They say you can’t judge a book by its cover? But the fact is, the cover is the first thing we see and will impact our first impressions of a book. Writing the manuscript for my first book, a memoir of my search for my birth family, was an incredible experience. I love writing. But I’m also visual, and I was looking forward to creating what would become the visual branding for my book.
Below is the design process I went through for my book cover, along with the initial concepts and later iterations I created before ending at my final cover.
The name of my memoir is Searching for Me. It is a play on words because, in searching for my family, I realized I was actually searching for me. I was searching for the truth of my own identity and belonging.
I wanted the cover design to include a sense of the feeling I had throughout my journey and the discoveries I made. My story starts off on an Italian cruise ship (I don’t want to spoil the surprise in the book). But that cruise ship is a key element of the story’s beginning. DNA testing played a major role in my search, so I wanted to include this element, but I was afraid of going too far in the scientific direction. I wanted to maintain the emotional connection. This was paramount for me.
So during my initial brainstorm concepts, I wanted to play with elements that included cruise ships, Italy, and DNA. My sense of belonging became a key factor of the story. In fact, that sense of belonging would up becoming a much larger part of the story than I thought, and I ended up going back to expand much of the story.
As you can see, I played around with both purely graphical as well as photo real elements. But one element of the paper doll cutouts kept calling to me. On one hand, they symbolized the searching for faceless names in my DNA results. But more than that, they captured perfectly the emotional side of a connected family. And by ripping out one of the dolls, it was able to show the other side of the story – a family that had given me up for adoption and was missing that part of their family.
For all these reasons, I ended up choosing the third concept as the one that captured my story the most. Now, it was time to iterate this concept into a more polished design.
My story is one of adoption, family, and belonging. The paper dolls, I felt, really captured this. But it left out the DNA search, something that was another important part.
The paper doll concept worked well and so I added the DNA strand as a spinoff from that. I liked how it took a scientific idea and turned it into something tactile and emotional.
I also played with the typography of the title. Something I loved with the one paper doll missing from the chain was that it created a nice piece of negative space. I’m a huge fan of whitespace and negative space. Clutter confuses and I was going to do everything in my power to maintain a clear design.
But the missing doll in the chain also created an opportunity to add me back into the chain. By adding the text “me” back in, it told everyone who that missing link was. While I liked the white “me” to blend in with the paper chain, I felt it blended in a little too much. I had to search too hard for the text.
Additionally, I played around with a jean texture, no texture, and paper texture for the background, with different placements of light sources. In the end, I felt the paper background kept the design more consistent.
After showing the design to some respected friends, I began to see some trends that I would tweak. The most glaring was that I realized the DNA strand was overpowering the design. So I pushed it back in color, and also into the shadows. It was there, but it was no longer the story itself. It was now where it should be, playing a supporting role.
The last element to include was a tiny scrap of paper where the arms of the dolls was ripped. This, for me, added the little bit of realism to a purely graphical design. It also was a subtle “breadcrumb” that is left behind. Something for me to follow as part of my search.
And here is the final design for my first book, Searching For Me.
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Hi. I'm Scott Sullivan, a slave of Christ and husband to my awesome wife Angie. I'm an artist and writer,
living in the beautiful countryside of Lancaster, Pa.