A Closer Look at Book Covers

Everyone knows our emotions and views are manipulated by books, media, movies etc. But did you know that artists also manipulate you? Yup, it’s a fact that we (I’m also an artist) shamelessly manipulate our viewer’s thoughts and lead the viewer around our work by use of color, composition and focal point

To illustrate this point (ha ha! I kill myself sometimes…) I will show you book covers and describe some artistic principles used in composing them. These principles have been used as far back as cave art. Why? They are actually the result of studying natural human – or cave men – instincts and preferences in art. And publishers and cover artists know that they literally have seconds to make that good first impression.

So get ready for a lightening-quick course in art composition 101!

First and foremost is something called the Golden Mean, (or golden ratio, golden section, Phi, 1.618… its been around for so long it has many names in many languages). Essentially, Golden Mean is an “aesthetically pleasing proportion within a piece of artwork or architecture.” (Yes, ancient and modern architecture use the same ratio) Objects in artwork and architecture are placed according to the ratio of 2/5 to 3/5. Take a look at this cover.


               The word Divergent is placed approximately 2/5 from the top, and the centre of the orange circle is placed approximately 2/5 from the bottom. Likewise, the top of the word Divergent to the bottom of the name Veronica Roth is 2/5 from the bottom. Nothing is central, it’s either 2/5 or 3/5 from the top or the bottom. Take a look at the oval on the bottom right, the left edge of it is 2/5 from the left edge of the book. Again, look at this cover…


                The top of the fence is 3/5 from the bottom (or 2/5 from the top), the back of the guy is 2/5 (or the ratio 1.618 ) from the left side of the book. But you say, with a triumphant tone, that the ‘M’ in ‘My’ is very central, vertically. Yes, I would have to have agreed, however, there is so much that is not central that your eye is satisfied. The Golden Mean exists in nature, that’s why we are comfortable with it. (measure from the tip of your fingers to your wrist. It’s 2/5 of the distance to your elbow.)  Go on, look elsewhere, you will find the same ratio in flowers, animals, even snail shells. The cool thing about the Golden Mean is that we instinctively use it in decorating, gardening, anything creative.

                Now, for the use of colour. We all know what complimentary colours are: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple, etc. And if you again look at the top cover of Divergent, you will see orange and a muted blue-grey colour. This is great for impact. As long as one of the two complimentary colours is muted it is pleasing. However if both are the same intensity, the two colours will actually fight each other, and the picture will almost seem to vibrate.


                The above cover is bright and catchy, however if the orange was red, the effect might be more disturbing, but the use orange and green is safe, albeit still bright and fun for kids. (Also notice the use of the Golden Mein in the placement of the eyes, being 2/5 from the top).

                Okay, one more fun thing to note, which you can also use in decorating, gardening, etc. And that is the use of uneven numbers of focal points. Usually 3 or 5. Never even, it’s just not pleasing for some reason. The above cover has three focal points, the fish, the title and the yellow triangle. The Divergent cover also has three focal points, the orange circle, the title, and the black oval on the bottom right.

                So here is your homework. Can you spot the Golden Mein, the use of complimentary colours and uneven number of focal points in the following covers?

                                            ordinarygrace                        51xmLVZyUTL._SY160_

              Plus, take a closer look at your hand. Can you spot the ratio of the Golden Mean?  Hands up, anyone who has discovered it!

6 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Book Covers

  1. In mathematics, two quantities are said to be in Golden Ratio if their ratio is the same ratios as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities, which I think is along the lines that you’re talking about.


  2. Okay, I’m going to take your word for it… My morning head is having trouble grasping what you said… or maybe it’s my non-mathematical brain. 🙂 But yes, I can show you many pictures of architecture, even galaxies that show the Golden Mean, so it is the foundation ratio of many things. I get a kick out of things like that, that our brains are basically hard-wired by what is around us. Thanks for checking in Tim!


  3. I’ve never heard of the golden ratio as applied to book covers (though who can forget learning about it in Donald Duck’s trip to Mathmagic Land). I did learn a lot about the rule of thirds when I first got into desktop wallpaper designing, and I see that in book covers a lot. The focal points I had not heard at all – I’m going to have fun reviewing artwork looking for those. 🙂

    What I think is extra fascinating is once you are aware of such principles, you can see them being applied subconsciously everywhere. Anyone with a natural talent is such areas instinctively knows how to lay things out in a pleasing manner. So learning the guidelines just strengthens their talents.


    • Sparksofember, you are so right about people who have natural talent. I see works of many ‘untrained’ great artists who have used it very effectively. But as you say, once you know what to look for, you will find these principles EVERYWHERE! When interior decorators are decorating homes, you will see complimentary colours used to enhance things, uneven numbers in objects place around the room, and of course the Golden Mein. So watch for them everywhere! Thanks for checking in!


  4. Excellent post! As a former advertising and marketing director, I certainly relate to this. The average consumer may be surprised at the careful planning, including use of mathematics and color theory, that goes into even the simplest 2-dimensional design. And don’t get me started about white space and font choice. Everything works together to direct the eye where you want it to go and evoke the desired emotions.


  5. Hi Cynthia,
    Yes, there are so many ways we can affect our target audience, and I could only touch on a few or the post would be a short story! And the more you know the more you can use it to your advantage! I forgot you had advertising and marketing in your background! I’d love to hear more from your perspective! (yeah, I’ll get you started quite happily – another post maybe?)


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