22 book design and illustration tips

Discover how leading book illustrators and designers produce their best covers and illustrations.


The ebook hasn't killed book cover design. In fact it's made it even more important for selling printed copies to a more discerning audience who are looking to literature and non-fiction works to sit on their bookshelves and coffee-tables as homewares. And let's not forget the need for covers to entice audiences in our biggest-volume brick-and-mortar booksellers - aircraft hangar-sized supermarkets - where they must compete for attention not only with other titles but with the need to pick up whatever potential buyers really came into the store for, from tonight's dinner to a week's worth of toilet roll.

So how do you design and illustrate book covers in a way that attract readers, accurately represent what a book has to offer and exists as a piece of great art or design in its own right? Here six of our favourite book cover illustrators and designers tell us about creating artwork, type and graphics for original novels and new editions of classics.

Read on to learn how to illustrate and design better book covers.

I think a great cover is beautiful, compelling, timeless, and enriches the experience of reading the book. A great cover will stand out across the room and still look relevant in 20 years. One of my favorite classic covers is The Great Gatsby with that royal blue background and piercing yellow eyes. It sets the tone for the book in such a great way.

Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co (USA)


For me, it’s all about reading the story and writing down all the details that I find interesting and compelling. I end up with a whole notebook of sketches and notes. I then try to capture the mood with the color palette as much as possible. For example, Anne of Green Gables has a periwinkle background and that was my nod to her Prince Edward Island setting as well as her charming and youthful personality.

The typography and layout are the same… they need to reflect the tone of the story. One of the biggest things with type is researching the era and what typefaces were used at that time for a jumping off point.

Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co (USA)

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I think it’s important to experiment and to be playful while working on ideas and concepts. Find your favorite covers and study what you love about them and what makes them great. Make sure to really dig into the story and look for compelling elements and the heart of it.

As a designer it’s important to use all of your tools - whether it’s physical or digital to create the best design possible. I primarily hand-paint all my designs but I never shy away from using the computer as a tool to manipulate and enhance my paintings to make them better.

Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co (USA)


The first thing I do is read the book or refresh my memory on the story, characters, and theme to look for details that I can use in the design. I then start sketching for composition and style for at least two different design directions.

Once the rough sketch is chosen I work on my color palette and refining all of the details (what the character is wearing, what the florals will really look like, etc.).

Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co (USA)


The majority of the research that I do is about what other covers have already been done to make sure that I am not repeating anything and that I’m approaching my cover from a fresh perspective. I now have a Microsoft Surface Pro so I am doing all of my initial sketch work on there digitally.

Then I sketch out the design with pencil on paper so that I can paint over it. Once I have my design painted I work digitally to edit colors and move things around. I often paint elements separately so that I have the most flexibility later on to edit.

Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Co (USA)

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Read as much as you can and focus on the symbols, characters and images of the book, then try to find the one that expresses most of the story with less elements. Synthesis and a sensation are what make a great book cover. 

Olimpia Zagnoli (Italy)


Sketching is a way to visualize my thoughts. It's actually like thinking for me. That plays a big part. I also have many folders with images that distract me from my own point of view. 

Olimpia Zagnoli (Italy)


Working with thumbnails and colour sketches help nurture ideas. It takes an average of 10 thumbnail sketches to come up with one decent cover idea. Creating a rough visual idea of what the cover might look like, without taking up the intense amount of time that goes into a polished final illustration is also useful.

Jim Tierney (USA)

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This might sound simple and obvious, but it was a bit of a breakthrough for me: Wrap a blank piece of paper around a book, and draw your sketches directly onto it.  You will be surprised at the difference between what looks good as a thumbnail sketch and what looks good as a full-sized, three-dimensional book cover. Put it on the shelf next to other books, and see what stands out. Context is everything.

Another good trick is to read a chapter or two of whatever you're working on, and then flip through an art history book or scroll through some design blogs. Collect a bunch of images that best match the tone of the book, and look for similarities in color, imagery, and composition. These will help you figure out which visual elements pair best with the text.

Jim Tierney (USA)


Great book covers usually have a certain self-awareness to them. They acknowledge the limitations of symbolizing an entire book within a 6"x 9" space, and are therefore sparse and striking, rather than overly-representative or narrative. When a cover represents a very small amount of information in a clever or beautiful way, that's when I pick it up to investigate further.

There is certainly a lot of calculated decision-making that goes on about these things, but most of this takes place on an intuitive level for me. It can be hard to say exactly why certain layout or color will just "feel" right for the mood that fits the story, and I've had to learn how to piece apart and articulate these choices when I present sketches.

Jim Tierney (USA)


First off, I need to know what is inside the book. Whether it means reading it from cover to cover, or actually being involved in the creation of internal spreads, I need to understand it. From there, I work out main themes, characters, plot-lines and the atmosphere. I then begin conceptually exploring these all together to see what might create a visually striking image on the front. I'll usually write lots of notes and make lots of thumbnail images before going anywhere near the final image.

Owen Davey (UK) 

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How I tackle a brief depends on the book. In the Wild Boy work, the historical element is very important, so I did a lot of research into that period in terms of fashion, typography and the physically state of London at the time the books were set. I find that I can work much more effectively when I have a strong base like that to build upon. 

Owen Davey (UK)


After capturing the atmosphere, composition is paramount. If you can find a bold use of shape or colour, it can really help to draw the viewers eye and get them interested. With any point of sale piece, your image is designed to grab attention in a swamp of other things screaming out to be noticed. It's not always about bright colours and big text. It's just about making it look unique against everything else. And don't forget to make the spine visually striking too. That is often all people can initially see.

Owen Davey (UK)


For me, a good book cover is the one that fits well with the story and also brings something new. But the essential thing is that the cover reflects well what you can find inside the book.

Tatiana Boyko (Spain/UK)

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First of all, I consider the main theme, the atmosphere that the book transmits and it's potential reader. Then I take this elements and work on them as a normal illustration but always give thought on where to place the title, author's name, publisher etc.

Finding the right idea for the brief is very important for me, so I can feel comfortable during the process. I can spend a lot of time sketching until the composition and the colors feel adequate. I am always looking for references and I love to discover new illustrators that I can get exited with. 

Usually I work digitally but always combined with handmade textures. I choose the colors very carefully so I spend quite a lot of time finding them.

Tatiana Boyko (Spain/UK)


A book usually is full of imagery, so you have to decide which elements are the essential for the story and work on them. But always remember that the illustration must go with the book.

Tatiana Boyko (Spain/UK)


First of all it needs an open to interpretation, not definite enough but coherent to the text idea. Arouse the curiosity about what the text is talking about. When finishing the book you should know how the image emerged. Secondly it should evoke the same feelings when reading the book and when looking at it.

Christos Kourtoglou (Greece)

Image: the Greek edition of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Reading closely is basic. During the reading I’m noting phrases that seem significant for the overall feel of the novel and could produce images. I make quick sketches of them. After finishing the reading I’m trying to find other images that work as symbols and sometimes combine them with the first ideas. I conclude which of these ideas express the author’s work in a better way. Then I try to picture which one could work better as final cover and I end up with one or two final ideas before I begin to work on them. 

Christos Kourtoglou (Greece)

Image: the Greek edition of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner


I have three basic guides to determine how the final cover should look. The feel, the essence and how these are combined with the title. The feel determines mostly the color palette and several notions about the meaning of the text determine the essence. I try to visualize these notions by using symbols as I said before.

Christos Kourtoglou (Greece)

Image: the Greek edition of A Life of Fishing by Ota Pavel


Sometimes the titles of the novels are connected in a symbolic way with the meaning, so you can’t ignore them. I try to combine these as much as possible.  As for typography and composition, I make lots of tests, various alternatives of my idea aiming to make the final image visually enticing.

Christos Kourtoglou (Greece)

Image: the Greek edition of Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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Do not care about trends, stay true to the text to find a clear and dynamic idea. Symbols work great on book covers, avoid making something predictable such as illustrating a specific scene unless it says more than that. Read closely, sometimes you can find your image on a single phrase.

Christos Kourtoglou (Greece)

Image: the Greek edition of The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez