Two Keys to Outstanding Cover Design

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people in possession of a good manuscript must be in want of an outstanding cover. A great cover can make an amazing difference. So can a bad one.

A few years ago I heard Ken Peterson of Tyndale House Publishers offer two simple keys to success—coding and positioning.

Every genre of book has a code—a visual set of criteria that readers instinctively expect to find represented on the cover.

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We expect brightly colored illustrations for children’s books. We expect large-block type (probably embossed) on the covers of political thrillers.


We expect restrained sophistication on academic books. And we all know what the cover code is for a biography—a prominent head-and-shoulders photograph or painting of the person who is its subject.

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If you stray too far from the cover code for any given book, you risk losing your core audience. Those looking for a mystery will skip right past it if it looks too much like a historical novel. Those who want a software instruction manual will be less likely to pay attention if it comes across as a cookbook instead.

But if a cover looks like every other book of its type, won’t it get lost? That’s where positioning comes in. The book also has to clearly offer something different, something that sets it apart from all the other books in its category.

The trick is to make a cover different but within the confines of the code. That’s what great design does. It’s like writing. Great authors know when to break the rules to make their piece even more powerful, to make it stand out. But they don’t break the rules so much that the book falls completely out of its category.

What’s that happy balance look like? Here’s one nominee I’d make. Justification by N. T. Wright presented a challenge for our designer Cindy Kiple in that the book fell readily into the academic category. Thus it should have a restrained feel and not look too loud or flashy. Otherwise the academic audience would assume the content was popular and unsophisticated.

At the same time, we expected there would be broader audience for the book than just seminary professors as Wright is read widely. So how could we reach out to more


general readers with a design that didn’t confuse or put off the standard audience? How could we stay within the code while signaling the book’s interest to others?

Solution: Keep the type treatment and overall design restrained but use the image in a strong iconic fashion. That solidly signaled the academic code. But at the same time the design departed from the typical piece of classical art or the solid background color that often adorns many academic covers. The white background sets off the image dramatically.

Achieving both strong positioning and strong coding in a cover should be for any publisher a matter of pride without prejudice.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “Two Keys to Outstanding Cover Design”

  1. Excellent post.

    I might suggest that some of these “codes” are perpetuated unnecessarily. Originally it was more cost-effective to have stamped cloth bindings, rather than 4-color artwork; now the reverse is true. Of the 100+ book covers I’ve designed for the academic market, only one editor has complained that the design was “too flashy,” and one lone author kindly (and humorously) lamented that more people complimented him on the cover of his book than its contents. I hear a lot more from authors who are frustrated that their publishers won’t put more effort into cover design.

    Please convey my compliments to Ms. Kiple; it’s a very good cover.

  2. Hey, Andy. I’m sure you are right about getting stuck in a rut vs. appropriate adherence to a code. And I think you are right too that academic covers are evolving and becoming more interesting. Sometimes I look at academic covers and wonder what in the world the publisher is/was thinking by putting something so bland (or even ugly) on the cover. There’s always a way to be artistic, attractive and perhaps even beautiful in a way that is appropriate to the academy and the intended audience for the book.


  3. I just wanted to say that I found your post to be very interesting. I think that IVP’s covers are quite possibly the best among evangelical publishers and always find myself excited to see what the covers are going to be from month to month. Even if a book is not one that is practical for me to read, I still enjoy looking at the covers that Ms. Kiple designs. I appreciate the talent and effort that goes into them, even though I lack such artistic abilities myself. Thanks to you and Ms. Kiple for all the hard work you do!

  4. Thanks for the good word, Tim. We appreciate the encouragement and affirmation.


  5. When I received Wright’s book, I instantly thought of the cover of J Kameron Carter’s book, “Race: A Theological Account.”

  6. I love the IVP covers… although so far it seems my favourite books have covers I wasn’t drawn to at first, and the books I was most disappointed in had the prettiest covers. (My favourite book is “Men & Women in the Church” by Dr. Sarah Sumner, the cover is a bit dated now)

    A book I’m really glad I picked up and finally read was “More Than Serving Tea,” which was so beautiful… I initially thought it didn’t apply to me (being white while the target audience is asian). But boy was I wrong. That book taught me so much about myself, oddly enough, through learning about a different culture. And there’s just a lot of practical wisdom in that book for women in ministry in general.

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