In this episode, we are going to talk about how to create your best book cover ever by using the power of a design brief.

If you fail to plan out your book cover, you can plan for your book to fail. So many book covers fail for lack of planning. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to have an amazing book cover every single time using the power of a design brief. A design brief is a planning document you create for your book cover designer.

Why do authors need a design brief?

People tend to assume that everyone is as knowledgeable and familiar with a subject as they are. When you use jargon and insider language, people’s eyes start to glaze over because, many times, people are simply not as familiar as you think they are. 

With your book, you might assume everyone gets the vibe, knows the details, has the same ideas for what you want the reader to experience. But your designer does not have that knowledge. 

Your design brief conveys all the aspects of your book that your designer needs to know. The more information you give your designer, the better your design will be.

What is a design brief?

The design brief is a document you create to give to your designer, and many authors skip this step. They just contact the designer and hope for a good cover. That’s risky. You’ll be spending a chunk of money on your cover, and you need to get it right.

A design brief 

  • Describes the design you need.
  • Sets budget expectations.
  • Is used to collect bids from designers. 
  • Helps designers decide if they are a good fit for your project.
  • Describes your goals and timeline.
  • It communicates “commanders intent.” It described the “what” you want to accomplish, not “how” to do it.

Top designers often have their own design brief templates, sometimes called an “intake document.” If you give time and thought to creating your own design brief, you’ll have answers ready for your designer.

Services like 99 Designs walk you through the process of creating a design brief. All the questions they ask essentially create a design brief.  

Why are design briefs important?

A design brief sets parameters and expectations for the author and the designer before the design starts. Clear communication between the author and the designer prevents frustration with the process and produces a better cover. If you feel like you need to hire a different designer every time you write a book, the problem may not be the artist. 

Projects without good design briefs:

  • Exceed their budget 
  • Run late
  • Miss the mark 

Projects with good design briefs:

  • Help you stay within your budget.
  • Help you hit your deadlines.
  • Help you get the design you want.

Design Brief Tips

Tip #1: Communicate the marketing goal of the design. 

Wise indie authors, who are selling books and making money, hire designers they can trust with the marketing goal. Then they allow the designer to accomplish that goal. Use the design brief to communicate your marketing goals and allow the designer to exercise their skill.

 For example, you might say, “The goal is for cover design is to convince romance readers that this book will be like the other books they like, and so they should pick it up off the shelf (or click to learn more).

Tip #2: Communicate the “Why” of your book. 

Why would your target reader want to buy your book? This may be obvious to you, but it won’t be to a designer who hasn’t spent hundreds of hours inside your story. Answer the “why” of buying your book. What will your reader get? Escape? Education? Entertainment? 

Tip #3: Describe a single target reader rather than a demographic range.

Be as specific as possible when you describe your target reader to your designer. A demographic range is too broad. If you know of a real human who loves your writing (besides your mom), describe that individual. We have provided an example in our free Design Brief Template. 

Design Brief Template

Design Brief Mistakes

Mistake #1: Trying to accomplish too many things with the design.

Authors often want to tell the whole story on the cover or in the back cover copy, and that’s not the purpose of the cover. Focus on using one symbol per cover. The cover aims to get the reader to flip it over and read more or click and read the book’s description.

Mistake #2: Conflicting priorities of the design.

When everything is a priority, nothing is. Use one fine point that will make an impressive impact. 

Mistake #3: A lack of specifics in the design brief.

 Be specific. Avoiding meaningless phrases like, “I want this design to pop” and “Just make my cover look good.” Good covers come in many shapes and sizes, and everyone wants a design that stands out. General statements are unhelpful. It’s like telling your wedding planner, “We want it to be a wonderful day.” You must describe the kind of wonderful you want. 

Mistake #4: Micromanaging the designer.

You are not a design expert! If you micromanage the designer, you will get a poor design because you haven’t studied design. Most authors think they understand design better than they do. Indie authors struggle because they have total publishing control and feel responsible for utilizing all the control. Hire a designer you can trust to accomplish your goals, then trust them to do the work.

Design Brief Elements

Summary

Include one or two sentences about your book and what you’re looking for on the cover.

Budget

If you’ve already chosen the designer and know how much you’re going to spend, you can cut this section. But if you’re using the design brief to collect bids from multiple designers, I recommend including a budget range, for example, $500-$1,000.

As you’re collecting bids, designers can compete based on price or quality. 

Timeline

Note how much time is allotted to complete the cover. When is your deadline? Ideally, you’ll provide a start-to-finish timeline. If you spend the first two weeks negotiating, you’ll push back your deadline. Designers prefer to know when a project begins and ends so they can schedule their clients and have a steady stream of work.

Everyone wants a cover that is good, cheap, and fast. Generally speaking, you can only have two of those. If you want a high-quality cover at a low price, you’ll probably have to wait a long time. If you want it done in three days for a low price, you’re probably going to get a low-quality cover. If you want a high-quality cover soon, you’ll have to pay a much higher price. 

Quality, cost, and speed: pick two.

Goal

What do you want the design to accomplish? This is perhaps the most important element of the brief. If you’re not clear on what the goal should be, you won’t be able to communicate it, and the designer won’t be able to create it. 

Make it a specific goal. What action do you want the reader to take? 

If you’re a sci-fi writer, your goal might be, “I want readers to be intrigued by the cover so they will pull the book off the shelf or click the image on Facebook.” The goal will depend on your overall strategy.

Audience

Describe your target reader as a specific person. Who are you trying to influence with the design?

If you can thrill the one person you described, you’ll thrill everyone who is similar to that person. Just because you describe a woman doesn’t mean men won’t be interested, but it’s important to have a specific person in mind. Give as much information about that person as possible.

If you want to reach 14-year-old girls, tell your designer what she is like. What books does she like to read? What movies does she watch?

Maybe you write, “She’s a tomboy who loves an adventure. On her 18th birthday, she wants to skydive, but she’s never been on an airplane before. She also loves to play guitar and listen to old Motown records.” 

When you describe a representative person, you equip your designer to research and get inspiration. Then they can create a cover tailored to the reader you described.

Emotions

The cover will convey emotion. What emotion do you want someone to feel when looking at the cover? Do you want to communicate a sense of intrigue, suspense, or romance? Clearly explain to your designer what emotion you’re trying to evoke and convey. If your designer doesn’t know, they’ll have to guess, and you’ll be in for a lot of revisions.

Book Description

Use the blurb of your book as well as any other information you think will be helpful. Describe the main characters and some of the plot. If it’s nonfiction, provide the chapter outlines or table of contents. The designer should be able to understand the book without having to read it. They will not read your manuscript unless you pay them thousands of dollars to do so. And, if you describe your book well, your designer won’t need to read your book.

Genre Description

Describe the specific genre of your book as specifically as possible. What kind of speculative fiction are you writing? Sci-fi or fantasy? Time travel? Are they traveling to the future or the past?

The designer must translate the author’s “language” about genre and emotion to the reader through the cover. When you are specific, the designer can create a more accurate “translation” through the imagery and typography.

Similar Titles and Authors

Curate a list of popular titles that are like your book. Include a link to the book’s Amazon sales page so your designer can see the cover. They’ll get a feel for what other authors in your genre are doing. You understand the genre better than they do, so provide links to the covers you want them to see. Say what you like about each cover. Indicate which cover you like best. 

Book cover design is not the time to be unique. Your cover should say, “This book is like these other books you like.” You can’t copy a design, but you must be more similar than not. 

Symbol Ideas 

You need a good, strong, evocative symbol on the cover, but the symbol you use depends on the genre. We talked about cover symbols in our episode with Chris Fox. If you’re writing fantasy, you’ll use a dragon or a knight. If you’re writing romance, it might be a couple kissing. Most romance books use that symbol because it works. Spaceships sell sci-fi books. In military sci-fi, the symbol is almost always a spaceship or space marine. 

Choose one symbol per cover, and make sure it’s a symbol that will resonate emotionally with your readers. 

Research which symbols could work for your genre and give your designer a list. They might not use the symbol you choose, but it may spur an idea for them. You’re not necessarily creating a limited list, although there are limits to what you can use. You’re creating a brainstorming list that can serve as a starting point for your designer’s creativity. 

To use an analogy, you’re putting ingredients in the pantry, and your designer will choose which ones will make the best dish. You don’t use every ingredient in the pantry, and you don’t use every symbol on the cover. Both are recipes for disaster.

Other Available Resources

You’ve probably collected resources for your book without even knowing it. In your research, you’ve collected blog posts, photos, and old newspaper articles. These resources can help fill out the vision you’re trying to communicate to your designer.

James L. Rubart’s first novel, Rooms, was set on the Oregon coast, but his designer lived in Tennessee and had never been to Oregon’s Cannon Beach area. The designer asked for photos of the Oregon coast and eventually chose one of Jim’s photos as the book cover image. 

You can also provide previous covers. When James L. Rubart bought back the rights on his traditionally published books, he had to get new cover designs. He provided the original covers to his new designer to give her a reference point. 

Your Definite “Nos”

Curate a list of things you want your designer to avoid. If there’s something you hate to see on a cover, make a note of it. If you hate beaches, say so. If you’re sick of the cover with the forlorn woman with her hair swept back, let your designer know. 

It’s you’re book. While the ultimate goal of the cover is to connect with readers, it’s also for you, and it needs to reflect your brand. Brands are also defined by what they say “no” to. 

You’ll never see a Nike brand of ice cream. Ice cream is incompatible with Nike’s brand.

Cover Elements and Priority

In any given design, you can only have one priority. We’ve discussed book cover elements in episode 106, Ten Things Every Book Cover Needs to Look Legit.

Good designers know how to show priority with font, size, contrast, and many other techniques. If you don’t communicate the priority, your designer will have to guess.

Prioritize these elements:

  •  Title
  • Author
  • Series Name & Number

For most books, the title is the priority. But for bestselling books, the priority may be the author’s name. I guarantee that Steven King’s name is the priority element on all of his covers. His name takes up half the space on the cover. His title is printed somewhere on the cover, but it’s much smaller. Steven King has such a strong brand that the series name may not even be included on his cover.

If you’re just getting started, your name is not the priority element.

Different books require the elements to be indifferent order. What you prioritize depends on your strategy. But remember that when everything is a priority, nothing is.

Explain to your designer the reasoning behind your priority order. 

Cover Symbol

Your designer can use the symbol in the foreground or background, and he or she will make that decision based on the priority you assign.

Endorsement

Endorsements can be featured on the front, back, or interior pages. If you have an endorsement from a famous person your readers already love, place that endorsement on the cover. 

If Stephen King endorses your book, his endorsement should be on the front. If you’re writing a marketing book and Seth Godin writes an endorsement, make sure it’s included in the front cover design because students of marketing have a high opinion of Seth Godin.

Back Cover Copy

The words are part of the design, and your designer needs the copy before they can finish your design. 

Sometimes indie authors will ask their designers to leave a space for the back cover copy and then paste the text into the design later. That never works because it’s not well designed. You can tweak individual words, but you need to have a good idea of how much copy you’ll have.

You might even include a symbol on your back cover. When we designed the back cover of my book Courtship in Crisis, I used the image from my viral blog post that inspired the book. That image was a point of familiarity for my readers and reminded them where the book came from.

Book Details

Your designer will need the following details before they begin because each detail affects the design template, the image size, and even how they design the spine. 

Include the following details:

  • Book Size: 6″ x 9″ or .5″ x 8.5″ or something else?
  • Paperback/Hardback
  • Number of pages

How You Prefer to Communicate

Let your designer know how they can reach you and how often you want to check-in. 

Do you want to receive

  • Texts?
  • Email?
  • Phone calls?

Stating these preferences upfront will prevent misunderstanding and frustration for both of you.

Free Design Brief Template

We’ve created a template as an example for you. Each section of the template provides instructions on what to include and an example based on the book Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. It was a terrible movie but a great book, and it needs a new cover. 

Sign up below to receive the free template.

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