How to capturing abstract ideas in a book cover design

How do you capture an abstract thought for a book cover design? That’s the question one person left in the comments section to Judging a book by its cover.

That is a challenge. A lot of abstract ideas — like love, grief, joy, freedom, etc. — have emotional and psychological weight. Photography is an easy tool to use in conveying physical responses to abstract thoughts. Photos illustrating love or grief become cliché. For example: how many books can you find at a local book seller on the topic of grief of a loved one that includes sun bursting through voluminous clouds? There are reasons for a majority of the bereavement books have similar titles — primarily marketing. Readers looking for books on how to cope with grief in a book store find themselves staring at a shelves of cloud cover books. So how does a graphic designer create a cover that competes with all the cloud-covered-grief-books?

Here are two other tools to consider: color and shape.

Color

Color psychology informs me what colors might work best to address a book on the topic of grief, freedom or spirituality. The challenge arises frequently — due to an enormous amount of books published every year — that most books on the topic of grief utilize the same color scheme or photographs of a path leading through a forest with a bright patch of light at the end or the ever-present sun breaking through the clouds. So I turn to color psychology as a tool to design a book cover dealing with the abstract concepts of grief, joy, love, etc. There has been a lot of research in this field to learn from. For example, blue (depending on the shade or tint) offers a feeling of peace, tranquility, confident, and as reliable as the sky and ocean. But blue can also be cold and corporate (again, depending on the shade or tint). Interestingly, brown can express reliable and authenticity.

Shapes

Recently, I’ve turned to the psychology of shapes and patterns as a way to define abstract ideas like endurance, peace or joy. According to research, there are three main categories of shapes: geometric, organic and abstract. Other distinctions remind me of primary school including: circles, squares, triangles, spirals, and more. Also, the orientation of the shape is essential — horizontal and vertical. Squares and rectangles are common but express peace, stability, conformity or other abstract concepts. For example, a horizontal rectangle expresses confidence in much the same manner as the color blue. Whereas a spiral shape my best represent grief as it expresses the idea of death, life and transformation.

As I share the psychology of color and shape with authors with whom I am designing their book covers, they often need to be educated on the visual vocabulary of these ideas. Most of the authors understand the premise of how color, shapes and patterns express the content of their book. Additionally, most of the authors prefer a photographic cover design. This is a bit off in my mind, because what is a photograph but a composition of colors and shapes? Is there a lack of visual literacy in our culture? Or is the graphic design community a cloistered cult of artists that do not share secrets with the outside world?

As I design book covers, these are the tools I fall back on consistently: color and shapes.

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