Book Cover Design – Create A Powerful Story With One Image

Today, concept illustrator and designer Ken Henderson is here on the blog to talk about his process for illustrating a world with one image and the importance of getting your book cover right as an indie author.

Book cover design is all about one thing – compelling readers to engage with a story with one image.

The cover has to capture the story or a compelling moment in that story. It has to embolden the reader to not only pick up the novel, but open it up and start to share in the experience. It is, in many ways, the first advertising a reader may see for the novel so it has to grab their attention. The visuals are what will catch the eye in a sea of other novels on a book shelf or display.

Woman on the Wall is a sweeping historical fantasy novel with dual timelines spanning 500 years, and opening the door to the fascinating herstory of the Siybilline. So, when I was asked to create the cover artwork for the novel and all that it implies you can imagine that it was a little bit daunting.

Full disclosure, I am married to the writer.

Robin and I have worked on projects together for years, so our collaborations come very naturally. However, this novel had some very particular considerations. Here’s a look into the hows and whys behind the creation of the cover for it.

Visuals: “How Did I Decide On The Imagery?

As a veteran production artist in animation, TV, film and games, my art has always been created to serve the story. The reason for why an object, character or setting exists is always story driven. When working on this book cover design, I had to consider how to capture the broader story and how to instantly pique reader interest.

The obvious choice was to use the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. It was not just because the painting plays a key role in the story, but because of its iconic nature. The question became how can I use that famous image in a way that evokes the broader story. I wanted readers to see it as the Mona Lisa and something even more.

The answer came in how I decided to crop the image. By doing so in a way that cuts off the top half of her face, we play off the age old question of ‘who is the Mona Lisa?’ This feeds into the novels main story line. The identity of the next Sibyl, a woman so powerful that she can control the fate of humanity, is hidden in this painting. By not revealing the full face, it opens the reader up to wondering who she is. As well, it opens the door to the mystery. It invites them to look inside and discover the answers for themselves.

The image also exists in both time frames represented in the novel. So, the crop lets the reader understand that we are interpreting those timeframes differently. The novel is not simply telling the same story twice.

Book Cover Design: Fonts and Colors

With the imagery chosen, I had to figure out how to adjust it to fit the story I needed to tell. Some of that was in the cropping, as I mentioned. However, I also tweaked the colors a bit to emphasize the fantasy element of the novel.

Historical fiction has its own book cover rules. But, historical fantasy needs more than a relatable historical moment or figure for readers to understand the magical elements. For the title, I wanted to evoke a sense of time. I then wanted to blend timelines to capture an old world vibe. As always, I do a lot of work searching for fonts.

When I found ‘The King and Queen,’ I knew it was perfect for “Woman.” Its uppercase font has an illuminated manuscript feel. I loved the handwritten/feather inked feel of the lowercase font. It made a statement. It caught the eye and it reflected the historical time line in the novel.

For the other font in the cover, I chose the very standard and grounding ’Times New Roman.” This was in part to play into the more modern timeline. It also helped let ‘Woman’ on the cover really shine. I borrowed the color from the Mona Lisa’s skin tone. Then, I added a canvas texture to it to, again, reflect that historic timeline.

The design which appears behind the title is based on the Orders of the Siybilline. Each symbol represents a different order/rank within the sect of ancient women. I wanted to show that. By using the ‘antique’ green/blue flame, I played on the magic and power of the Siybilline. To really enforce that, I darkened the image of the Mona Lisa even more. The color relationships were also every important. The complimentary color structure of blue/green and orange/brown supports the logo, magic and historical imagery equally. 

Designer Questions: “What should authors ask a book cover designer when looking for one?”

The reality is that the author may be looking to bring on both an illustrator and a designer, as those are two different skill sets (or at least they can be). The author has to have a starting point idea of what they want to see, what their hopes are for the book and, if possible, even have a ‘brief’ of what they want for the cover created. 
That brief should include:

Synopsis & Title of the novel. Be sure to include the tone, genre, and target audience.

Key characters the author may want to highlight.

Key moments or turning points in the novel.

Imagery that gives some visual direction (can be photos, other novel covers, paintings etc., anything that has inspired the novels creation could work BUT try to keep it to around 10 images that really speak to the author).

Specs needed for the cover’s creation (size, templates if they have them etc.)

The budget you have for the work.

The author should use the imagery they have gathered and see if there is anyone they are aware of that can create that type of work. Maybe even contact the artists or designers of the reference imagery they have found as a starting point.

There are numerous resources out there that provide these types of services, but make sure you find a designer/illustrator team that work for your story, that can help capture it and sell it to the reader.