How to Design a Book Cover in 3 (Or More) Easy Steps – by Merrill Miller

Merrill Miller is senior graphic designer at MennoMedia/Herald Press

Actually, any kind of design solution is rarely reached in three steps—the ease of which depends on your point of view. If your normal workday consists of breaking rocks with a pick-axe—or trying to teach apathetic, defiant, hyper, high, and hungry kids the Pythagorean Theorem—then, yes, these steps might be viewed as easy. And, like students who fail geometry and have to repeat the class, sometimes (read “usually”) one or more of the steps below will need to be repeated.

But for the sake of this article I will reduce the procedure to three steps: Problem, Process, and Present.

PROBLEM: In which the book is presented to the designers and brainstorming ensues

The initial cover stages begin early in the life of a book so that the marketers can begin promoting it. Once the author contract is signed, even before the manuscript may be in its final form, sometimes even before a title or subtitle is finalized, we meet to brainstorm ideas. This group includes editorial, design, and marketing.

The editorial staff presents the PI sheet (which doesn’t stand for Private Investigator. It stands for Product Information. Kind of a let-down, eh?). This document lists pertinent information about the book, an author bio, a brief description, and marketing information.

It also includes book covers of competitive and comparative works that have been already published.This is somewhat of a conundrum to peruse: do we try to fit into this sample of published work or do we try to stand out from it? I suppose the short answer is that we want fit in while standing out. Easy.

For this blog post (2 parts) we will follow the process of one of our new books, Chasing the Amish Dream. This book is the first in our Plainspoken series written by Amish or Old Order Mennonite authors. The author of Chasing, Loren Beachy, is a school teacher and an auctioneer. His book is a collection of humorous columns he writes for the Goshen (Ind.) News called “The Plain Side.”

As the “problem” is presented we begin brainstorming ideas. At this point, the name of the book was Amish for Life, not Chasing the Amish Dream. We come up with words, ideas, associations, and images that represent the book and the author. Words such as: Amish, teacher, auctioneer, humor, and images of buggies and horses, etc. are thrown into the hopper. Sometimes the ideas get narrowed down and sometimes the designer is left with a mish-mash with no real direction.

PROCESS: In which the designer endeavors to narrow the focus to one idea

During this step the process may be repeated multiple times and may, or may not, go something like the diagram here:3EasySteps72dpi

The designer will take the words, ideas, and images offered during the initial meeting and work (read “play”) with them: joining opposites, looking for synonyms, doodling, writing more words, sketching, taking long walks or naps (while mulling, of course). As a last resort the designer may read some of the manuscript to glean inspiration.

No, actually, reading parts, if not all, of the manuscript is one of the first things the designer will do. Fortunately, we had several of the columns that were published in the Goshen News which I was able to read. In the case of the book formerly known as Amish for Life, these offered a wealth of imagery. There were stories about church, stories from the classroom, stories of softball games, biking, auctions and traveling to auctions. There were stories of train trips across country, stories of pranks, stories of people doing unwise things—like run beside their buggy in order to wake up.

Oh, how to narrow it down?

To be continued next time, on September 10, 2014.


What are some standout covers (general) that you have seen you really like? What do you like about them? 

(And no fair peeking in our store to see how the final book cover came out for Chasing the Amish Dream. Of course if you want to spoil the drama … peek away.)

—Merrill Miller, senior graphic designer

Merrill Miller 2