Book Jacket Design: Staring Down the Blank Screen

First of all let me say that I endorse staring. It’s part of the process for many designers. Don’t let it worry you. Don’t feel you have to nudge us or rescue us. We’re just having a good visual think. It’s the lapse of time that can make others uncomfortable, but I prefer this staring method to what I have seen some designers do which is to receive a manuscript with a character and plot description or a list of comp titles and immediately jump onto the computer and download stock photos. This is a worrisome thing to me. I am happier if a good idea or two precedes the initiation of work rather than a found photograph leading the way.

Still, there is that blank screen that needs to be replaced by a brilliant cover design, and no one wants to find out if deadlines mean that if you miss your date you die. So where do the ideas come from?

To begin with, some designer skills can be learned and others are innate. I would liken having a designer’s eye to having a good sense of direction. I choose this analogy because I have a very poor sense of direction and no amount of effort improves that. Likewise, some people see pictures in their heads and some don’t. So the answer is some ideas come from eccentric minds, others from practiced hands. A better question might be How do you court the muse?

 Think Theme vs. Plot

If the manuscript offers up colorful characters or interesting action a literal portrait or a scene may work. Conversely a more abstract image that conveys the underlying themes may be more enticing.

 Many Ways to Skin a Cat

Consider the various possibilities of doing a predominantly graphic, photographic, typographic, illustrative, or decorative cover. Don’t close any doors.

 Go Off On a Tangent

Say one of the major themes of your text is power struggle, Search quotes relating to power, alternate words for power, songs about power. It won’t be time wasted if you can shake an idea loose.

 All Thumbs

Every idea, big or small, valid or stupid, render as a thumbnail. When you get tired of staring at open space or your blank screen you can stare at your thumbnails.

 Close Your Eyes and Then Open Them

The order here is important. Before you consider anyone else’s ideas, consider your own. In other words don’t look at what every other romance novel looks like before you get started or you are likely to just mimic something. However there should be a moment when you do put your idea up against the competition in the bookstore so that you can know how it holds up. And if you really are stuck, remember that you are not reinventing the wheel and have a look around for inspiration.

Finally, know that if you have designed hundreds or thousands of covers, this one blank screen is not going to be your undoing. Remain confident.

If this is your first attempt at book jacket design, get cracking. You have hundreds and thousands to go.

— By Anne D.

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