Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

DIY book cover design—Part 5: Concepting and planning

Hey, we're five posts into the series, and we haven't really designed a single thing yet. How amazing is that? Today, though, we're going to start. (Well... sorta.) In the last post we talked a bit about what a book cover is for, and how to use it to speak to the right kind of reader. Today we're going to imagine a book, dream up a concept, and start selecting the assets we'll need to create that concept. This is the fun stuff!

First, let's dream up an imaginary book
We've used thrillers as examples in previous posts. For kicks, let's invent a book that's somewhere in that ballpark, or at least a neighbor to the thriller: the small-town murder mystery. Those are always fun. Quaint little town, big-city murder, everyone's fearful, the flawed but righteous rural cop has to solve the crime. 

We'll call it Can't Go Home, by James K. Carver. 

Now: let's sketch a little
As I mentioned in a previous post, it usually takes me a few designs before I hit my stride with a book project. By the third or fourth concept, it's usually humming pretty well. I'm going to assume you have a finite amount of time, and you just want to create a cover, so what I recommend is good old-fashioned pencil sketches. 

Grab a notepad and a pencil—or a pen, if you're feeling bold—and draw a rectangle approximately the size of your paperback cover. It doesn't matter if you can draw or not; all you want to do is approximate your idea with some loose scribbles, then move on and create another one. I recommend doing this at least three or four times. Loosely sketch the scene you imagine the cover depicting, or the object, or the character. Pencil in your title and author name. Then compare your sketches, and review them critically and objectively, from the perspective of a potential reader rather than yourself. Which sketch jumps out at you? Which says "small-town murder mystery" most clearly? 

Here's what I ended up with, and where we'll begin our design:

It's a terrible photo taken with a phone camera, but it's legible enough for our purposes. And it kind of immediately makes sense, doesn't it? A panoramic small town along the bottom; storm clouds across the top. Those drippy tendrils, I imagine, will be blood. A thriller-friendly font, some light sketches of the spine and back cover copy, and I think we're ready to go. This sketch will be the blueprint for the cover we'll design for the rest of this DIY series. 

Reference images
You might find that the simple act of sketching brings to mind a bit of tone and mood. Though the sketch is black and white, or blue and white, as in my case, you might already find that your brain is filling in the gaps. That scribbly storm cloud becomes an ominous, threatening cloudscape; the tendrils of blood are wispy, gloppy, almost like ink dripped into a bowl of water. You might get a sense of the book's ambient mood from your sketch. 

For my part, the sketch that I worked up reminded me immediately of the mood and tone of the Gone Girl film poster. Remember it? 

Sourcing your assets
Alright, so: we're designing a murder mystery book cover that features a small town, a threatening cloudscape, and blood drippings. Our next step is to track down imagery that we can use to build our scene. Way back in the first post we talked about stock photography, and now it's time to start hunting. 

There are certain qualities you're going to want to prioritize when you hunt for good stock photography; an absence of cheese is at the top of the list. It's a scientific fact that about 96.724% of all stock artwork honestly and truly sucks. It panders, it demands attention, it feigns its emotional content. What you're looking for is that sliver of stock art that doesn't suck, and to find it, you must be prepared to sift through the mess. 

That's in most cases. In our case, I think we might be able to avoid most of the dreck. The images we're looking for are straightforward ones, unlikely to be full of businesspeople hamming it up or shaking hands. 

We'll break our search down into three categories, like I mentioned before: a small town panorama; an ominous cloudbank; and dripping blood. 

The small town panorama
I tend to use Shutterstock for most of my image hunting, so that's where we'll begin. This might be as easy as searching for "small town panorama." Let's find out:

Well, look at that. I think we've already got a winner. Third result. See it? Let's take a closer look:

The first thing you'll notice is that this doesn't perfectly match the panoramic town that I sketched earlier. That's okay; if we went searching for something that matched my imagined image, we might be looking for quite some time. 

Here's what I like about this particular image: It's a quality photo, for one, with colors that match the tone I have in mind (think Gone Girl, again). The scene is instantly recognizable to anyone as a classic small American town. I like that, too. It means that at a glance, readers are likely to understand the book's setting quickly. The scene has an iconic element in it—the clock tower—which cements the setting, and might make a nice visual anchor for the front cover. And finally, the sky will be easy to blend into a much larger scene. 

That was pretty easy. It's not always quite so effortless. Let's move on to the next image search.

Ominous cloudscapes
The next item on our list is the cloud. I love, love, love working with cloud imagery. Clouds say a lot about a book, and you can use them in a lot of different ways. In this case, we'll be building a bigger sky over that small-town image that we selected, and then merging the clouds with it to create that looming sensation. What I'm looking for in particular are clouds that have a sense of darkness to them, and a feathery texture, something that will blend well with the blood drippings later. We want the blood to feel natural, like an extension of the clouds, which means the clouds should feel like they're a bit drippy, too. 

This search took a bit longer, and I went through several pages of results on Shutterstock before settling on two that I really like:

What I like about the left image is that it's already got that ink-in-water feeling about it. It's wispy, a little feathery, almost a bit watercolor-y. The image on the right will blend well with it, and has some nice straggling blooms that feel just a bit wet and drippy to me. 

Blood drippings
Blood searches almost never go well on stock sites. For example, here's the first page of results for the word "blood": 

"But look," you might say, "I see some dripping blood artwork right there." And that's true, you do. The problem with the dripping blood you see is that it's blood spatter. Think of the scene we're building: a photo-real environment with earth and clouds. In other words, a three-dimensional scene. If we were to select, say, the first result up there, and place it on our sky... there were be a visual disconnect for the reader. The blood would appear to be running down the physical book cover instead of dripping from the depths of the clouds. 

What we need, in other words, is blood in water, which will appear to drip naturally from the clouds, not down the face of the book itself. But searching for "blood in water" turns up a mixed bag of results, too—splashes of red water; icons of blood droplets; disturbing red oceans. 

One trick to finding the right image is to know what your alternate searches might be. I don't just mean search terms, like searching for "threatening" instead of "creepy"; I mean entirely different images that resemble the actual effect you're looking for. In our case, searching for watery, drippy blood hasn't given us much of anything to work with. 

But if we were to search for "red ink water"...

Alright, now we're getting somewhere. In these images you can see a hint of the watery blood tendrils I described earlier. These are actual photographs of ink spilled in water, just like the rolling clouds from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a pinch, these are a terrific blood substitute. 

I selected these three. The first two have some nice variations in the movement of the ink. The first one has a bit of a mushroom cloud feel to it; if it were flipped vertically, it might stand out in the design as a single large blood dripping. The second image has several different types of drippings, and I like that; this means I can exploit different parts of the image to achieve different levels of detail. And the final image has a nice bulk to it; I imagine it hovering in the body of the clouds themselves, not dripping, but establishing that looming darkness that hangs over our little murder story.

That's where we'll leave off for now, with our concept roughed out and our assets gathered. In the next post, we'll begin blending these images—compositing them into a single coherent scene that evokes the tone we're going for: a terrible threat creeping up on innocent, small-town America. 

Click here to see all entries in my DIY book cover design series.

DIY book cover design—Part 6: Building the scene

Eleanor's disappearance is imminent