How to Tell a Book By Its Cover
(Through the Language of Pictures)

Greetings fellow Earthlings. I'm Don Maitz, an artist who has worked professionally in the book publishing industry for nearly fifty years. I'm here to explain how, given informed visual information, you CAN tell a book by its cover.

You've heard it said, "A picture is worth a thousand words," and, "Every picture tells a story." What gives truth to these statements is that images have a language. If observed with insight, they speak to us. Studied consideration is required to parse out the words pictures reveal.

Here is an example of a picture communicating with a word. On your person you likely have a camera, the one in your cell phone. Most cameras offer two choices. One can position the device so the subject is framed in a vertical format, or the desired image can be captured in the horizontal position. There is a word being communicated for each orientation, regardless of what is in the frame. In the vertical selection the word is, "Impressive". We admire tall things. We look up to them, literally. Things that have vertical stature impress us. When framing the subject in the horizontal format, the word that emerges is, "Expansive". This is because things wider than they are tall, urges our peripheral vision to kick in. As our limited scope perceives the world as flat, the horizontal framing suggests a nearly endless horizon being evoked. This is subtle communication that implies a reaction we know deep down, but is taken for granted, and so becomes overlooked. Our subconscious registers these visual cues and "reads" the images we see. It is word association, inspired by graphic content.

The French Impressionist painter and sculptor, Edward Degas, once said, "Art is not about what we see, but about what the artist makes us see." How do artists accomplish this? They use five tools, which are the underlying structural principles of a visual image. Much like composers of music utilize string, wind, and percussion instruments, the instruments of the graphic artist are; LINE, TONE, SHAPE, COLOR & TEXTURE. These forms are engineered or orchestrated to create a design, much like musical instruments work in concert to create a sound or tune. Each of these five visual elements "speak" to us in different ways. Careful observation interprets what they say.

Part I: Line

LINE is one of the most significant ways to, "tell a book by its cover". This is because every book has a title, every title is made up of words, every word is made up of letters, and every letter is made up of lines. The character of the lines selected can reflect the character of the book. Lines can be straight or curved. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So the implication is, straight lines are direct, "to the point", they are straightforward, whereas, curved lines are considered, roundabout, circuitous, taking the long way around. Too many curves, and line becomes confusing, like a bowl of spaghetti. So, the general appearance of the lines forming the title can suggest how the information in the book is being delivered. Examples of how lines speak to us can be found in reading material. Say you are taking in a paragraph of text, and you encounter a word printed in bold type. That word has increased presence, significance, strength, and weight -- all because the lines forming that word are thicker compared to those of the rest of the text. You read on, and encounter words in italics. This gives you pause, the words do not seem to belong with the rest. They appear to come from somewhere else, removed from the context of what you are reading. These impressions stem from the altered character of the lines forming that words. Continuing to read, you encounter a word all in CAPITAL LETTERS. Whoa! This word is LOUD. It has emphasis and importance. It is shouting at you. This condition results from the lines forming the word being uniformly "impressive". All other words previously encountered have been aligned at the bottom while the top edge is jagged, causing your eye to bounce along the tops of the letters. With capital letters, alignment is top and bottom, creating a visual slickness to the word for faster comprehension.

With all this in mind, imagine a book cover with a title in capital letters, taller than wide, made up of lines that are thick and straight. The response to this arrangement suggests a book that shouts at you being impressive and bold, containing stature, weight, slickness, significance, and is to the point. But say there is a book cover with a title in capital letters with lines that are thin and tall. It too wants attention, it is impressive but contains content of elegance or fragility. A cover with a title in capital letters with lines that are both thick and thin, suggests there is a dynamic at play within the novel. There is boldness and elegance, strength and fragility. The relative thick and thin appearance of the lines found in each letter presents how disparate is the dynamic presented in the story. A wide line and a very thin line shows a strong conflict involved, whereas less difference in line thickness found in the letters may suggest a dance, or play by play of opposing forces within the book. By comparison, consider a book about a small lost child. A book cover title in lowercase, using letters a bit wider than tall, presented in thin lines and, some word or words of the title printed in italics, would reflect the plot of this story.


The varieties in lines forming alphabets are called fonts. There are a bazillion fonts and more being created every day. Fonts come in all forms and styles including; script, calligraphy, imaginative, and those commonly used in print. Matching the character of line found in a font with the character of a story found in a book is challenging, as the choices are seemingly endless and relating all the thoughts gleaned through reading story to the nuances presented in visual lines take a leap on inspiration. Among the most common fonts are two basic categories, or families, serif and sans serif. Serif styles have extensions or flourishes at termination points of the letters. A capital "T" for example has little "feet" extending right and left at the base of the vertical line and downward protrusions ending the top horizontal line pointing downward. These extensions reflect human's urge to embellish or decorate. Originating perhaps in those medieval illuminated manuscripts, in calligraphy, and engraving. The original printing presses and typewriter keys had hand carved letters cast in little molds. Consideration implies serif fonts are based in our past, have human involvement, old school thinking, and having a connection to history. They are old time fonts. Sans serif fonts have clean lines with no extensions, embellishments, or flourishes. When learning the alphabet, children do not bother with flourishes, they execute letters as simply as possible. Computers began with dots on a screen configured into letters, these combined with dot matrix printers utilizing limited memory capacity. When computer memory expanded the selection of fonts, common factory set font style to Helvetica or something similar, sans-serif font preference being the most widely adapted to modern computer printing. So, a book with modern or futuristic elements would embrace a sans-serif font while a book about the past might suite a serif font. Differentiating a fantasy novel from science fiction can be determined by the style / or family of title font.

The cover of a low budget book, or self published book might be obvious if the words of the title and the lines that embody the words do not "speak" to you, or relate in some meaningful way to the title. An author will bring a lot of consideration to determine a title for their book, to suggest the story content and provide a thought provoking "hook" to the potential reader. A graphic designer will spend their consideration on the style of line used for the title, perhaps exaggerating some element to embellish a visual relationship to the story. Without a good graphic designer involved, the title does not communicate any meaning beyond the words. Mass Market editions, Specialty Press collectable books, and Motion Picture titles grasp the value of a graphic designer and budget for their services. For example, if you ask someone for their favorite color, they will tell you. Ask an artist or graphic designer the same question and their likely response is, "Relative to what?" A color may have context; red may mean anger, green- envy, yellow- fear, blue- sadness. Same with the lines in fonts. An author or publisher may over use a favorite font as a knee jerk default because they like it, whether or not it speaks to the story in the book.

Part II: Shape

SHAPE is the formative molecule of the visual world. Everything has a shape. Artists learn there are only three that form the basis for all we see. These three shapes may be altered and combined, but all fall into three basic categories. They are: the SQUARE, the CIRCLE, and the TRIANGLE. I believe each shape conveys a word. The word the square speaks is TRUTH, the circle says ATTRACTION, and the triangle relates to MOTION.


The SQUARE is formed of four ninety degree angles. These are also termed RIGHT angles. When aligned horizontally and vertically, they are referred to as TRUE , or, ON THE LEVEL. Any object parallel to these right angles is considered JUSTIFIED right, left, top, or bottom. When we see a picture hanging on a wall, that is tilted, it is NOT RIGHT. It is crooked, skewed, or false to our minds. A page or a book is shaped as a vertical rectangle, or, a tall square, which "speaks" to us as -- an Impressive Truth. The common shape for signs is square based. This shape communicates what we trust- because our language use describing the shape informs of this. Would you trust a book shaped like a parallelogram? I noticed when the book on the Mueller Report released, the graphic impact of the cover was distinctly blockish with right angles everywhere. The intent was to impart the truth of the content.

The CIRCLE is an eye magnet, an irresistible visual force. When a circle is involved, one WILL look at it. As Darwin suggests humanity climbed out of the ooze on flippers, the two dominant objects encountered were the sun and moon. We respond to the circle as an attractant. When we encounter and discourse with anyone, man or beast, we look them in the eye. Targets, telescopes, bullseyes, traffic lights, dials, scopes, all objects meant to get our attention, are circles. A circle anywhere, demands an immediate look. We ZERO in on circles. Even partial circles share this effect. Artists have used the letter "S" as a design element since the two broken circles create an eye path that forces the viewer to travel throughout a rectangle rather than being locked into the center or the corners. I might suggest that "breast fixation" is not so much misogyny, rather it's a circle jerk. If there is an important element to a story that can be contained by a circle, or related in some way to a circle. -- the letter "O "in a title for example, that will draw observer attention.

The TRIANGLE is all about action and movement. The shape is a pointer whose intersecting lines give direction for the eye to travel. Ancient pyramids point heavenward, The base of an upward pointing triangle is hugely stable. Yet inverted, creates tension and a dire sense of instability, as if the mass is in immanent danger of tipping over. Linear perspective is all based upon the triangle. Converging lines to a vanishing point on the horizon are pointers drawing the eye into the picture plane. Arrows are directional triangles. If a book is action based, using or exaggerating triangle shapes on the cover will serve to communicate that content. Leaning type forms an atmosphere of triangles, fonts with lines that end in triangular shapes will inject additional action.

Part III: Tone

TONE is a communicating feature that relies upon the perceived presence or absence of light.The term has dual meanings, conveyed both graphically and verbally. "Don't take that tone with me!" "Set the right tone." , "Tone it down." Are examples of this word used in common speech. In visual speech, we can relate the "tone" by way values presented in a gradation from white (the presence of light) to black (the absence of light).


The word "value" itself has connotations. We esteem a person with high values. Someone with no or low values is seen as dark. The tone of a story a can be directly related on the cover of a book by selecting the appropriate tone or tones on a white to black value scale. We're taught to anticipate good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats from the old TV westerns. We equate goodness as being full of light, and evil in the realm of darkness. So a children's book portraying good values would gravitate to the light end of the value range. A horror novel would gravitate to the dark end of the value scale. Utilizing the value scale with white at one end and black at the other, the in-between contains graduated increments between these extreme points. In this middle area being mid tone grays, if the incremental scale were assigned numbers 1 to 10, value 5 would be the "half tone". Grays in the middle range indicate MOOD, neither good nor bad. The story or subject could go either direction towards the light or dark, implying an indecisive environment. Given a book with the conflict presented as simple good vs. evil, cover elements in black and white without mid-tones would "speak" to that polarity. To portray a complete range of emotions and intentions with complex outcomes, the full tonal, or dynamic value range would "speak' to that scenario. Proportions matter. A predominantly light cover (high key) with a bit of dark conveys general goodness with a bit of doubt. A white cover with a bit of black on it indicates evil is lurking or threatening a good, joyful or, happy environment. An all black cover with a bit of white, suggests evil is about to snuff out goodness.

Where the strongest contrast of value or tone is present, there resides the focus! The viewer's eye will lock onto that spot. We differentiate things by contrast or we flounder, like finding a white dog in a snowstorm or a black cat in a dark room. Contrast makes things stand out. Attention is riveted to where that contrast is strongest. This is why very light lettering against a very dark area on a book cover, or dark or black type is presented over a white or light cover area is most effective. This giving the title and / or author center stage. The attraction of a best selling author's name may take precedence over the book's title as a selling point. The title may loom large over a relatively unknown author. Sometimes an illustration's strong value pattern exceeds the title and author's tonal dynamic. This is intentional if the art is the stronger selling point or primary subject of interest. Dominant importance of content, if not given careful consideration, confusion results. This value determination is called visual hierarchy. If a graphic image fails to communicate, the source of the trouble can be found in the tonal placements. Too many tonal changes that obscure the focal area are distracting making the image difficult to read. In some cases, this effect may be desired, but seldom on a book cover. If the most important element(s) get the strongest value change, the contrast at that intended placement doesn't just speak , it shouts, "LOOK HERE"!

Part IV: Color

COLOR is complex because it has many facets subject to personal interpretation. These facets are; HUE, VALUE SATURATION, and TEMPERATURE. With additional considerations involving how colors interact. All these points lend options to project the nature of the book on its cover. Every picture has color that tells a story. Selecting the color or colors that relate to a specific story needs intuition,insight, and common sense.

When my career called for a cover to be commissioned before the manuscript for that book was completed, the publisher might suggest asking the author to describe the story's content. This is a poor substitute for actually reading the book. An author understandably relates the plot, and sometimes describes the characters, similar to the outline initially pitched to the publisher. Such a long winded cover blurb is interesting for sure, but leaves a lot unanswered. What is the theme, the conflict? What is the mood? The tone? Is the story slow moving, fast paced, colorful, fanciful, or dark and dreary? What range of emotions are portrayed through the characters? The cover of a book can evoke answers to all these questions because the author's writing will inform the graphic mind for visual interpretation.Color can provide nuanced responses to written cues if the understanding of color is applied to manipulate an intended response. So, back to the facets.


HUE: This describes the "family" where the color resides. Red, Yellow, and Blue are each a hue. These three are also called Primary Colors. That is because no other color exists to create them. Whereas, the hues, Orange, Green, and Purple, are a result of combining two of the primary colors (red+yellow = orange, yellow+blue =green, blue+red = purple) Combining all three Primary Colors creates an overload, resulting in a version of gray. When intentional, this combination creates a subtle complex gray tone much richer than merely adding black to white. When unintentional, it creates a color commonly known as -- "mud".

A while back, a feature in Wired magazine, gave me an interesting revelation about primary and secondary colors. There was a sort of nerdy graph that presented the costume colors of comic book heroes and villains. In nearly all instances, the comic book heroes had all, or some, Primary Colors appearing in their costumes. In nearly all cases, the villains had all, or some, Secondary Colors making up their costumes. The revelation being that, just as good guys wear while hats and bad guys weal black hats, so too, good guys a can be expected to appear in primary colors and bad guys in secondary colors. The phenomena went beyond one comic publisher, but held true for all. So, good equates to primary colors, bad embraces secondary colors. Long before I saw this article, I was commissioned to do art for a card game. The requirement was to make an image of a Good Shield and a Bad Shield. My subconscious, knee jerk reaction was to put primary colors on the Good Shield and feature secondary colors on the Bad Shield image. So these color combinations "speak" to us in a subconscious way as do black and white tones.

To decipher color and its relationships, a color wheel presents the complex color relationships adding many layers to a straight forward white to black value scale. Rather like a compass , but with three major points (Primary Colors) rather than four (directional points). Midway between the three Primary Color points lie the Secondary Colors and midway between those points are found the Tertiary Colors (blue green, yellow green, red purple, red orange, yellow orange) Between those, further color relationships (blue-blue green, green-green yellow etc), array much like compass points -- south-south by south west. Colors next to each other on that color wheel are called analogous colors. These provide a smooth transition between hues and have a comforting aspect. They appear like family, interrelated. However, if one leaps across the color wheel and marry the opposing colors, one creates a shock value. It is said, "Opposites attract." This has been used to full advantage commercially. Red + Green = Christmas Holiday colors. Blue + Orange represent Halloween. Purple + Yellow = Easter season.

VALUE: Just as black and white have a full range of gray tones between them, each hue has a full range of VALUES between the presence of light (white) and the absence of light (black). For example, red can be the merest blush of pink in a near white environment and go through deeper shades of pink towards red, then descend into maroon then deep maroon to black. So each individual HUE contains a full value range. All the effects of tone regarding good vs evil, light and joy vs darkness and sadness, apply to the value relationships of each color.

SATURATION: each hue can have degrees of color intensity at nearly all value ranges. A colorful story would benefit from cranked up color saturation. A moody, bleak story would do better with unsaturated color. There are two methods of graying out a color. Adding black or white to the color is one way, or mixing the opposing color on the color wheel will also desaturate a color's intensity. When the ratio of the opposing color reaches an equal percentage, the resulting color approaches a neutral gray. Each application has a dimming effect to the color's intensity, but the resulting effect of leached color impression differs. When the opposing colors on the color wheel are positioned NEXT to each other with the same amount of SATURATION and, at the same VALUE, this creates a visual vibration. The result is shocking and can be difficult to look at because neither hue has dominance, so the viewer is confused. But if one hue has greater saturation or a change in value, the opposing elements form a relationship that offers aesthetic interpretation and does not present conflict. Introducing color wheel opposites at extreme differing values, creates an enhanced FOCUS POINT. This offers the same eye catching attraction as placing dynamic value contrast at an intended area of interest, but is augmented by the opposing color shock response. Another big LOOK HERE statement.

TEMPERATURE: As a general rule, warm colors (yellow, red, orange, and yellow green) visually come forward and cool colors (blue, purple, green) are perceived to recede. This is because, our atmosphere is blue and things in the distance tend to become more blue the further away they are, because more atmosphere is present between the viewer and the distant objects with the warm colors filtered out. The blue cast is termed atmospheric perspective. On a rainy day the depth of clarity is reduced due to water in the air reducing visibility. As sunlight and candle light have been the most common forms of illumination, and they have a yellow or warm cast, objects affected by this illumination appear closer than things further away that contain cool colored atmosphere between. This situation can be reversed to startling effect. Those golden sunsets where the sun actually illuminates the particles in the atmosphere creates warm color in the distance. On book covers, a shock value can be arranged by manipulating the values so that cool colors are lighter and brighter than darker, or muted warm colors, creating an other worldly appearance which is very effective for science fiction books. Bright cool colors against a dark background generally implies an un-earthly setting. This effect appears in Star Wars, where the Light Saber beams all have cool casts. Those with a red glow are not a hot red, but rather leaning towards a cool red with a shift to crimson or red purple.

The overall color effect suggests the overall nature of a story, book or intent of animage. Dim, grim, bright, jarring, soft, shocking, soothing, harsh, edgy, unsettling, unexpected, and peacefull are some descriptive words that can be conveyed through color.

Part V: Texture

TEXTURE is a pretty straight forward means of communication. Rough vs smooth, crisp vs soft, abrupt edges vs blurred edges. One extreme is sharp, prickly, direct, clear, and harsh. The other being perceived as gentile, pliable, indirect, nuanced, diffused. A hard edged character in a book is best presented with crisp contrast. An ineffective character suits a subtle, diffused environment. These contrasting effects applied to LINE, SHAPE, TONE, and COLOR enhance their dimension.

In all these applications, (LINE, SHAPE, TONE, COLOR & TEXTURE), the use of VOLUME CONTROL adds to the "effective communication" these lend to reflect a book through its cover, or any application of visual graphic art. Remember, "Every picture tells a story". Should a line be thick or thin, straight or curved? HOW thick does the line need to be to serve the intended idea's presentation? Or, will thin better communicate the intent? How much curve serves the concept? For shapes, how many effectively do the job? Do all three basic shapes need to be presented? Should they be big or small? Should they be distorted? If so, by how much?, and why? What setting on the volume control best amplifies the fitting degree of contrast? What settings reflect the tone that best interprets the subject? What color or color combination suits the intensity of the ideas presented? How garish or how drab presents the feeling of a story? The term offered earlier, "studied consideration", engages as decisions refined by interpretation, experience and intuition. The written word offers a visual springboard as the mind's eye immerses into the story. The feelings the language evokes offers the cues to make a visual based upon the author's intent.

When the artist is the sole author of the image, all the above holds true, because the story being told visually comes from an inspiration they form in their mind with an internal verbal description.

The ideas presented here about image-making are not entirely original with me. I learned about LINE, SHAPE, TONE,COLOR & TEXTURE while in art school from a valued teacher, John Massimino, in his Composition Class. The spark to apply these principals to evoke emotion derives from another instructor, Leonard Fisher. Combining these principles to reveal and enhance the content of a book, and, to better tell a story with a picture, is my contribution.

With the development of AI tools, (I call Creativity Theft Software) it is important to offer the human connections between thought and creation. This became a motivating factor in providing this feature that offers understanding towards the role intuition and the human subconscious, play in making connections to explain where true creativity comes from.

© 2023 by Don Maitz

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