How To Design A Book - Tips From An Art Director

Table of classic books at Barnes & Noble
Book cover design and book packaging design is an art that needs to sell. Read art director Jo Obarowski's insights. Valerie Peterson

How do you design a book cover — or, for that matter, how do you design the whole book?

When readers do judge books by their covers, what kind of thinking goes into a book jacket design that sells? How is the rest of the book package designed? To get some answers, I consulted Jo Obarowski, Art Director for Barnes & Noble and Creative Director for Sterling Publishing.

First, Jo — tell us a bit about your work. What does a Creative Director do?

My responsibilities include the design and development of a list of books - that means interior page design, case design, cover design, etc.

To do that, I manage an in-house team of super talented art directors and designers as well as outside design firms, illustrators, and photographers. As the package design helps the book sell, I work closely with editors, publishing directors, and buyers. 

What kind of books have you worked on and what are you proudest of?

Over the years, I've worked on picture books, novelty titles, celebrity biographies, and movie and television tie-ins, often on an accelerated schedule. I'm really proud of how since I've worked at Barnes and Noble, we've elevated the design and quality of the Bargain, Trade and Children’s products. 

My most, beloved and treasured books are the Barnes and Noble Leather Classic program which, I designed and art directed from the very start. I love that people are collecting and buying these books because the books are beautiful objects that people want to have on their shelves.

When you design a book cover — or the whole book — what steps do you take to prepare?

The first step as part of the book cover and or book design process is to kick off the project with the editor and editorial director.  In our meeting, we discuss the sales numbers of the competitive titles, and the big question: “Who is going to buy this book”?

In that meeting, I'll also ask if there will be photography or illustrations throughout the books [and find out] what kinds of photos or illustrations are needed.

For example, we may need how-to illustrations in a craft books, or we may need to hire a food stylist, along with a food photographer and create several beauty shots for a cookbook or cocktail book.

What are the practical considerations of book design? For example, how much does budget influence the design of the book cover or interior?

The book's P&L [profit and loss statement] determines if I send a book interior design or book cover design out to a freelance designer or keep the design in-house.

I personally try to keep most of the more creative books in-house. Sometimes if the book has a small budget, I might assign the design of sample pages in-house, and then outsource spilling the first pass — that is, having a freelancer design the pages according to the design that's been established in the sample.

The book manufacturing budget is a factor when choosing the special effects for the cover or case — say, foil stamping — because those add to the cost.

Where do you find your book design inspiration? 

I find design inspiration everywhere I look.

Sometimes I see ideas in the details of urban architecture, other times get lost down an internet rabbit hole, looking at various designers and illustrators samples. I love looking at antique bookbinding samples for inspiration for the Barnes and Noble collectible Leather editions that I design and art direct.

How much does book genre influence your design?

I would say about half and half. Sometimes, I feel genre should be visually expressed to remind and communicate to readers what the book might be about. Other times, I believe that a truly provocative and clever book can take liberties and not hit you over the head, explaining things.

Any thoughts about using one design element versus the other on a book cover? Photography vs. typography only, for example?

Each book cover is really its own entity, so for me, there is no “one rule” that would apply across the board — all jackets require their own unique voice.

I chose to use typography only on some of the Barnes & Noble Collectible Classics because the right typography on the cover made them feel timeless — like the stories inside —and also like a gift product.

Again, there is no one rule. I find that sometimes I like seeing an amazing photography on cookbook, but sometimes a strong graphic type with icons or an interesting illustrated border does the job better.

One caution: sometimes a photograph on a book cover can really date a book and prevent it from backlisting. When I do use a photo on a cover I try to choose a more classic image rather than something super trendy.

As an art director, what do you look for when hiring book designers? 

I'm attracted to clever and thoughtful work in a designers’ portfolio.  When I am looking to hire a staff designer, I love to hold their book samples to feel the texture of the paper — to see what choices they've made — and to hear them talk about their creative process. I feel it's super important to not take yourself too seriously. 

What are your book designer pet peeves?

Graphic design is a form of communication, and the trends and the technologies are ever-evolving. So my pet peeves are designers who are bad at communicating, and those who believe they have nothing left to learn.

What advice do you have for an author who is self-publishing and looking to hire a jacket designer?

Be prepared to describe what the book is about — and what it is not about — to your designer. Show the covers of comparative titles that are on the market, and covers that you find provocative.

Understand that the designer should offer you several different design options.

Any tips for an author who is on a budget for their design?

Newbie authors would really benefit by partnering with their designers by providing a detailed design brief that includes the following details:

  • Who is buying this book?
  • What are the other kinds of competitive titles in the market and discuss why he or she thinks that they are a success?

Also, sometimes if an author can provide basic image research it is a time saving for the designer, especially on an illustrated color book interior. This can save the designer time to work on other tasks for the book.

Jo Obarowski is the Art Director of the in-house publishing division of Barnes and Noble and Creative Director of Sterling Publishing (here are examples of books jo has art directed). Prior to her work at B&N and Sterling, Jo worked closely with other major publishers, entertainment studios, and licensors such as HarperCollins, the Food Network, HBO, WarnerVision Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, Blue Sky, and Saban Entertainment.