The Cover Matters

First written on December 17, 2014 & updated on February 05, 2023.

6 min. read

You can’t judge a book by its cover

You’ve surely had this trope dogmatically thrown at you at some point. Perhaps by someone fond of prepackaged thinking and unsolicited advice. It may have had uses as a tool to protect people against easy judgement, but when generalized in its popular form, it’s thoughtless.

I’m going to make a daring assumption: you and I agree that design usually tends to improve things. I know, a certain Jony has recently proved to us that designers who achieve a little bit too much power can in fact make things worse for a lot of people. But in general, design is a system of thinking with the purpose of achieving something not only beautiful but functional and friendly to its user as well.

If we do agree on this definition, here’s what a book’s cover tells me about what’s inside. It tells me that someone involved in the creation of the book cared about its initial perception. The perception that someone with no prior knowledge of the book, its author, its publisher, its subject — anything — would have about the book.

Caring about a the cover takes humility and empathy. Despite their involvement bias, whoever does care about the cover realizes that there may be humans on earth who do not know why this book matters. Why they should read it.

There are some essential elements to a cover. Just imagine for a second an utterly blank cover: a pure white piece of thick paper. What does it tell you about the book? It tells you that someone, perhaps the author, believes that it’s unnecessary for the book to have any external means of identification. This is an extreme example. It’s always easier to reveal the cracks in an argument when you push its to its logical limit.

Now let’s take a beautiful cover. It has everything. The title and the author’s name are carefully printed with an elegant typeface and located unambiguously on the front and the spine. There’s an interesting illustration that attracts attention in a bookstore regardless of the prospective reader’s artistic preference. If the title doesn’t make the subject of the book self-evident, perhaps there’s a short subtitle which will secure the interest of someone whose attention was captured from afar but perhaps wasn’t exactly sure of the subject matter. If there are pull-quotes in the back, they’re not ridiculously superlative but they simply ignite more curiosity if they originate from people who the passerby respects and whose opinion they trusts.

Let’s stop here. Wouldn’t you judge this cover significantly differently that you would the blank one? Aside from the fact that a blank cover would admittedly make a book stand out, the odds of you not even being able to judge the blank cover because you won’t see it are great.

It doesn’t take bad design to make good design stand out. It helps, of course. In a sea of blue icons, a red one stands out. It’s a statement. You will judge that statement. It will give you information, however tenuous, about the application behind the icon.

A few years ago I was looking for an accountant. Despite being the son of an accountant, I know next to nothing about the topic. Especially because what little I knew related to accounting in France, not in the U.S. From experience, I only had a few keywords to help me in my search. I knew I was looking for a CPA, Certified Public Accountant. After unsuccessfully asking a few friends for a recommendation, my patience ran short and I decided to take two approaches: Google and Yelp.

I assumed that Google would be littered with paid ads and SEO-gamed results (it was) which would limit my ability to discern good choices from bad ones considering I basically had no criteria to compare a good from a bad CPA. Moreover I didn’t expect an accountant’s website to help me judge whether they were good at what they do. Unlike web designers, their job isn’t to maintain an attractive website.

My one hope laid in the book’s cover. Devoid of an ability to judge the substance of something, appearances turn into a powerful signal. So I loaded up a dozen of CPA websites. I filtered the ones with the highest ratings on Yelp and the ones that appeared to be from my local area in Google. I wanted to meet this person. I needed to be able to trust them.

Immediately I saw a barage of stock photography. Some woefully inadequate for accounting matter. I spotted some obvious and unimaginative WordPress themes which were poorly adapted to the task of conveying trustworthiness and experience.

Then something strange happened. I found a beautiful website. Clear navigation focused on what I wanted to know: who this person is, what they do, why it matters, and why they should be trusted.

More importantly, there was a sense of taste pervading from the site. You could question the choice of style, but it was unquestionably applied by someone who knew what they were doing. It didn’t matter to me whether this CPA built the site themselves or paid someone to do it. All that mattered was that they cared. That told me a lot. The tone of the website’s copy was concise, it was fresh. It made me want to trust them because it wasn’t boilerplate and it wasn’t stuffy.

Now it’s possible that this website may have had a different effect on someone older than me or someone from a less web-savvy background who doesn’t respond to these cues because they have no special appreciation for good typography, good copy, good content design. But I believe an effect nonetheless. Even ill-equipped to measure professionalism, people can smell it. They can feel it. I know I did.

After leaving a message using the contact form conveniently accessible on the home page of the site, I received a phone call from the CPA herself. She matched her cover perfectly. She was warm, professional, sharp and before calling me she even did her homework by looking me up based on the email address I purposefully used on the contact form. She knocked it out of the park.

This superficial impression was later confirmed when I met her and the rest of her team. I judged a book by its cover, and it was a damn good book. This is not the first time it has worked out well for me: books, music, restaurants, programming language communities, and even people.

It’s true that I’ve discovered bad books with great covers, but unless I’m letting confirmation bias get the best of me, I’ve had more lucky strikes than bad apples.

PS: Skeptics of this conclusion may delight in the fact that for whatever reason, a few after I started working with the CPA I mention in this post, they entirely ghosted me. I’m not sure if they went under, had an influx of much more profitable clients, a huge technical issue, or if something else happened. So my little anecdote took a hit. While I know some beautiful covers might hide nastiness, that doesn’t completely change my point of view on the signal that a well-crafted one sends.