Cover design for academic publications

academic cover design

Steve Thompson is a freelance cover designer. Here are a few of his thoughts, insights and tips for designers and those who commission them.

Books vs. journal covers

Many academic journals use a standard generic cover which is overprinted each issue with details of volume, date and sometimes article titles. That design can be retained for many years, acting as a umbrella brand identity for all the articles over that time. The importance of this design can be reflected in the care and time taken over the design and decision-making process. It’s also worth mentioning that a journal cover designer will usually just design the front cover whereas a book cover designer will be required to design not only the front but also the spine and back cover of the publication. The front cover is required quite early on, for advance marketing purposes, while the full cover for print is often put together a few weeks before actual publication.

The brief

It’s good to have, in the first instance, as detailed a brief as possible, and ideally to get input from the author as well as the publishing editor. Many of the publications I’ve worked on have been highly specialised and, while the designer can do a lot of productive research and image sourcing, guidance and suggestions from the ultimate specialist – ie. the author – can save a lot of time and designing up blind alleyways.

Designing for online

With the current importance of online sales and online publishing, the small thumbnail version of the cover is extremely important. On a platform like Amazon, this small image can be one of the key selling points of a book. And for a journal, where a reader requires only online access to articles, it may indeed be the only version of the cover that they ever see.


An obvious point, but keep abreast of current trends in cover design. While little is genuinely original and ground-breaking in academic publishing design, it’s also true that much of the best design successfully adapts and updates design trends from the past. Keep your own file of examples that you think work so you can learn from them and adapt them yourself.

Provide options

Aim to produce a wide variety of cover concepts. While the publishing editor will probably be familiar with your previous work, and how it may fit into the company’s visual identity, it’s less likely that the author will know it and their decision may well be the defining one. An initial varied selection of good ideas makes you look professional and will maximise the chances of everyone finding something they like that can be developed further.


Finally, wherever possible, try and get to see the printed publications. Particularly if you’re a freelancer, not all clients will send you a printer’s proof nor a copy of the publication. Worth a trip to an good academic bookshop once in a while and pull a load of books and journals you’ve worked on off the shelves, admire the work and learn any lessons.


academic cover designSteve Thompson has been a cover designer for fourteen years – seven as a salaried designer with a leading publisher and nearly seven as a freelancer. Clients have included Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Bloomsbury, Oxford University Press and Emerald. Visit his site or follow him on Twitter.