Join John McWade for an in-depth discussion in this video The boring book cover challenge: Part 1, part of Graphic Design Tips & Tricks Weekly.
- Hi, everyone, John McWade. A while back, I put on a challenge to design a boring book cover. This was for a book that you'd keep by your bed to read and fall asleep and you swamped me with covers. You can see a lot of 'em on the Graphic Design Tips and Tricks group here on LinkedIn and I'd like to look at some. I did one too so we'll start with that. Your assignment was to design a cover and this was the challenge that does not arouse the reader in any way. You want the reader to not engage with it.
Just blah. The rule was your book needed a title, subtitle optional, a photo or illustration and an author's name, all of which you'd make up. A number of you tried and said how difficult you found it to design something totally bland and it is counterintuitive because we think of bland as easy, as something undesigned like anyone can do a bland thing but that isn't actually the case. All those unattractive designs out there are in fact engaging you in some way.
It can be negative, it's why you react. So the assignment was to get rid of all the reactors so the viewer has basically no response. For example, some of your covers were funny. We liked them but that of course disqualified them. So let's look at a few. Mine I titled Ellen Makes More Dough. A lump of dough. Not big, not small. Colorless, no light, no shadow, no real shape, no composition, no rule of thirds here.
No foreground, background. It's doing nothing. Nothing's being done to it. Nothing off camera to be piquing your curiosity. It's just a lump of dough. Ellen is a common name, plain, soft, no sharp K or X sounds. Plain typeface, it's DIN, D-I-N Regular. Not too light, not bold, plain topic. Nothing interesting in the statement.
Is she having a party, making cookies, cake, pizza? No clue, it just lays there. Subtitle, Rolling, Rolling, Rolling to me, suggests a mild degree of tedium although it's neither difficult nor challenging which would be active. Mary White, simple, common name. Small, centered which of course is inactive. The whole cover is a nondescript beige. Nothing bright. No contrasts.
So this is a design that to my eye and my thinking doesn't engage you. It doesn't take you anywhere. It doesn't invite you in. I can go to sleep looking at this but and here's the thing, even with all this blandness, not everyone found it sleep-inducing. One reader said that Rolling, Rolling, Rolling brought to her mind the Rawhide theme from the old TV show with Clint Eastwood. Another said she felt the urge to poke the dough with her finger but hey, hard to compensate for the occasional fetish.
Let's look at two that you sent in. Midnight Pillow Bedside Tales. Comfy linen, soft colors. This cover designed by Misha seems to have all the right ingredients but there's some culprits in here that mess it up. One is the word Tales which suggest intrigue and mystery and suspense especially because it involves a bed at midnight. Another is the pillow's rakish angle which is extremely active and suggestive too in a Hitchcock kind of way and Mr. Graye.
The name sounds gray but there's that rogue e which to me at least suggests if not an exotic lineage, at least a British one a la Sherlock Holmes. The cover does have good things going for it, mainly the palette which is all soft edges and quiet colors so it's pleasant without being arousing. An A for that. The bleed image though activates the edge. This is a design technique. A bleed conveys a very strong sense that there's something more, that things are happening off-screen almost always and your mind subliminally processes that yet wants to know the more so there's a pull.
Almost all lines create motion. This is also a design technique. If you want to move your viewers' eye, make a line and you don't need to draw one. The pillow makes its own line. It does though bring up a useful technique and that's the angles are super active. If you want to generate function or excitement, make an angle. It's unsteady, it's tippy, it's destabilizing. The triangles, the form and the empty spaces create converging lines which are fast, they move your eye from wide to narrow and the more angles, the more excitement.
So that's our first cover. Attractive but only one yawn for this one. Cover number two by Adam. I love this. Four yawns. Dull topic, I mean, how many color guides do we already own? And 10,000 Shades of Brown, I get tired just thinking about that and the plain page is just empty. Nothing to engage you. Let's zoom in. We have beige swatches on a beige field all desaturated colors, nothing bright.
Virtually no edge here. A soft edge here and almost invisible here. Here's the design lesson. The softer your edges, the quieter your presentation. High contrast edges, black and white being the highest, have a lot of energy. They're exciting. To calm down a design, soften the edges. The lines of the border, I love these. Bland and blander. Medium and slightly less medium.
Just different enough to not be the same which would have the strength of repetition but not different enough to have the energy of high contrast. So just blah. And the swatch layout is off just enough. Look at this spacing. To not make a precision grid which would be engaging. So no intruding on our nap. One last thing. The timid byline at the bottom. My only worry is the placement.
This close to the edge starts generating tension although very little because the name is so small. Also, the title box at the top is close enough to the edge that it's starting to get active. So not quite five yawns for this cover but it's a good one. And that's your design for today. Next time, we'll look at two more. If you'd like to submit a cover and haven't, please do. Post it at the Graphic Design Tips and Tricks group here on LinkedIn. I'll be able to look at only a small fraction of the covers so be sure to interact with your fellow designers.
I know they'll appreciate the feedback. See ya next time.
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