What’s the Story Look Like?
The first book cover I can remember being entranced by was the cover of Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine. And really, what’s not to love about it? It’s a gorgeous painting of a creepy house, from the perspective of someone walking up to the front porch. You’ve got the contrast of gloomy blues and purples with the vibrant orange of something alive inside the house. There’s a creepy figure in the window, the gooey splatter framing the image which incorporates the Goosebumps logo, and a simple tagline that really says it all: It will just kill you.
It was love at first sight. I collected the first fifty books in that series before graduating to more mature material, but I always returned to the first title in the series because of that cover. I must’ve read the book at least ten times. R.L. Stine was my introduction to horror fiction, and the cover of Welcome to Dead House (designed by Tim Jacobus) was the first book cover that ever grabbed me. I needed to read the book.
And that’s what a good cover does. It’s supposed to intrigue a potential reader, convey the book’s contents and capture the mood in a single image. I’ve had an appreciation for good covers ever since elementary school, but I didn’t really learn to love the art form until I discovered the work of Chip Kidd.
You know him. You don’t know you know him, but you do. He’s designed jackets for John Updike, Haruki Murakami, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, Donna Tartt, Brett Easton Ellis, and Michael Crichton. He’s worked in comics, designing covers for Superman and Batman, Frank Miller’s Sin City series of graphic novels, and more. And he also designed the cover for Jurassic Park, from which the iconic skeletal logo was derived. Yeah. Like I said, you know him.
I’ve studied Chip’s work ever since I read his novel, The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters. The story is semi-autobiographical, about an art student during his first year at college, but really, it’s a primer on the basic principles of graphic design. If you’re like me and find this sort of thing fascinating, I urge you to check it out. Everything I know about designing book covers I learned from the work of Chip Kidd, and I still go back to his work for inspiration.
He sums up the cover designer’s job with a simple question: What do stories look like? All stories, whether truth or fiction, need to look like something. That something is what communicates the story to you, the reader, before you open the book. A good design will communicate the story to you in interesting ways. This is my guiding philosophy when I try to create a cover. How can I portray this story to you in a single image, in a way that you haven’t seen before, in a way that will challenge you, intrigue you, frighten you?
My goal as a designer is to bring Chip Kidd’s approach to the horror genre. There are hundreds of amazing horror covers out there, some of which I’ll share here, but for the most part they’re derivative. This isn’t a bad thing—it’s how a brand is built. Just look at all those Goosebumps covers. But if I can bring anything to the table, it must be something different, something which stands out. I want to offer something new.
In closing, here are a few of my favorites:
TODD KEISLING is the author of A Life Transparent, The Liminal Man, and the critically-acclaimed novella, The Final Reconciliation. His most recent release is the horror collection, Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, available now from Crystal Lake Publishing. He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.
His design services are also available for hire through Dullington Design Co. For inquiries and portfolio, please visit his website: http://www.toddkeisling.com/tk/?page_id=3877
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