Judge it! a book by its cover

Faculty of Communication, Art & Media, at the University of Malaya-Wales

This is a break from the norm for me, as it contrasts with my interest in minimizing cognitive bias  and introduces me to the power of visual rhetoric, how we are persuaded by the things we see. Here, on invitation to judge six pieces of art, I celebrate creativity, and pleasurably give in to my biases, subjective thoughts and prior experiences; actively prejudging content on outward appearance alone.

Visual form to written content

The English idom “don’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t necessarily literally true or easy. Many initial judgments are made on covers all the time. According to the Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of the Codex Group, a book audience research company, “the first impression you get of a book, unless you’ve heard of the title or author from a friend, is its cover, the face it shows to the world”. This is expected in the industry, and further supported by a long stream of research evidencing the high visual impact of packaging in purchase decisions (Veruga & Luceri, 2018). Humans are highly visual creatures. The visual area at the back of our brains comprising of 30 percent of our cortex (Van Essen, 2004; Likerman, 2012). 

Consequently, and especially in highly competitive genres, a book’s packaging must be captivating, and offer a glimpse into its content (Writer Unboxed, 2018). Preparing Visual Communication students for these skills, Dr. Nisa Omar, of the Faculty of Communication, Art & Media at the University of Malaya-Wales set a 2-hour challenge. Produce a book cover by hand that effectively portrays the story within.

A great cover is that first impression that makes someone say “I need to read that’ by showing them why the book matters to them in a way they can immediately grasp, or at least pique their interest enough to want to learn more (Kidd, 2012; Max, 2018).


Scroll down to the six covers and make your own assessment. What does the imagery convey to you about the potential story within? What emotions, sensations, and thoughts spring immediately to mind? Compare with my interpretations.

The actual ‘synopsis’ of the story behind the design inspiration is then revealed.

By request of Dr Nisa Omar, my favorite cover is also selected.

Cover 1: ‘Nightmare on Petaling Street

Your initial thoughts?

My interpretation: Set in the epicentre of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, a lone traveller gets caught up in a web of corruption and murder. An accidental incidence leads to entrapment. Against a backdrop of cultural and generational tensions, the route to freedom relies on the recruitment of sympathetic locals in a tale of unexpected bonds.

Actual Synopsis: A chilling and bloody horror centres around the disappearance of several people at night in ‘Petaling Street’. No-one would suspect a man-eating dragon. Follow the journey of Inspector Daniel who tries to uncover the truth behind the murderous dragon.

Cover 2: ‘Him’

Your initial thoughts?

My interpretation: A quiet, character-driven story that captures the emotional journey of adjustment to motherhood. Through the lens of an ambitious young girl facing an unplanned future and bearing the sole responsibility of her young son, the story deals with themes of female ambition, sacrifice, and the power of a mother’s love, adaptability and resilience.

Actual Synopsis: I’m pregnant!” said Rose. After years of waiting, Rose and Jack are finally blessed. Fast forward, Rose gave birth to their bundle of joy, a boy they named Adam; the piece of their puzzle finally complete. But one day, something bad happens that change life forever.

Cover 3: ‘Oblivion’

Your initial thoughts?

My interpretation: A modern twist on “The Truman Show” this is a 21st-century psychological tale of a man’s awakening from a world of deception , manipulation. and depression. A page-turner.

Actual Synopsis: “How about we swap roles? I’m a bit exhausted collecting souls” drawled Death. Elliot is boxed in between two realms, stranded in oblivion, dead but neither in Heaven or Hell. Elliot, an infamous pessimist bargained with the cunning and mischievous death for another chance at life. What happens when a mortal takes on the role of the Grim Reaper ? And can you ever cheat death?

Cover 4: ‘Set sail’

Your initial thoughts

My interpretation: Beautifully set among the tranquil waters of Adriatic, a compelling autobiography of one young woman’s journey of adventure, self-discovery, and spiritual awakening. An initial test on independence and limits, the untapped potential of being is revealed.

Actual Synopsis: A young girl named Ryna, and her dad, a keen fisherman, regularly sail together. He, with his fishing rods and her with her big dreams for long adventure. Finally she sets sail on her own, but finds herself lost and scared. And then she stumbles upon a fisherman’s boat…

Cover 5: ‘The Next Chapter

Your initial thoughts?

My interpretation: Burnt out and emotionally scarred from an intense yet short-lived relationship, an intoxicating tale of reclaimed self-respect and personal dignity, whilst learning to love again. A tale of healing and newfound strength and wisdom.

Actual Synopsis: Lily, the girl named after a flower, yet a life cursed with misery. There seems no end to her pain , until one day, a chance to start over…the beginning of her next chapter.

Cover 6. ‘The Righteous’

Your initial thoughts?

My interpretation: A feminist–text, the novel tackles issues of beauty, morality, and the complexities of female relationships. A gutsy social commentary that taps into the current debate of society’s obsession with female beauty, and its role in power. Bold, enlightening and insightful.

Actual Synopsis: A historical love story of passion, morals and victory. A French castle is invaded by Vikings with the royal family taken as hostages. Harald is the ruthless Viking who falls in love with Clara, the externally beautiful French princess, his polar opposite. A story of revenge, death and sin, the love story maps the transformation of an innocent princess into a Barbaric Queen. A broken heart and a life of betrayal.

My favourite cover

‘Him’ would have been the first book I would have selected for further examination. A simple and clear design that painted a vivid picture of a young mother and child. I’d have been intrigued to inspect for more detail on the specific journey captured within. I sensed a subconscious need to ‘follow’ the mother and child as they walk away, their backs turned to us. I am sure my own ‘bias’ towards this cover tapped into my maternal status i.e. a mother of three, including two young boys, and a deep respect for the challenges faced by young women entering motherhood alone, possibly without any support systems in place. 

Post-challenge reflections

Instantaneous gut-level emotions elicited in response to the cover imagery highlights the strength of empathetic attunement to the people or objects portrayed, and its impact on choice. I did not engage with the covers with an open or empty mind. Even though, in this instance, I purposefully made quick, intuitive judgments, the power of pre-judgement and expectation based on prior experiences or exposure is illuminated.

The exercise has also made me think about the broader use of visual rhetoric, outside of book covers and by news outlets and through various marketing endeavours. The power within images that may manipulate facts without lying with words, placing the onus of misinterpretation onto the readers/viewers.

Just something to think about…particularly today, across cultures and in a time where visual imagery dominates.

Thank you

Thank you to all the artists and Dr Nisa Omar, for their contribution in such an ‘open’ and public challenge. Every single piece was beautifully produced.

Images supplied by the Faculty of Communication, Art & Media, at the University of Malaya-Wales.


Kidd, C. (2012) “Art of First Impressions, In Design and Life,” (TED Talk) [online]. Available: https://www.ted.com/talks/chip_kidd_the_art_of_first_impressions_in_design_and_life?language=en [Accessed 3rd October 2019].

Lickerman, A. (2012) ‘Judging a Book By Its Cover’ [online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201208/judging-book-its-cover [Accessed 3rd October 2019].

Max, T. (2018) ‘How to Design a Great Book Cover’, Medium, 22nd December 2018 [online]. Available: https://medium.com/@tuckermax/how-to-design-a-great-book-cover-3810c903e4f2 [Accessed 3rd October 2019].

Van Essen, D. (2004) “Organization of visual areas in macaque and human cerebral cortex,” in The Visual Neurosciences, eds L. M. Chalupa and J. S. Werner (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 507–521.

Vergura, D.T. & Luceri, B. (2018) ‘Product packaging and consumers’ emotional response. Does spatial representation influence product evaluation and choice?’, The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 35(2), pp. 218-227.

Writer Unboxed (2018) ‘The Psychology Behind Good Book Cover Design’, [online]. Available:  https://writerunboxed.com/2017/09/17/the-psychology-behind-good-book-cover-design/ [Accessed 3rd October 2019].

8 Replies to “Judge it! a book by its cover”

  1. Dear Felicity,
    Thank you so much for writing this article. I truly appreciate it.
    It is very thrilling when your reflections and interpretation match what students are trying to portray and that their stories connect to you in some way. Yes, the book “him” is definitely beautiful with its simplicity – just like the saying where less is more. I do hope we can do more projects like this in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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