Creating a book cover for Rule Zero

I designed the cover of Rule Zero myself. This was foolhardy in the extreme, given my absolute lack of design skills. Well, perhaps it’s not an absolute lack, because I can say “I like that” or “I do not like that” when looking at something. By repetitive employment of the like it/don’t like it consideration I was able to navigate slowly and erratically towards a satisfactory book cover design. I was a bit like a rat in a maze hunting down the food, or possibly more like an oil tanker navigating through a rocky archipelago by listening for the crunch of stone against steel.

I began with one overriding principle. I did not want a genre-identikit book cover. You know the sort of thing I mean, right? A cover that screams MYSTERY THRILLER because it’s heavy on the red and black and there’s a bloodstained spider holding a knife, or a cover resplendent with stilettos, pastels and swirly-script typeface that can only mean CHICKLIT.

No, I wanted to uncouple the design from genre expectations. This was mostly because I had no idea what genre Rule Zero actually was (and still don’t). Experts told me to regard it as a “contemporary urban fantasy/dark humour hybrid”, but what does that even mean? Are there other contemporary urban fantasy/dark humour books in the world? And if not, does one book deserve a genre all of its own?

Spinning wild and free, I began the design process by firing up my copy of GIMP (it’s free, it does graphics) and clicking a few buttons. This happened:


It was definitely a book cover, but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I tried a few variations…


…but I still wasn’t satisfied. What was wrong? A few days later it occurred to me that a book cover might need pictures as well as words.

I started over, and engaged the help of my good friend Chris Smyth. As well as being a talented musician and designer, Chris sports a handsome beard and it was for this reason that I thought he could help. Beardy people have a different way of looking at the world, you see. The thick facehairs protect their brainstems from stray cosmic rays, which permits a freer movement of idea molecules around the inner skull zone. Chris treated me to lunch and we talked things over. Then this happened:


To be honest I can’t even remember who did this. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was Chris. Maybe I suffered a bout of creative somnambulism. Either way it turned up unexpected and unannounced and spawned a kind of design epiphany. Working frantically and slowly (which sounds like a contradiction in turns until you remember I’m not very good at driving design software on computers), I bundled all my mental chickens into one basket and created this:


Can you see how I got there? The central symbol (or symbols plural in this case). The radiating design. The apparently necessary addition of a book title (top) and author name (bottom). Now I was on the right track. I was motoring along the road towards book cover nirvana.

But I wasn’t there yet. The design looked too amateurish, too pixely. Too…something or other which means the opposite of appealing to the eye. Ugly. There, that’ll do. It was ugly.

Also, it looked a bit too much like the slightly backward cousin of the War Flag of the Imperial Japanese Army:


The Imperial Japanese Army does not feature in Rule Zero. (That’s not a spoiler, book fans. It’s just a statement of fact.) Not wanting to give the false impression that the Imperial Japanese Army did feature in the book and thus attract the attention of Imperial Japanese Army fans, I consulted Chris. Magical design fairies sprang out of his beard and sprinkled magical design fairy dust on my design:


Clever, eh? All the hard edges on the red and yellow rays gone, replaced by a gritty, worn-out kind of texture. Fabulous. I asked Chris’s magic design pixies to show me how to do this Texture Magic. They agreed, but I had to do something for them in return, something dark and terrible. I can’t tell you what that was, because they swore me to silence, but I did it and nobody knows it was me. With that bit of unpleasantness out of the way I returned to my sweat-stained keyboard and employed my hard-won skills. This, the final design, was the result:


Goodbye milk and cigarettes. Goodbye White Sun. Hello magnificently textured Citroen DS. Hello appropriately spaced-and-sized text. Job done. Thanks Chris. Thanks Pixies.

Hard Facts for Fact Fans

  • Elapsed time from first design draft to final version: two months.
  • Total number of images created during the process: 72.
  • Applications used: GIMP 2.8 and Paint.NET 3.5.
  • Online resources used: Wikimedia Commons and DeviantArt.
  • Beverage of choice: Kenco Rich coffee, brewed black. No sugar.
  • Emails between Chris and Laurence: 23.
  • Soundtrack to the design process: Radiohead, Gary Numan, Blur and The Smiths.
  • Percentage increase in respect for designers: 100%

3 thoughts on “Creating a book cover for Rule Zero

  1. It was actually the colourful, unique cover that made me see the book in among all the other offerings on Amazon. And by gods am I glad. Fantastic book! Hope to see another soon.

  2. Thanks for telling me, Simon. It worked! Ha ha! (laughs manically). Yes, the second book is in the pipeline and yes, it’s taking me just as long to write this one as it took to write the first one. But I will finish it and I will publish it, dammit (clenches fist, strikes chest, stares fixedly into middle distance, falls over).

  3. (Lends hand to help Laurence off the floor and back into typing position)
    Great news re: second book. I’m looking forward to it already!

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