving it loose enough to be open-ended. With nothing but shapes, interesting color palettes and clever compositions, these book covers can conjure a mood or hint at a certain idea without crossing over into the explicit. Harnessing the subtleties of image making, abstract covers are attuned to nuances such as a slightly more rounded corner or a somewhat sharper edge, which can greatly impact the derived meaning.
Designer and artist James Victore’s work for Do Books publishers utilizes the power of abstraction. On his website, James describes his thinking behind the series: “Each book carries one simple idea, like baking, birth, sea salt or telling a story. My personal challenge was to illuminate these simple ideas with a cliche, but always stretched to its limit— even to the edge of legibility.” James’ cover for the design book Why Beauty is Key to Everything shows a paper cut-out of an abstract shape, which could represent just about anything from an ornamental statue to the cuts of a key, set against a pristine background. The resulting image touches at the concept of beauty in a way that is far from literal, calling on each reader’s personal associations.
06. Photography brings in real world imagery
Photography is an extremely broad discipline, encompassing things as far apart as stylized photoshoots and photojournalistic snapshots. As a result, there are many different ways in which photographs can be used on book covers. A memoir can flaunt a portrait of its writer, for example, while a literary novel might opt for a more expressive photo.
Designer Janet Hansen’s cover for All We Saw matches a striking black-and-white image to Anne Michaels’ poetry. The photo (taken by Jouke Bos) shows a star filled sky superimposed upon a human hand. By visually merging the personal and the infinite, the cover nods to the universal-yet-intimate themes of the poems inside. The modest typography below only enhances the photograph and allows it to take center stage.
For Trista Harris’ Future Good, designer Zoe Norvell integrates typography into a landscape photo, so that the type seems to almost rise from behind the mountains. The effect, combined with the color gradient that fades from purple to blue, brings about a sense of hope for a better tomorrow, which is precisely the topic of this economics book.
07. Iconography distills ideas down to their essence
If covers are meant to capture the intricacies of a book’s content in one communicative visual, then covers that use iconography uphold that role as their official mission statement. Their simple - albeit deceivingly simple - graphic language doesn’t make for the type of cover that you’d pick up for close inspection. Instead, it’s the kind that would immediately grab your attention, and then leave you lost in thought as you ponder over the ideas it brings up.
World-famous author Haruki Murakami’s oeuvre received a visual reinterpretation in a series of iconic book covers, designed by Suzanne Dean and illustrated by Noma Bar. The series’ covers all share a minimal palette of red, black, and white. A circle at their center offers a different visual metaphor for each one. In Norwegiean Wood, the circle displays a snowy forest of tree trunks that cast their long shadows, perfectly matching the title. A double take, however, reveals that those same tree trunks are also the legs of the three main characters of the book.
Against Everything, a book of essays by Mark Greif, analyzes many aspects of contemporary culture, from exercise to pop music. The cover boasts a semi three-dimensional rectangle, with each of its faces in a different color. The shape is simple, yet thought-provoking, in the spirit of the book. The type is partly obscured and seems to be locked in place as if the rectangle were a cage, hinting at the sociological constraints that Mark’s writing elaborates on so eloquently. By creating a rectangle that’s mathematically infeasible, like an Escher painting, designer Kelly Blair manages to leave room for hope, suggesting that we could possibly break free of our own mental prison.
08. A lone source of light creates a dramatic effect
A play on light and shadow can add a sense of drama to book covers. A single luminous beam can focus readers’ eyes on a particular element that’s of relevance to the plot or its main characters. With the contrast of a brightly shining spot set against a pitch dark environment, themes of mystery, solitude, or adventure emerge, like a step into the unknown.
Girl in the Moonlight is a love story by Charles Dubow. The book cover, designed by Wix user Mumtaz Mustafa, is a sideways painting of a full moon glowing over the ocean. It’s a moody design with a strong sense of ambience, while also alluding to the heroine’s incandescent beauty.
In A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter, designer David Mann paints a picture of a fox treading over a gloriously full moon. Closing in on the fox and the moon are golden branches, either locking them in or alternatively, offering a protective shield. In its portrayal of the natural world, this book recounts the many perils of the wilderness, with its eat-or-be-eaten existence. These notions are in turn is reflected in the foreboding and uncertain atmosphere of the cover.
For Philip Roth’s The Humbling, esteemed graphic designer Milton Glaser points a spotlight at no one in particular but at an empty dark stage, which then continues further even after the stage has ended and the typography takes it place. In line with the book’s story of a famed actor’s sudden downfall, the ray of light seems to drop down the book cover as if experiencing a drastic decline of its own.
09. Edge to edge illustrations tell a story
An illustration that fills up the cover and spans across the whole page (known as full bleed) can lure readers into the plot with an eye-catching visual, before they’ve even read a single line of the book. These covers present colorful and detailed illustrations that generally portray one of the book’s characters, or the environment in which it takes place.
In The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, New York based illustrator and Wix user Brian Cronin paints a person crouched down on a tree top. We can see the person’s full body, but his or her head is cut off at the top of the page. That, together with the feet that aren’t entirely laid out on the branches and seem prepared to dart off at any given moment, adds a sense of discomfort and alertness to the composition. This feeling is fitting with the book’s subject matter, which narrates a post-apocalyptic world.
10. Minimal color palettes leave a powerful impression
A book cover can be just as interesting with very little use of color. In some instances, a limited palette only reinforces the cover’s design and messaging, especially in today’s highly saturated literary market. Limiting the number of colors can strengthen the remaining elements on your page, allowing them to express a certain concept all the more vividly.
The Crying Book by Heather Christle recounts the history of crying, from sorrowful sobs to tears of joy. Nicole Caputo’s design for the cover uses a pale off-white background in order to declutter the page, setting the stage for a rich image which demands our full attention. She creates a set of eyes that shed a universe of tears, extending all the way from the book’s title down to the author’s name.
Joan Wong’s cover design for Night Soil by Dale Peck is about as colorless as it gets. Its subtleties draw you in instead, with a very lightly shaded coal mining tunnel that seems to stretch on endlessly, entering into the pages of the book itself. The typography is hand lettered around the image, almost completing a full circle around it.
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