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


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.


LINE –  is one of the most significant ways to, “ tell a book by it’s cover”.  This is because every book has a title, every title is made up of words, every word is made up of letters, and every letter is made up of lines. The character of the lines selected can reflect the character of the book.  Lines can be straight or curved. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So the implication is, straight lines are direct, ”to the point”, they are straightforward, whereas, curved lines are considered, roundabout, circuitous, taking the long way around. Too many curves, and line becomes confusing, like a bowl of spaghetti  So, the general appearance of the lines forming the title can suggest how the information in the book is being delivered.  Examples of how lines speak to us can be found in reading material. Say you are taking in a paragraph of text, and you encounter a word printed in bold type. That word has increased presence, significance, strength, and weight – all because the lines forming that word are thicker compared to those of the rest of the text.  You read on, and encounter words in italics. This gives you pause, the words do not seem to belong with the rest. They appear to come from somewhere else, removed from the context of what you are reading. These impressions stem from the altered character of the lines forming that words. Continuing to read, you encounter a word all in CAPITAL LETTERS. Whoa!  This word is LOUD. It has emphasis and importance. It is shouting at you. This condition results from the lines forming the word being uniformly “ impressive“. All other words previously encountered have been aligned at the bottom while the top edge is jagged, causing your eye to bounce along the tops of the letters. With capital letters, alignment is top and bottom, creating a visual slickness to the word for faster comprehension.

With all this in mind, imagine a book cover with a title in capital letters, taller than wide, made up of lines that are thick and straight. The response to this  arrangement suggests a book that shouts at you being impressive and bold, containing stature, weight, slickness, significance, and is to the point.  But say there is a book cover with a title in capital letters with lines that are thin and tall.  It too wants attention, it is impressive but contains content of elegance or fragility.  A cover with a title in capital letters with lines that are both thick and thin, suggests there is a dynamic at play within the novel.  There is boldness and elegance, strength and fragility.  The relative thick and thin appearance of the lines found in each letter presents how disparate is the dynamic presented in the story.  A wide line and a very thin line shows a strong conflict involved, whereas less difference in line thickness found in the letters may suggest a dance, or play by play of opposing forces within the book.   By comparison, consider a book about a small lost child.  A book cover title in lowercase, using letters a bit wider than tall, presented in thin lines and, some word or words of the title  printed in italics, would reflect the plot of this story. 

The varieties in lines forming alphabets are called fonts. There are a bazillion fonts and more being created every day. Fonts come in all forms and styles including; script, calligraphy, imaginative, and those commonly used in print.   Matching the character of line found in a font with the character of a story found in a book is challenging, as the choices are seemingly endless and relating all the thoughts gleaned through reading story to the nuances presented in visual lines take a leap on inspiration.  Among the most common fonts  are two basic categories, or families, serif and sans serif.  Serif styles have extensions or flourishes at termination points of the letters. A capital “T” for example has little “feet” extending right and left at the base of the vertical line and downward protrusions ending the top horizontal line pointing downward.  These extensions reflect human’s urge to embellish or decorate. Originating perhaps in those medieval illuminated manuscripts, in calligraphy, and engraving.  The original printing presses and typewriter keys had hand carved letters cast in little molds. Consideration implies serif fonts are based in our past, have human involvement, old school thinking, and having a connection to history. They are old time fonts.  Sans serif fonts have clean lines with no extensions, embellishments, or flourishes. When learning the alphabet, children do not bother with flourishes, they execute letters as simply as possible. Computers began with dots on a screen configured into letters, these combined with dot matrix printers  utilizing limited memory capacity. When computer memory expanded the selection of fonts, common factory set font style to Helvetica or something similar,  sans-serif font preference being the most widely adapted to modern computer printing. So, a book with modern or futuristic elements would embrace a sans-serif font while a book about the past might suite a serif font. Differentiating  a fantasy novel from science fiction can be determined by the style / or family of title font. 

The cover of a low budget book, or self published book might be obvious if the words of the title and the lines that embody the words do not “speak” to you, or relate in some meaningful way to the title.  An author will bring a lot of consideration to determine a title for their book, to suggest the story content and provide a thought provoking “hook” to the potential reader.  A graphic designer will spend their consideration on the  style of line used for the title, perhaps exaggerating some element to embellish a visual relationship to the story.  Without a good graphic designer involved, the title does not communicate any meaning beyond the words. Mass Market editions, Specialty Press collectable books, and Motion Picture titles grasp the value of a graphic designer and budget for their services. For example, if you ask someone for their favorite color, they will tell you.  Ask an artist or graphic designer the same question and their likely response is, “Relative to what?” .  A color may have context; red may mean anger, green- envy, yellow- fear, blue- sadness.  Same with the lines in fonts. An author or publisher may over use a favorite font as a knee jerk default because they like it, whether or not it speaks to the story in the book.  


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