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From Rick:

Last time, I showed you the first cover I designed for Scott’s Martyr’s Inferno and told the story of how it came about. This time I promised to critique its flaws. Here’s the cover again for reference.

Where do we start? I think the overall concept of the briefcase works, and the photo itself, although it may not look all that phenomenal, is a good-quality image, needing some help to bring out its best (but then many original photos end up getting reworked in Photoshop for graphic design purposes). Here’s the original photo. For the cover I did darken it to make it look more somber.

In the book cover, the first things that stands out, for me at least, are the banners for the title and author names. They look amateurish. In my defense, I knew they did, but I took this easy way out because I couldn’t make the title look right across the top of the photo with the light and dark areas. I chose that font (old Courier) to give a “police report from a typewriter” feel. Later I realized my bad decision.

I see a number of cover using a banner or box to display the title. This is almost always a bad design choice. It just looks cheap and uninspired, as if the person doing it had no clue how else to do it and thought this look fine. You’ll occasionally find a professional cover using the technique, but there’s usually a very good reason for it (and they know how to do it right). You’ll find The Book Designer commenting frequently on this bad technique. My only excuse is that my Photoshop/GIMP skills were not up to par back then so I couldn’t figure out a better way.

My attempt to create a spotlight effect also looks bad. As you can see, if was part of the original photo, and last time I showed you a picture of how I set it up. We were going for that “police interrogation” look. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the right lighting equipment, but in any case, the effect looks better done in GIMP or Photoshop.

The colors on the flags are a bit washed out, in part because I didn’t have a great camera, but even a good camera often needs help either with special lighting or in post-processing (as in Photoshop). The color on the money is off and those white paper bands stand out too much. I suspect that even real money would not look right with help after the photo shoot. The guns and bullets added in are not great either, and the police tape isn’t really doing much. The dark blue background is blah as well, although one might suggest it’s reminiscent of a police uniform color (but that was not the intent).

Given all these flaws, I still think the briefcase photo is a workable idea. So I decided to keep the original concept and see what I could do to make it better this time.

For step one (the left-hand photo below), I removed the spotlight and blue upper background and replaced it with a black background for the time being. I also added the title in a temporary font, the same font as on the second book in this series. I enhanced the washed-out blue in the American flag and brightened the red in both flags.

In step two (right-hand photo below), I brightened the white on the American flag and desaturated (turned into black and white) the money, briefcase, and blue cloth in front. Now we have a cleaner starting image. You might wonder why I made the money black and white after I’d gone to the trouble of crafting a realistic-looking bill in the first place. For the time being I did it as a design choice to show off the flag colors more.

In the next set of covers, I played with some ideas to see how they would look. Would a professional designer be able to zoom in on the best design without experimentation? If he or she already had a full design in mind, perhaps yes. But there is nothing wrong with experimenting because it may give you some other ideas to try. As you can see in the covers below, I tried several ideas, and used a different font that feels more “police-like” (coincidentally it’s called “gunplay”).

I showed these ideas to Scott. We decided that the wooden surface for the briefcase didn’t work and that the flames up top looked good. The policeman pulled focus away from the money, which is the focus. In the second image, the briefcase, seems to be floating in flames, and that just looked odd to us. However, with some modification, it might be able to work.

In the last image, notice that I flipped the police officer to face right instead of left. In one of his cover critiques, The Book Designer mentioned that if you have a character looking to the side, it’s better for the character to look toward where the print book opens, not toward the spine. Of course, for an e-book it doesn’t really matter, but if you have any thoughts of doing a print book, then you’ll want to pay attention to this little design suggestion.

Now, this cover is by no means done. Scott suggested putting the guns and bullets back in front of the case. I’m not convinced that’s the best idea, but I’ll play with it. I’ve also tried putting a “Photoshopped” spotlight above the briefcase to shine on the money. That does look kind of cool. I’d like some police element in this, since the main character is a police officer, so a gun or guns may come back. Notice that I tried a different font for Scott’s name.

Some suggest using two different fonts on the cover from different font families, but usually not more than two fonts. I’ve seen some good covers with just one font in different sizes and with special treatments. But it’s best not to go overboard with the fonts so that they become unreadable (a frequent design flaw by amateurs).

One design concept to pay attention to here is that if we eliminate the police officer and just use the fire, then there is rather a lot of open space above the briefcase. Generally you don’t want too much open space on your cover (because it looks unprofessional), but avoid filling it with images that ruin the focus or clutter the cover. Balance is the key.

Note in the leftmost image (the one on the wooden surface) that the briefcase is higher up on the cover. We might be tempted to enlarge the title to fill the space, but be careful of proportion. Making it too large destroys the balance and focus. Clearly, we still have some work to do. Of course, we could try a completely different approach…

In the end, we want a good-looking cover that will attract reader interest. While we always shoot for a stunning cover, we don’t always achieve that. In truth, very few book covers are stunning. Keep in mind that a cover is less about the artwork and more about attracting readers to the book to learn more. I think a briefcase full of money and draped with an American and Russian flag poses at least one question, and that alone should make a potential reader of this type of novel pick up the book to learn more. We’ll see where we go next.

I’m sure if any designers out there are reading these posts that some may cringe. But keep in mind that there are no absolutes, no one perfect design. Several designers all given the same book will likely come up with vastly different design concepts, and all of them may well be good.

Stay tuned.

–Rick