Thursday, June 07, 2012

Graphic Design 101

These days, a lot of writers are in charge of their own book promotion. They're creating their own websites, designing their own promotional material, even creating their own book covers for books they're publishing independently. And, to be frank, more than a few of them are getting it all wrong, at least when it comes to the visual appeal of their promotional efforts.

You know what I'm talking about. Color choices that render the text unreadable. Graphic elements that do battle with the very thing those elements are supposed to be promoting. Font choices that look cheap and amateurish. Badly rendered computer art that looks more creepy than creative.

But what can an author do when she's not an artist? Well, the obvious answer is, hire an artist. Especially now that digital self-publishing has exploded into a growing, thriving business, there are more artists out there doing book covers and graphic design than ever. I'm thinking about offering my services as a designer myself, though I haven't committed fully to the idea yet. Some of the prices charged are more than reasonable, although you have to be careful and choose designers whose work represents the quality of professionalism you're seeking.

The artists I like best—besides myself, of course—are Kim Killion of Hot Damn Designs and Kimberly Van Meter. They both provide beatiful, professional looking covers.  There are others, of course.  So if you're interested in hiring someone to do your graphic design, look around.  Take your time and make a good decision, because you'll have to live with it for a while.

But maybe paying for design is out of your budget. So how do you do it yourself?  Here are some ways to get started.

- Choose the right graphic design program for you.

There are programs out there, ranging from free (Gimp) to exorbitantly expensive (Photoshop) that do generally the same things. As a graphic designer in my day job, I use Photoshop. But you can use a more limited version of Photoshop, called Photoshop Elements, that will do many of the same things you can do with Photoshop, but for a much more reasonable price. Here are where you can find some of these programs:



Photoshop Elements

Paint Shop Pro

- Learn the basics of visual design

Yeah, easy to say. Not so easy to do, right? I'm going to lay out some of the most important elements right here, though. So get out your pen and take notes.


Color is one of the things people most commonly get wrong, and it's mostly due to contrast problems. Try typing red type on a blue background and what do you get? A vibrating, unreadable mess. That's because red and blue are too close to each other on the Color Wheel.

What's a color wheel? Long story, but it has to do with contrasting and complementary colors. Here's a great, interactive color wheel you can play around with to figure out what colors you want to use, but the rule of thumb is, choose one color for a background, and then the color that's opposite your background color for the text. You can fudge around (for instance, even though blue and orange are opposite on the color wheel, yellow or bright green function very well as a contrast color for blue). But the main thing you're looking for is contrast. You want your text color to contrast strongly with your background.

Why? Because high contrast means high readability.


In advertising, there's a term we use all the time when talking about an ad. "It's too busy." What does that mean? It means the ad has too many elements fighting for the eye's attention, to the point that your message gets lost in the clutter.

So when you're creating promotional materials, try to distill your message into a singular graphical element. A lot of the time, it might be your book cover. That's why you'll often see ads or banners that focus on the book cover: that's the focal element, the product you're trying to sell. You'll also see ads that pull elements from the cover design, for much the same reason.

Keep it simple. Make the graphical element stand out - the simpler, the better. (Think of the Twilight series covers - the red apple, the red ribbon, the red-tipped feather, the white chess piece. All singular, iconic images that stuck in the mind and branded the books)


Next to color issues, font problems are the most common issues I see in author promotional material. Choosing good fonts can be daunting, since most people don't know where to look for fonts or what kinds of fonts to look for. But I'm going to help you with that, too.

Fonts, or typefaces, do make a difference. You're not going to use a comical font on a serious, dark murder mystery. You're not going to use a gritty, grungy font on a light-hearted romantic comedy. And you're never, ever going to use Comic Sans on a book cover. Can we all agree on that? and MyFonts are good places to find fonts for purchase. You can also use Identifont if you see a font you like and want to find it or a font that's similar to it.

There are also places such as Urban Fonts and Font Squirrel where you can download free fonts (though do be sure to check the usage policies provided with the fonts to see if you can use them commercially. Some you can. Some you can't).

The main things to focus on, where fonts are concerned, are readability and style. Readability is the most important. You want your message to be clear, and readability is key to clarity. And font style is important because you don't want your visual message to be confusing. Thick, grungy fonts work well on gritty murder mysteries. Light, airy fonts are great for romantic comedies. High tech fonts are common in science fiction.

I'm not saying you can never use a contrasting font. But if you do, make sure you have a darned good reason for it besides, "I just thought it was a cool font." Your promotional materials, including your covers, are covenants with your potential readers. You're promising them things with the design elements you choose, and it's not fair to promise something you have no intention of delivering.

I've only scratched the surface of graphic design, but I've touched on the most common concerns that face the self-promoting author. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments and I'll answer them to the best of my ability.


Suzanne Johnson said...

These are great tips, Paula--thank you! I'm going to slink over to my non-integrated blog and website and see what I can do...

Paula said...

I had to learn all this stuff from scratch. My last art class was in 4th grade. What I know about design I basically taught myself, either by trial and error or by reading manuals and reading/watching online tutorials.

Some of it you learn instinctively but for some people the instinct isn't really there. So a few rules to live by can be helpful. :)

JoAnn said...

Thanks, Paula -- this is so helpful!

Carla Swafford said...

Oh, Paula, I got PhotoShop for a 30 days trial and thought I could whip up a couple of bookmarks and maybe a postcard. ROTFL!

I've always considered myself computer savvy. Working with a computer and the software is so logical and I love logic. BUT CRAP! PhotoShop blew my mind. I guess mainly because I don't have the time I use to to read or watch anything. I wanted to blow and go. So I deleted it.

And yes, next question...How's your deadlines? Got time to make a little extra money? :-D

Paula said...

Carla, I might be available. I'm supposed to be working on a proposal, but since it's not really cooperating, I could probably sneak in a job or two. Email me.

Chris Bailey said...

Thanks, Paula. These are super guidelines. I learned a little from agency work--mostly to leave it to the art department. But sometimes you have to produce something on your own, and the general rules really help.

Lexi said...

Paula, this is SO helpful and makes me realize it's something I'd be better off leaving to those who know what they're doing--like YOU! You are one smart cookie!