Case Study

“Christmas Is”

Designing a Book Cover

The Concept

Three things help sell a book: a recognizable author, a great premise, and of course, the cover design. (Yes, good publicity helps, but I’m not writing about that.) Books are most certainly judged by their covers, so it’s imperative that the cover reflects the book’s genre and tone, and entices potential readers to pick up the book — otherwise you run the risk of missing the opportunity to connect with your intended audience.

In this Christmas comedy, a failed Wall Street banker who hates actors inherits his father’s talent agency — and sells it to a rival agent. When he realizes he’s made a huge mistake, he must confront his resentment before he can figure out how to save the actors’ jobs in the Broadway extravaganza, Christmas Is.

Christmas Is is Elf meets It’s A Wonderful Life meets The Lion King, but with People of Color and no singing animals. (Don’t worry, I can write that because I’m a People of Color.) More broad comedy than slapstick, it’s a fast and hilarious read with an uplifting ending that’ll leave everyone full of Christmas cheer.

Given the current climate of strife and discord that will last for more than the foreseeable future, Christmas Is’s theme — investing in people, instead of taking advantage of them — tucked inside a timeless rollicking holiday tale is exactly the shot in the arm the world needs now more than ever.

The objective design challenge: design a book that captures the energy of New York and Christmas in a new way. Easy!

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (photo by Andrew Dallos) and New York City Ballet’s poster for their perennial production of The Nutcracker.

Christmas in New York. What says both better than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It just so happens that a key moment in the story takes place on the ice skating rink underneath the tree. Obvious? Yes, but sometimes the best answers are.

My next decision was how to present such an iconic location. Photographic depictions lend themselves better to nonfiction novels, whereas illustrations are better suited for fiction. The style of the New York City Ballet’s poster for The Nutcracker suited my fancy.


First a found illustration, with a little colorization of the tree, and the night sky.
A little more colorization added to 30 Rockefeller Center and some placeholder text.

Unfortunately, I’m no painter, let alone an illustrator and that meant hiring an illustrator. To get an accurate cost estimate, I put together the comp above to help convey my concept. After speaking with a couple of my favorite illustrators about rendering my concept in the style of The Nutcracker poster, it became apparent that the price for a commissioned book cover illustration was out of the question. The only other option: a graphic representation … that hopefully I could pull off myself.

Plan B

My own “style” is hard-edged and graphic, and the two above suited my purpose and the first two images below served as my inspiration. The first attempt fell flat, plus I’m not a fan of that much green anywhere other than the great outdoors. But hey, design is a process.

And We’re Off and Running!

I wanted a tree with a bit more oomph than a simple flat green tree. The story is full of complicated plot twists so it was back to finding inspiration. The illustration below of the ornament jumped out at me, its color and diversity reminded me of the vibrance and ethnic diversity of New York … and the characters in the story.

The unusual ornament that served as the inspiration for a Christmas tree.

I’ll spare you the tales of creating templates for those bursts and developing a working color palette.

Off-Ramp Ahead

Sometimes in the design process, an idea can get a little sidetracked. And that happened here. Over the course of the story, the main character faces wacky disaster after wacky disaster, and I wanted to reflect that on the cover. What better way to ruin Christmas than having your tree burst into flames right? Uh-huh … don’t judge. It sounded funnier in the telling than in the actual showing. And if a little flames were good, the more would be better, right?

Not necessarily.

I opted to drop the Christmas tree flambé for fear of people thinking I endorsed setting the world’s most famous Christmas tree ablaze. It also dawned on me that the tree was a bit overworked.

Rewriting : Writing :: Refining : Designing

Variation on a theme: the book’s title set in Tungsten (left) and Poster Bodoni (right).

With a heavily edited Christmas tree, a new ten-point star to replace the twelve-point version, and a more appropriate background color, the next item on my to-do list was to find a font for the title that held its own against the very busy tree. The charming homespun font used in the previous round’s title needed to be updated to something more contemporary with loads more style. Hoeffler’s compressed Tungsten delivered on style, but didn’t quite hold up against the tree.

Poster Bodoni proved both stylish and substantial and surprisingly friendly, but in a retro way.

Enter Option № 3.

The weighty and modern serif font, Vitesse Black and Vitesse Medium — same font, lighter weight — worked for the author’s name; but it needed a contrasting color to make it pop. I also needed the author’s name to act as a visual base for the tree and ground it.

Any color preferences? Anyone?

A revised Christmas tree with a bond font for the title and color tests on the author’s name.

Clients Do the Darnedest Things

My client decided to pull a fast one by changing the subtitle of the book from “Mischief Merriment Manhattan” to “Mischief and Merriment in Manhattan.”

Two words, five letters, what’s the big deal?

A lot. It made an already long headline even longer. Thanks to the intricate tree, the subhead set in a lightweight font all but disappeared. The remedy: a bolder font, but that meant the subtitle needed to be set on two lines. Not my favorite solution.

Did I mention the dimensions of the book changed as well? My client … “I” shrunk the book from six inches by nine inches to five inches by eight inches. This decreased my canvas by half an inch on all sides. Smaller cover, smaller font.


Where There’s a Will …

In order to set the subtitle on a single line the type needed to sit on a single-colored field. I forget when the solution hit me, but placing the type on a ribbon proved to be the perfect solution and also kept with the book’s Christmas theme.

A new ribbon, another font option, and a different sized tree.

Despite its ability to hold its own against the tree, Vitesse’s blockiness bothered me. It struck me as static. Poster Bodoni Italic worked, but just for kicks I switched out the fonts and tried green. Why? I like blue. I use it a lot and needed to know I was making the best decision.

You’ll be happy to know the first option won out! Until …

Right Under My Nose and Yours

Poster Bodoni Italic worked perfectly—it did everything I asked it. It conveyed friendliness, fun, and motion—until I got a look this little jewel of a font: Noe. The font won me over straightaway. It’s modern, edgy, and not your grandparents’ font. Get a look at those serifs, not a rounded one in the bunch. And it came in italics!

Which Brings Us to

The final cover. A graphic representation of the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, surrounding skyscrapers, and heavily reworked Fifth Avenue traffic.

There’s a perception out there that design is subjective. It can be, but with subjective design choices a message can become convoluted, if not lost in a sea of ineffective decisions. With decisions rooted in solid design principles, the two-fold goals of objective problem solving and effective communication are achieved.