Since the explosion of self-publishing, a cottage industry of graphic designers has cropped up to create the covers that sell the books. I know, I know, you should never judge a book by its cover, but let’s be realistic here: we all look at covers as our first line of decision making. Imagine for a moment you’ve never heard of Ray Bradbury. He’s just another guy cranking out books. You come across this cover.
Would it catch your eye?
Probably not. To be fair, I just grabbed some clip art I had lying around and threw some text on the cover, so it’s admittedly not my best work. The font, by the way, is the default Inkscape sans-serif font, cleverly named “sans-serif”.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fahrenheit 451, drop what you’re doing and go read it. It’s an important piece of literature and that’s not something I say lightly. If you are familiar with it, you’ll recognize the element of a burning book that is central to the story.
So, okay, it’s not a good cover from really any point of view, but rather than worry about the images of the flames and the book, we’re going to focus on the fonts and the emotions they invoke. That’s right, your font choice can elicit an emotional response. And that’s a very good thing, provided you’re eliciting the response you intend to elicit.
Inkscape’s default sans-serif font doesn’t do much to evoke a response, but it probably wasn’t intended to. It’s clean and easy to read, but it’s about as emotional as VCR instructions. Fahrenheit 451 is a very passionate book and saddling its cover with a font meant for memos and yard sale posters isn’t doing it credit. This is where exploring your font choices can make a huge impact. Just like you’d take the time to find the right images, it’s extremely important to find the right fonts – and that’s where a lot of beginners take a hit.
I’ve harped on fonts and typography in general before, so if you want a bit of background (including some cool free tips on Inkscape and GIMP), check these out. This post is going to be less historical and technical than some of the past ones, but no less important in terms of effective design.
Back in 2006, the Wichita State University’s Software Usability Research Laboratory conducted a study to see how people perceived certain fonts. Attaching something as nebulous and fleeting as an emotion or a perception to a font is no easy task, but the results were interesting. Using some standard Windows fonts, the researchers asked people to associate a font with a personality trait. You can go read more about that here, but the takeaway was people associate fonts with traits, sometimes quite strongly. Interestingly enough, sans-serif fonts didn’t seem to raise any noticeable good or bad personality associations, which would explain why the cover text for our mock-up of F451 looks so bland. But they did make some interesting associations (from blog.hubspot.com/marketing):
Serif fonts were rated as “stable,” “practical,” and “mature.”
Sans serif fonts didn’t receive any particularly positive or negative personality associations.
Script fonts were perceived as “feminine,” “funny,” and “casual.”
Modern fonts were categorized as “masculine,” “assertive,” and “coarse.”
Monospaced fonts were called “dull,” “plain,” and “unimaginative.”
Recently, CreativeMarket.com had a font sale – a whopping 43 fonts for 21 bucks (link at bottom). Some of them I’ll likely never use, but there were enough standouts in the collection to warrant purchasing it.
Just to show how font choice can affect the tone of a word, I chose a handful of the fonts and applied them to one word: Evolution. The word itself is something that could conceivably fit almost any genre of book from sci-fi to romance to horror. Watch what happens:
Inkscape default sans-serif, not bad, but not exciting, either
Inkscape standard serif font. At least has a bit more oomph, even if it’s evocative of newsprint.
Flanela Sans. Now we’re getting somewhere. The stark, thin lines could be good for sci-fi or a thriller. There’s a certain coldness to the font. Very computer-y without resorting to the standard monotype fonts that people seem to think computers still use.
Beautiful Friday 01. A playful font that’s more evocative of harmless fun. This would definitely not work for horror or thriller; it’s too happy. Would be good for romcom or feel-good fiction.
Castrina Typescript. Maybe it’s just me, but this feels very feminine. Probably a good choice for romance or summer beach reading.
Mutiara. The harsh lines don’t speak of safety or even sanity. Mutiara has an almost sinister, slasher-like feel to it. This would be a good choice for horror, but probably not a lot else unless it’s paired with another font; it’s too rough thrillers and far too in your face for romance.
Lost Volution. The Gothic lines are neat and tidier than Mutiara’s, but the decorative nature of the font is still overpowering. Emotionally, this has a somewhat sinister feel to it that would work well with horror or even steampunk. Westerns could possibly make good use of this one.
Solid70 Type System. Even though this is really retro font (those of who grew up in the 70s will recognize the style) it’s been modernized enough that it could work today. It’s a playful font, but the harsh angles still give it a very technical feel. With a bit of work, this could be effective in sci-fi or cyberpunk settings. Especially a 70s cyberpunk with big, clunky, plastic phones and loud keyboards.
Just a gander at those should evoke different emotional responses. They feel different. And even though each of them spell out the same word, that word takes on a different sense of meaning based on what font is used to present it.
So, if a font can impact how we feel about a word, it’s easy to imagine how a font can change the feel of a cover. Take the Fahrenheit 451 cover above, for instance. We know it’s not a lighthearted tale, so Beautiful Friday and Castrina are right out the window. Mutiara wouldn’t work on its own (more on that later) and Lost Volution is far too fussy. That leaves the default Inkscape fonts (which we’re going to ignore), Flanela Sans, and Solid70.
Much as I love Solid70, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the cover, but Flanela Sans just might work.
Not great, but better
The problem with Flanela is the coldness it inspires with its thin lines and tall letters. It’s a good font, but Flanela alone ain’t going to cut it a book about burning books; it needs some heat.
Which leads me to another point. There is no rule that says you can only use one font at a time. Mixing fonts is a bit of an art form, but it’s not completely inaccessible. Creative Market has a bunch of infographics on how to do it and do it well.
Let’s see if we can do some mixing and evoke more of an emotional response. Rather than sticking exclusively with Flanela, I’m going to bam it up a notch with Mutiara.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
The images and the layout still aren’t spectacular, but the text is looking pretty good. Now we’ve got Flanela’s cold, sterile feel combined with Mutiara’s in-your-face passion and a title that is a hell of a lot more eye catching than the original. And bear in mind, we did it with two fonts and only white. Adding yellow or orange to the 451, especially with a faint glow effect, might make it pop even more.
You can have the absolute best image for your cover and completely blow it with the font choice. Fonts elicit an emotional response and that response has to match up with what the book feels like. Just like it wouldn’t be appropriate to use Castrina Typescript or Beautiful Friday 01 for Fahrenheit 451, using a combination of Flanela and Mutiara for Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Girl On The Train would be a recipe for disaster. Although, I guess if you were to rewrite Lady Chatterly’s Lover and include zombies (Lady Chatterly’s Zombie Lover?), Flanela and Mutiara might work.
And, please, unless you’re designing the interface for Microsoft Bob, avoid Comic Sans.
Got any comments or other tips you’d like to add? Drop ’em in the comments. I love comments.
Get Lostvoltype’s Mega Font Bundle on Creative Market for only 21 bucks.
A couple posts about fonts and emotion.
By the way, if you’re wondering what the current cover for Fahrenheit 451 looks like, it looks like this. It’s a clean, clever play on the book and matches with a start font-set and stark color scheme that’s evocative of repressive governments everywhere. Brilliant, if you ask me.