Greetings fellow Earthlings. I’m Don Maitz, an artist who has worked professionally in the book publishing industry for nearly fifty years. I’m here to explain how, given informed visual information, you CAN tell a book by it’s cover.

You’ve heard it said, “ A picture is worth a thousand words.” and, “ Every picture tells a story.”  What gives truth to these statements is that images have a language. If observed with insight, they speak to us.  Studied consideration is required to parse out the words pictures reveal. 

Here is an example of a picture communicating with a word. On your person you likely have a camera, the one in your cell phone. Most cameras offer two choices. One can position the device so the subject is framed in a vertical format, or the desired image can be captured in the horizontal position. There is a word being communicated for each orientation, regardless of what is in the frame. In the vertical selection the word is, “Impressive”.  We admire tall things. We look up to them, literally. Things that have vertical stature impress us. When framing the subject in the horizontal format,  the word that emerges is, ‘Expansive”. This is because things wider than they are tall, urges our peripheral vision to kick in.  As our limited scope perceives the world as flat, the horizontal framing suggests a nearly endless horizon being evoked. This is subtle communication that implies a reaction we know deep down, but is taken for granted, and so becomes overlooked.  Our subconscious registers these visual cues and “reads“ the images we see. It is word association, inspired by graphic content. 

The French Impressionist painter and sculptor, Edward Degas, once said, “Art is not about what we see, but about what the artist makes us see.”   How do artists accomplish this?  They use five tools, which are the underlying structural principles of a  visual image. Much like composers of music utilize string, wind, and percussion instruments, the instruments of the graphic artist are; LINE, TONE, SHAPE, COLOR & TEXTURE.  These forms are engineered or orchestrated to create a design, much like musical instruments work in concert to create a sound or tune. Each of these five visual elements ”speak” to us in different ways. Careful observation interprets what they say.


TONE – is a communicating feature that relies upon the perceived presence or absence of light.The term has dual meanings, conveyed both graphically and verbally.  “Don’t take that tone with me!”  ‘Set the right tone.” , “Tone it down.” Are examples of this word used in common speech. In visual speech, we can relate the “tone” by way values presented in a gradation from white (the presence of light) to black (the absence of light). 

The word “ value” itself has connotations.  We esteem a person with high values.  Someone with no or low values is seen as dark.  The tone of a story a can be directly related on the cover of a book by selecting the appropriate tone or tones on a white to black value scale.  We’re taught to anticipate good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats from the old TV westerns. We equate goodness as being full of light, and evil in the realm of darkness. So a children’s book portraying good values would gravitate to the light end of the value range.  A horror novel would gravitate to the dark end of the value scale. Utilizing the value scale with white at one end and black at the other, the in-between contains graduated increments between these extreme points. In this middle area being mid tone grays, if the incremental scale were assigned numbers 1 to 10, value 5 would be the “half tone”. Grays in the middle range indicate MOOD, neither good nor bad. The story or subject could go either direction towards the light or dark, implying an indecisive environment.  Given a book with the conflict presented as simple good vs. evil, cover elements in black and white without mid-tones would “speak” to that polarity.  To portray a complete range of emotions and intentions with complex outcomes, the full tonal, or dynamic value range would “speak’ to that scenario. Proportions matter. A predominantly light cover ( high key) with a bit of dark conveys general goodness with a bit of doubt. A white cover with a bit of black on it indicates evil is lurking or threatening a good, joyful or, happy environment.  An all black cover with a bit of white, suggests evil is about to snuff out goodness.  

Where the strongest contrast of value or tone is present, there resides the focus! The viewer’s eye will lock onto that spot.  We differentiate things by contrast or we flounder, like finding a white dog in a snowstorm or a black cat in a dark room. Contrast makes things stand out.  Attention is riveted to where that contrast is strongest.  This is why very light lettering against a very dark area on a book cover, or dark or black type is presented over a white or light cover area is most effective.  This giving the title and / or author center stage.  The attraction of a best selling author’s name may take precedence over the book’s title as a selling point.  The title may loom large over a relatively unknown author. Sometimes an illustration’s strong value pattern exceeds the title and author’s tonal dynamic. This is intentional if the art is the  stronger selling point or primary subject of interest. Dominant importance of content, if not given careful consideration, confusion results. This value determination is called visual hierarchy. If a graphic image fails to communicate, the source of the trouble can be found in the tonal placements. Too many tonal changes that obscure the focal area are distracting making the image difficult to read.  In some cases,  this effect may be desired, but seldom on a book cover.  If the most important element(s) get the strongest value change, the contrast at that intended placement doesn’t just speak , it shouts, “LOOK HERE”! 

Please note: I’m posting this on behalf of Don Maitz on the blog, he was nice enough to share his knowledge and expertise with all of us and there will be several parts to this series posted each Monday. The series will cover Line, Shape, Tone, Color and Texture. If you’d like to find more content from with or learn more about Don he (and Janny Wurts) can be found here on


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