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Graphic Design for Authors: Advanced Concerns in Visual Design by Shauna Aura Knight

TruthUponHerLips_432If you have some basic skills and you’d really like to develop yourself as a cover designer or doing your own collateral materials, there are a number of things that will come up that don’t seem like they have anything to do with designing. However, it’s similar to how the skills you need to promote your book are different from the skills you used to write the book. There are all sorts of different things to take into account as you’re working to learn more about design.

Stock Photos and Rights

In the first article in this series I talked about some of the costs of licensing stock photos and artwork. Going into a little more depth, you will want to know what licenses you are buying and what rights you have. Some photos you may be required to list the photographer, or you may have to list a disclaimer. For that matter, if you take a picture of your friend and use that on your book cover, you need for them to sign a model release. I have a photo of myself that I’d love to use as a bio photo, but it has people in the background that are recognizable and I don’t have model releases for them.

This site is an excellent overview not only of various free stock photo sites, regular paid stock photo sites, but also of romance-specific and erotic stock photo sites. It also offers as an overview of several pre-made cover designers.

Raw Stock Photos

There are different types of stock photos. One of my frustrations has been finding photos of couples (or triads) for romance novels. You have to find them in the right pose, and the people have to match the descriptions in the book…and the pose has to have just the right level of sex appeal. The site linked above has some great links to romantic and erotic photos that are photographed specifically for cover designers like me. The catch is, they’re raw photos.

Most of the regular stock photo sites like iStock and Shutterstock will have lots of photos you can use “out of the box.”  Raw photos, on the other hand, have no color correction, no contrasting, no texture. In other words—to use those photos, you’re going to need more skill with Photoshop or your preferred program. Some of those photos are also going to be more expensive than what you’d get on some of the stock subscription sites, especially if you want exclusive rights to the photo.

How Did They Do That?

I have learned a lot about visual design over the years by looking at work other designers have done. Classically trained painters will spend time observing and painting copies of masterpieces in order to learn those techniques, and that’s still a useful method today for graphic design work.

This is the site of a cover designer that also sells romance-themed raw stock photos. While it’s a potential stock photo resource, I wanted to point your attention to the before and after shots. It’s an example of the difference between a raw stock photo and a photo that’s been modified to make it into an appropriate cover design, but the site offers a great example of a number of interesting visual treatments that turn a cover design from ho-hum to outstanding.

Just skimming over the covers, there are two or three cover designs where I’m thinking, how the heck did they do that in Photoshop?  Or, for the images where they add a tattoo, I thought, wow, that must have taken forever!

The point is, if you don’t know how to do those techniques, it can be a little overwhelming. However, most of the techniques used in these photo treatments and cover designs can be learned with time. I’ve learned a lot of techniques accidentally just by experimenting, but I’ve also sometimes looked at a particular visual treatment—like a colorful glow to indicate “magic is happening,” and thought, ok. How do I make that happen?

The more graphic design and photo manipulation you do, the more you will learn, and the easier it becomes to learn a new technique.

Pro Tip: If you’re ever trying to figure out how to do something, try searching for a video tutorial on Youtube. This is especially useful when you’re trying to figure out how to do something with the software you have. Recently I was trying to erase a background color from a complicated photo of a patch of roses. I knew there had to be a way to select just the white color and have it erase just that. A few searches on Youtube and I found the way to do what I wanted in Photoshop.

Design Inspiration

Graphic designers and artists will often save files (digital or physical) of examples of designs they find inspiring. When I was taking theatrical design classes, we always referred to that as a “designer’s morgue” and I’ve heard other people call it that as well. Whatever you call your stockpile of references, it’s a very effective way to not only learn about different visual layouts and photographic treatments, and it can help to inspire you when you’re trying to come up with a visual design for a project.

I have an entire plastic bin with about 25 pounds of design inspiration, plus a number of file folders on my computer. Some folks use Pinterest for this, though I find that I always end up saving an image to my hard drive if it’s inspiring me. Of course, much like with being inspired by your favorite writers, you will want to find that balance between being inspired by the design work of others, and just copying it.


This is a term that became popular with the rise of web design in the 1990’s, but it has been a part of software design and industrial design since before that. Usability applies to anything that can be designed including books, book covers, print materials, web graphics, and of course, your author web site.

Some of your design work has to focus on creating a stunning image that will bring people into your story, your world. And yet, people must be able to read the text. Many professional designers have one flaw: they get carried away with the lush beauty of their imagery, and they forget that the reader can’t read that 8 point text, or that scrolling calligraphic font that they chose for the title of the book.

I’ve been asked to give feedback on a number of book cover designs over the years, and so many designers get cranky at the idea of adjusting their beautiful image to make text more readable. Even I’m not immune to it on occasion.

One cover design I recently saw had a very slender, spare font, highly translucent, overlaid on a photo of a couple embracing. The title text was overlaid on the most complicated part of the photo where their arms were around each other.  Visually, it was beautiful, but legible it was not. I, and several others, offered feedback to the author to convey to their cover designer. The designer was, predictably, recalcitrant about adding more contrast.

Here’s the bottom line; if your reader can’t read the title of the book, the cover design has failed, no matter how stunning it is.

Usability and Layout

Going further, when you’re designing the layout of your book, or a postcard, or a brochure, or any other piece of collateral, it really serves to think about the intended function of the piece and take a look at it just from a usability and accessibility angle. Can people read the text? Can people navigate the document? Page numbers, headers, appropriate font size, appropriate leading and paragraph spacing all aid in readability. Sometimes clients ask me to design a letter-size flyer and send me so much copy I’d need two pages with 5 point text.

Usability concerns include making sure there isn’t too much text for the size of the document (postcard, brochure, book cover, book page, etc.) It’s also offering visual elements like headers and bolding to help guide people through something like a longer document.

A lot of designers will whine about usability, but it’s good design. In fact, offering good visual cues (like the way I use headers and bullet points in my articles, for instance) create a more aesthetic visual design for the page. In fact, offering specific focused text in bold or italic is another way to draw someone’s eye to something important.

In other words, graphic design isn’t all about the fancy Photoshop work. It’s also document and text design and making sure that people can read what you’re putting in front of them.

A lot of usability for smaller printed pieces boils down to:

  • Making sure there’s not too much text.
  • The text is readable.
  • There’s enough contrast (drop shadows or similar treatment can offer additional contrast if there’s a complicated textural image behind the text).
  • The design is easy on the eyes by aligning text and images, using readable colors.


Bio200A graphic designer, artist, author, and presenter, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations.

She’s the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels includingWerewolves in the Kitchen, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, and A Fading Amaranth. She is also the author of the nonfiction books The Leader Within,  Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and forthcoming The Facilitation Handbook: Enchanting a Group

Shauna’s writing and artwork is inspired by the mythic stories of heroes, of swords and magic, and of the darkness we each must overcome. That the challenges we face shape us, and help each character—each person–to become heroes.  Shauna is passionate about creating experiences, spaces, stories, designs, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  Web Site:



Graphic Design and Consulting:

Shauna’s artwork and graphic design are used for fiction and nonfiction book covers and marketing collateral. Her work often has a dark, mythic, textural flavor. If you’re looking for an honest opinion on your covers or other collateral, she’s happy to offer a brief review for free.  If you’re interested in engaging Shauna for graphic design, mention this article for 30% off your first project (maximum of $200 off).  You can view her portfolio here:


As a child Angel Leigh was quite often found curled up with her nose buried in a book. By her teen years, she was writing as much as she was reading. ...