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.


SHAPE –  is the formative molecule of the visual world. Everything has a shape. Artists learn there are only three that form the basis for all we see. These three shapes may be altered and combined, but all fall into three basic categories.  They are: the SQUARE, the CIRCLE, and the TRIANGLE.  I believe each shape conveys a word.  The word the square speaks is TRUTH, the circle says- ATTRACTION, the triangle relates to MOTION.

The SQUARE –  is formed of four ninety degree angles.  These are also termed RIGHT angles.  When aligned horizontally and vertically,  they are referred to as TRUE , or,  ON THE LEVEL. Any object parallel to these right angles is considered JUSTIFIED right, left, top, or bottom.   When we see a picture hanging on a wall, that is tilted,  it is NOT RIGHT.  It is crooked, skewed, or false to our minds.  A page or a book is shaped as a vertical rectangle, or, a tall square, which “speaks” to us as – an Impressive Truth. The common shape for signs is square based. This shape communicates what we trust- because our language use describing the shape informs of this.   Would you trust a book shaped like a parallelogram?  I noticed when the book on the Mueller Report released, the graphic impact of the cover was distinctly blockish with right angles everywhere.  The intent was to impart the truth of the content. 

The CIRCLE –  is an eye magnet, an irresistible visual force. When a circle is involved, one WILL look at it. As Darwin suggests humanity climbed out of the ooze on flippers, the two dominant objects encountered were the sun and moon. We respond to the circle as an attractant. When we encounter and discourse with anyone, man or beast, we look them in the eye. Targets, telescopes, bullseyes, traffic lights, dials, scopes, all objects meant to get our attention, are circles.  A circle anywhere, demands an immediate look.  We ZERO in on circles.  Even partial circles share this effect. Artists have used the letter “S” as a design element since the two broken circles create an eye path that forces the viewer to travel throughout a rectangle rather than being locked into the center or the corners.  I might suggest that “breast fixation” is not so much misogyny, rather it’s a circle jerk.  If there is an important element to a story that can be contained by a circle, or related in some way to a circle. – the letter ” O “ in a title for example, that will draw observer attention.  

The TRIANGLE –  is all about action and movement. The shape is a pointer whose intersecting lines give direction for the eye to travel. Ancient pyramids point heavenward, The base of an upward pointing triangle is hugely stable. Yet inverted, creates tension and a dire sense of instability, as if the mass is in immanent danger of tipping over. Linear perspective is all based upon the triangle. Converging lines to a vanishing point on the horizon are pointers drawing the eye into the picture plane.  Arrows are directional triangles. If a book is action based, using or exaggerating triangle shapes on the cover will serve to communicate that content. Leaning type forms an atmosphere of triangles, fonts with lines that end in triangular shapes will inject additional action. 

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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