Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Book Covers and What Makes Them "Lousy"

There's a tumblr page that's getting some attention lately dedicated to "Lousy Book Covers." As we all know, the digital age has made it much easier for authors to publish their own books. Naturally, all of those books need a cover, and sometimes the result is a bit...underwhelming. So Nathan Shumate has dedicated a tumblr page to a sampling of them.

Now, I'm conflicted over sharing this link because we all know how hard it is to commit yourself to an artistic endeavor (like writing a book) and it always seems wrong to laugh at people who are attempting to express themselves artistically. I have a lot of admiration for anyone who is able to complete a book and publish it. To put yourself out there and open yourself up to all that criticism takes a lot of guts. And, I would assume that, being authors first and foremost, many of them have more of an interest in writing a book (and more training in that area) than in designing a cover for the finished product.

That said, it's interesting to look at the collection of covers and look for trends that lead to problematic design. And as you peruse the choices these designers have made, you begin to wonder what exactly the rules are for creating a successful cover.

I'm not sure that there are any absolute rules for designing a good cover...but for the cover of a novel to be successful (and this applies to comic book covers as well, and also for movie posters), I think it's safe to say that the most important rule is this: does it make you want to pick up the book and start reading it (or make you want to go see the movie)?

Looking at all of these "lousy" covers in one place is a good opportunity to see trends among them and formulate some theories as to what is making them less than successful, and those rules can be helpful because they apply to other areas of drawing and design as well.

What makes a cover work or not work?

So what is the measure that makes a cover successful in the first place? Well, any good cover - be it for a book, magazine, comic book, album, DVD, etc. - should, obviously, grab the viewer's attention immediately. Books are designed to be sold on shelves in bookstores (even thought that's not exactly the case anymore) and the whole point of a cover is to stand out from all the other covers that are surrounding it as the book sits on a shelf in a bookstore. So the whole concept of the cover should be attention-grabbing and interesting. Also, it should be incredibly clear, so that the viewer can tell at a glance what idea the cover is trying to communicate. Even a moment's confusion over the cover will cause the customer to give up trying to decipher it, walk away and forget all about the book. There's always another cover just inches away competing for attention and drawing them away, and they don't want to have to "work with" a cover to figure out what it's trying to communicate.

So simplicity, I think, is key. Whatever the idea behind the cover is, it should "read" in a fraction of a second. Usually, that's how long a consumer takes to decide if they're interested or not.

Less is more

Unfortunately, inexperienced designers often think that, to be a good design, a piece of art has to have A LOT of stuff jammed into the composition. Maybe this is an effort to make it seem like the book is stuffed full of a lot of story. But simplicity and focus are hallmarks of good illustration. Less is always more. And to be restrained and control your impulses to include EVERYTHING takes discipline and control.

Any good piece of art has one center of interest. Some pieces of art might have two, or even three, but only in rare cases. To get one idea across is hard enough, and once you have multiple ideas competing for emphasis, the result is usually chaos. Art depends on hierarchy to have meaning. The artist needs to tell the viewer what the most (and least) important aspects of a piece are so the viewer can make sense of the artwork and understand what the artist is trying to tell them.

How does an artist do that? A few examples...

Obviously, things like light and dark are usually great tools to give emphasis to the center of interest and sublimate unimportant areas of a composition.

The eye will always be drawn to the area with the most contrast within the composition, so always use the most contrast where you want the viewer to focus.

How you compose and arrange the objects within your composition is another important tool for telling the viewer which things are important and which are lesser in importance.

In line art, the thickness of ink lines can even be used to tell you what's important and what isn't as important.
Those are a few examples, anyway, just for an explanation of what I meant. Back to the book covers!

As I was saying, I think some designers think that a composition is good if it's full of a lot of things to look at. The problem is, of course, that that approach is a recipe for a jumbled mess. Photoshop, unfortunately, can make it too easy to put a bunch of disparate elements together.

The problem with jumbling a bunch of unrelated objects together is that humans are very sophisticated when it comes to viewing our world....we do it all day, every day and we know when something's not right. So when we see a bunch of objects that were photographed at different locations and under different lighting conditions thrown together, we sense (even if we aren't really aware of it) that something is off. And that sense of unease and general wrong-ness can be enough to make you think a book isn't going to be worth picking up.

In the last two covers above, the artist compounded the problem by using a background where the ground plane was visible. So we can clearly see that, in the first example, the three beefcake models and the naked woman don't quite appear to be convincingly standing (and lying, brrrr...) on the surface of the ice rink. In the example above, the two medieval guys don't appear to be on the same plane with each other or the background behind them. The artist is each case would have improved their chances of success if they'd used just one figure and if they'd chosen a background where the ground wasn't visible. That makes it a lot harder to judge if the perspective was fudged or not. For an example, scroll down to the bottom of this post where I've posted some other covers from bestselling books that I found on

Color and Palette Choice

Another telling sign of an inexperienced designer is the use of a ton of colors in one composition. Again, Photoshop makes it too easy to use as many colors as you want, and a wide range of unrelated colors is one of the quickest ways to create a totally confusing mess. Even painters with decades of experience will avoid this trap by limiting their color palette to just a few complimentary colors, or stick with a monochromatic palette.

Again, scroll down to the covers posted at the bottom to see some book covers with very controlled, simple palettes.

Tone and Subject Matter

The cover of a book is a bit like a trailer for a movie. It has to carry a lot of weight in accurately describing the contents and tone of the book so that a potential reader can tell, at a glance, what the subject matter of the book is and what the overall tone of the book is (meaning is it funny, serious, etc).

Font choice can have a lot to do with this. Every font has a unique personality and evokes a specific feeling and tone. And font, obviously, takes up much of the valuable real estate of the front cover. So font choice should do a lot to communicate the content of the pages inside the book.

Some fonts are hard to read, and sometimes the artist doesn't help matters by not creating enough contrast between the font and the artwork behind it.

And in some cases the artist just picked a generic font, completely squandering the opportunity to create a mood or feeling that describes the book within.

 Mass Market Covers

For contrast, a quick search of fiction bestsellers on Amazon shows that most book covers tend to be very simply designed, and therefore very direct and arresting. There's a lot of contrast and a lot of bold choices.

Fantasy and Science Fiction books seem to be a little more complicated. In contrast to other genres, Sci Fi and Fantasy books seem more likely to feature a particular character on the cover. But even so, the covers of these books keep the presentation as simple and direct as possible: always just one character to focus on, with a minimum of distracting background detail. A strong bold pose that's eye catching and feels dynamic. And typically they limit themselves to a simple color scheme or are entirely monochromatic.

In any case, I hope all this makes sense and I hope you enjoy the Lousy Book Cover tumblr. And just to repeat: my intention is not to mock the work of others or feel superior by laughing at what they've done, only to learn from their mistakes.

In future posts, I'm planning on looking at movie posters and comic book covers as well, and trying to wrap my head around what seems to work (and what doesn't seem to work) in those mediums as well.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Philip Roth on Writing

The eminent novelist Philip Roth announced that, after spending a lifetime writing, he has decided to retire. In an interview with the New York Times, he gave some interesting reasons for why he's decided to give up writing every day. Among his statements were the following excerpts:

"It's enough. I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life. The idea of struggling once more with writing is unbearable to me."

"Writing is frustration — it's daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It's just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time ... I can't face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can't do that anymore."

I've never worked with Brad Bird, but I've heard from people who have that he's been known to say that "Story is pain".

Writing anything - or constructing any kind of story - is, inevitably, more re-writing than actual writing (and the same thing goes for storyboarding, of course). For every step forward there's always two, three, four or fifty steps backwards. Every element of a story is always in flux as you're writing: the characters constantly change to fit the story better, or as you get to understand them better, and the same goes for the settings, the events, the dialogue, and every other aspect as well.

I hope this doesn't seem like a discouraging way to start's not meant to be.  Hopefully it's the opposite - I find it encouraging to hear that everyone goes through the same thing - even a celebrated novelist! There's no easy way through writing a story, and no shortcuts or tricks. Just a lot of doing....and re-doing and re-doing and re-doing. It's not easy. But hearing that everyone - no matter how accomplished - suffers with the same problems and struggles the same way makes me feel better. It makes me feel like I'm not doing it wrong...that's just the only way to write and create a story out of nothingness. And the same is true of storyboarding anything. To be a good storyboard artist, I think you need to be born with that innate burning desire to make things as good as they can possibly be, and a sense that things could always be improved. More than any other talent or skill - the ability to draw, or a knowledge of film making - to be a good story artist, I think one needs lots of stamina and resolve.