Size Matters: How to Look Good in Thumbnail

The golden ratio: observe how the swoop of the shooting star’s tail adheres to the ratio’s curve, and the eye ends up being drawn to the text of the author’s name (which is slightly bigger than the title).

The golden ratio: observe how the swoop of the shooting star’s tail adheres to the ratio’s curve, and the eye ends up being drawn to the text of the author’s name (which is slightly bigger than the title).

One consequence of consumers buying books online has been the use of thumbnail size pictures. Most covers hitherto have been designed for the purpose of attracting attention in brick-and-mortar stores, so cover designers have been able to experiment with complex images. Unfortunately, complex images haven’t translated well to online stores like Amazon, where the size of the cover picture is reduced to 300 pixels on the product detail page, and, worse, 60 x 90 pixels on the search results page. Tiny details are lost with the compression of the image, and often the overall appeal of the cover is lost with it.

While cover designers can still rely on tricks of the trade such as the golden ratio, demonstrated left with an older edition of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, there has been a growing amount of interest in the power of a simple, central image, which doesn’t require the eye to work too hard to understand it. We’ll be discussing in particular two covers which were produced by self-published authors whose titles made it into Amazon’s Top 10 YA bestseller list. The covers of self-published ebooks can be crucial to the success of an author – they’re a simple, obvious way to promote a book that may not have many other avenues.

You can see the author's name, title and evocative central image.

You can see the author’s name, title and evocative central image.

Note how the nine box grid effectively frames the clasped hands.

Note how the nine box grid effectively frames the clasped hands.

First, we’ll be looking at Emma Bennet’s His Secret Daughter. The cover design is very, very simple, featuring text in an unexciting typeface superimposed over a stock image of a child holding an adult’s hand. However, the designer has clearly tried to follow the rule of thirds, where a cover is laid out in accordance with a nine-box grid. In this case, the author’s name and strapline are in the top horizontal section, the image in the middle section, and the book’s title in the bottom. The designer has positioned the image of the clasped hands in the exact centre of the cover, creating a strong focal point.

This cover is not complex, but, critically, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the simplicity of the design has helped contribute to the book’s success, as it works equally successfully at full size, at 300 pixels or in a tiny thumbnail.

The sweep of the curve leads the eye directly to the title and author.

The sweep of the curve leads the eye directly to the title and author.

The same cover at thumbnail size. This is how it would appear in an Amazon search.

The same cover at thumbnail size. This is how it would appear in an Amazon search.

The second cover design under consideration is Bella Forrest’s A Shade of Vampire 12: A Shade of Doubt, which reached #10 on the YA Bestsellers list. In this case, the cover design is much more complex, with the designer clearly attempting to make use of the golden ratio. The ratio’s curve neatly bisects the space between the protagonist’s figure and the full moon, finishing up where the title begins. Were it intended to be seen at full size, this cover would still have some issues (the pose of the two characters is too obviously Photoshopped to be natural, to begin with), but it would be a reasonable starting point. The potential reader would be better able to appreciate the intricate flowery title design at that size, for example. Unfortunately, when seen on Amazon (most of the book’s sales are through the Kindle), it can only be seen at 300 pixels or at 60 x 90 pixels. This means that the intricacy of the title design is pointless. At 300 pixels, it makes the design as a whole look cluttered and overcrowded; at 60 x 90 it is unintelligible. Even the central image is difficult to discern, and both the title and author’s name are nearly impossible. Ultimately, because of the overcrowding, the design is a failure.

The design which used the rule of thirds, His Secret Daughter, while plain and unassuming, is much more successful because it can be reduced in size – as the designer knew it would have to be – and still maintain its essential elements: image, author’s name and title. Even the strapline is visible, if not readable, at thumbnail size. By contrast, A Shade of Doubt is a busy design even at full size, with too many elements competing for the eye. When reduced in size, it becomes chaotic. Keeping in mind how book covers will actually appear is critical for a designer: any cover where the first impression changes depending on the image size has a serious flaw to overcome.

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