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5 Things Every Author Should Know About Design

Once upon a time in a far away land called Tallahassee, there lived two young maidens named Toni and Shannon who had so much fun in college that they ran out of money…so they had to get jobs.

That’s the short version of the story that led to mine and Toni’s first jobs in college as graphic designers for Lifetouch Church Directories and Portraits. Having had our experience with retail and wanting desperately to avoid returning to it, we happened upon a pair of jobs where we could work together creating beautiful designs for church directories. On the surface, it seemed like a dream.

In reality, however, it was a little different.

Most of the churches in our territory were not in the metropolis of Tallahassee, but in the tiny towns speckled across the rolling hills of South Georgia and North Florida where the sound of banjos echoed in the wind. We conducted our meetings in fellowship halls with blue haired ladies who had been on the Church Directory Committee since before we were born. In previous years their directories were made by cutting and pasting (literally–with no CTRL+C shortcuts) photos onto blank paper and handwriting captions below. Us trying to explain graphic design to them was like trying to explain string theory to a four year-old. They were sweet and patient with us, but we may as well have been explaining our services to them in Chinese.

Somehow we survived two years at that job and along the way learned some valuable lessons–especially when it comes to communication. Designing for someone else requires that you’re able to speak the same language. You don’t have to know how to design and the designer doesn’t have to know how to write, but you must have some common ground to get a quality product you can both be proud of.

So without further ado, I give you (drumroll please)….

5 Things Every Author Should Know About Design

1. It’s not all about you.

This statement can be directed at the author and the designer because at the end of the day, good design is not about either one of you, it’s about your target market. I don’t like pink and purple, but if I wrote a kids’ book about fairies and princesses I would expect the designer to use pink and purple because it speaks to most little girls. If you’ve followed our advice on picking your target market, you should have a good foundation of knowledge about your preferred demographic to share with your designer. I know it’s hard, but you have to put aside your personal design bias and focus on what will attract your readers.

2. Everything is not as easy as it seems.

I photoshopped this little piece for my fantasy football league. :-)

These days most middle schoolers can Photoshop their friend’s head onto someone else’s body and get a good chuckle out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To manipulate multiple layers and images with the added complexity of text, shadows and color palettes is not a simple task. Computers and software have come a long way in the last decade with their photo editing capabilities (thank God–if not we’d be using MS Paint to design book covers!) but it still requires time and skill to properly execute a good design. Listen to your designer and make sure you’re providing him or her with plenty of time to give you a quality product. It will be better for both of you in the long run.

3. Don’t get flaky, designers are flaky enough.

Before you even start consulting with a designer, you should have a list of elements, colors, text and other important things you want to include on your cover. Do some research and find examples of other covers that you liked or didn’t like and be able to articulate to your designer why you felt that way. Once you have a concept STICK TO IT! There’s nothing more frustrating to a designer than to pour hours of your time into a project only to have the client change his or her mind halfway through. That’s a quick way to burn a designer out and ensure that you won’t get the best work out of them.

4. Open your ears and listen.

I mean really listen to your designer’s advice. You are paying someone to put together an image for you not just because they had the time to do it, but because you felt they had the right skill set to give you a quality product. Trust in that skill set and use it as a resource. When your designer gives you input, really listen to what they’re saying. If you don’t understand, ask them to give you an example or more details. It’s the combination of your knowledge and your designer’s that will lead to the best possible product.

5. Do not stay centered.

Not everything in design has to be perfectly symmetrical or centered. I remember the day my second grade art teacher turned my world upside down when she said we didn’t have to draw the sun up in the corner of the paper every time. The sun could be a full circle floating around the sky or a half-orb setting behind the hills. It blew my mind. By the same token, your book cover title and images don’t have to be dead center on the book cover. A good designer knows how to properly utilize space to maximize the elements on a page.

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If you take these tips to heart, I promise you’ll get more out of your design experience, plus you’ll have a quality piece of work that will make your job marketing and selling your book that much easier! It’s all about learning how to effectively communicate with your designer instead of letting things get lost in translation like Toni and I did with the little blue haired church ladies in Southern Baptist basements across Florida and Georgia.

Later days,


  • I like this post, it certainly makes you think. I have designed my front cover, myself. I do not believe there is a problem with that, if you are capable, as you said. So my thought is if you can do it yourself, why not give it a go? At least you know what you want and will have the satisfaction of knowing you did it.
    Also, you will not have to try to relay your ideas, and hope the others understand.

    • Emma, I am a big DIY and have designed several covers for my books that I discarded afterwards (when I compared how they looked to others in my genre) and they looked a bit homemade.

      But just recently I have one that not only satisfies me, but excites me, on True Prevention–Optimum Health: Remember Galileo. I used some art I purchased the rights to and modified it to be exactly how I wanted it to be. It is very exciting to have the book look exactly how I want it to look. I don’t think I could have explained to a designer because I achieved what I did with the cover by trying variations of it until I found exactly what I wanted. I did not know what I wanted until I saw it.

  • Great post. Especially #1…so true.

    • Toni

      Thanks for reading, Bethany! Glad you enjoyed the post.