Book Cover Design For Thumbnails

Joke about cover design

Book Cover Design For Thumbnail Viewing

I was reading through the book reviews in my local paper a few days ago when it struck me how boring the covers were on every book. Most consisted of the author’s name in massive letters and the book’s title – with no picture, graphics or anything else worth noticing. They looked like the designers had spent about two minutes on them, even though they were all traditionally published books.

A load of books are like that these days – for one good but irritating reason.

They have to be viewable on computer screens as tiny thumbnails.

At the size of a postage stamp, all details blur, leaving only bold visuals. There’s no point in designing a beautiful illustration to attract readers if you can’t see it when the cover’s reduced to a tiny blob.

Some books still have beautiful pictures on them – but they also have to have massive text on them too, which makes designing pleasing covers a difficult task. Either the name and title are visible when reduced to a thumbnail or they disappear into a scrawl over the picture. I saw a horror novel recently that had a great image on it at full size – but the author’s name (the greatest selling point) wasn’t clear at thumbnail size. His name was also in a colour that merged with the picture. You wouldn’t even know it was his book if you saw it at a distance in a shop, which seems to me like a bad idea from a marketing POV. However, I did like that cover at full size. It was visually interesting. At full size. The trouble is, you don’t see book covers at full size on websites, which is probably why a lot of publishers no longer bother making something that looks like a stunning work of art.

Years ago, I remember buying a book because I loved the cover illustration showing the characters in jeopardy. Unfortunately, at the size of a thumbnail, all of the detail is lost. The latest version of the same novel has an incredibly dull cover adequate for thumbnail viewing – but at full size it is awful. I’d not have bought that book if I’d seen it with the new cover. It does nothing for attracting new readers.

This week I decided to spruce up one of my own covers for an old Kindle title because my original had been designed for the first Kindle screen size of 800 x 600 pixels. It need to be increased to at least 1410 x 2250 pixels – the current ebook standard.

I spent several hours using the brilliant free software program GIMP to make it better suit the book’s content. I used a stunning photo of a creepy church and an exciting font for the text. The cover looked great when I finished it. Really atmospheric. Until I checked it out as a thumbnail.

I couldn’t tell what the picture showed – or read the book’s subtitle, which was in light green. The creepy church just looked like a featureless triangle reduced to a thumbnail (60×90 pixels.) Text needs to be around ten pixels high to be readable – a sixth of the cover size. Effectively, it was useless for websites/advertising.

Back to the digital drawing board, I increased the size of the text and adjusted the picture so it would stand out more against the background. But as a thumbnail it still didn’t work. Bigger text meant smaller picture. I couldn’t have the artwork AND the text visible. Since I loved the photo, I spent hours making adjustments to the text size and images, trying to squeeze both into my picture. To make the title visible as a thumbnail, I had to shrink everything else, making a compromise that ruined the appearance at full size.

I ended up scrapping the whole project because the cover had to be good at both sizes or there was no point in making a change.

After a night’s sleep, I had a new idea. I started again designing the cover in a different way – by using a different piece of free art software called Krita. I haven’t spent a lot of time learning how to use Krita because I use GIMP so much, but I wondered if it could help. Krita allows users to view an art project in more than one window – so you can see a big picture and a thumbnail version at the same time. (Maybe there is a way of doing that in GIMP – but I don’t know it.)

Thanks to Krita, I didn’t need to flick between the full size and a tiny thumbnail as I was working on it. I could see them both at the same time in separate windows. It helped me design my cover for both scales simultaneously, saving a lot of time messing around with the zoom feature.

I just wished I’d thought of using two windows for the same image before starting the cover.


Here’s the version I ended up using, which was very similar to my original because a sinister tower is easy to see on the cover:

It’s not perfect – but it is visible as a thumbnail.

Here’s a few things I’ve learnt the hard way about designing a cover for thumbnail viewing:

Text needs to be at least seven pixels in height to be read in a thumbnail. Ten is better. Fifteen is great.

Pictures have to have a lot of contrast to stand out when reduced. Changing the contrast can really boost visibility. Experiment only after saving your work.

Red text vanishes on a dark background. White really pops out. Yellow is pretty clear, too. Black on white also works. Red on white, too.

Fonts need to be discernible at very small sizes – so fancy ones are probably a bad idea. Text can be fitted into a small space by adjusting the line spacing and letter spacing. By reducing the gaps between letters, you can make the letters much bigger without taking up more cover space.

And don’t forget that it has to look good at full magnification – because errant pixels will stand out like a sore thumbnail.

Update: It turns out you can view an image at two sizes at once in GIMP. You go to the view menu and turn on a navigation window. A thumbnail view pops up. I wish I’d known that earlier!


Author: John Moralee

John Moralee writes crime, horror and science fiction.

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