Favorite Book Covers in Christian publishing: kudos for good design

I’ve enjoyed several fun lists of the best book covers of the year. (Go ahead and Google it and you’ll see lots of quirky lists and cool covers.  Of course the biography of Jobs. A few artfully designed book jackets for important novels. What’s with that Tina Fey cover, eh?)

Most of us who sell books know that a good–or mediocre, or bad–cover can make or break a book’s success.  And, of course, there are those of us who believe that God cares about good design (see, oh, for instance, Rainbows for the Fallen World by Calvin Seerveld [Toronto Tuppence; $25.00], or any of the dozens of other books we have about aesthetics and creativity and beauty and such.)  Nice covers–and the design of pages, spine, heft and texture– can enhance the reading experience but a book doesn’t get a chance to charm if it isn’t picked up.  A nice cover may lure the hapless bookshelf browser to select a title in the first place. If you like this kind of stuff, we stock a book from a few years ago that looks at a few book covers, church brochures, bulletin covers, ministry publications, choir music folios, church signs, para-church flyers, religious magazines, and all kinds of really great graphic design work.  Our friend, Square Halo honcho, Ned Bustard, had a piece chosen to be shown in it. See Graphic Design and Religion: A Call for Renewal by Daniel Kantor (GIA Publication; $39.95.)

It’s hard for those of us not schooled in design to even know what to look for when offering acclaim about attractive, artful bookcovers.  So these choices are just my guess, and not at all comprehensive.  Not “the” best, just a bunch that I thought did the job well.

By the way, I don’t think the norms or principles for a book jacket design are the same as for any painting or picture.  That is, a good art piece may be fabulous, but not work as a book cover. Some of the prizes for best cover go to pieces that seem like very good art, but not so good as book jackets.  And don’t even get me started about typography and fonts, a topic about which there are some very cool books. 

It is complicated for me to think about cover art and back jacket design apart from the context of whether or not I like the book.  But, for now, the book’s content or writing quality isn’t quite pertinent (except insofar as the design of the book must allude to or evoke something of the substance of the book, right?)  I do not, though, show here any books we despise or disapprove of and most are actually pretty great.  A great cover, finally, can’t redeem a bad book.

Lastly, I’ve chosen non-fiction books mostly from religious publishers; some faith-based publishers are still way behind their general market counterparts and some are down-right scholocky.  (At least they aren’t as bad as the notoriously goofy new age and metaphysical marketplace which are often just laughable!)  I am sure others have given honors to books in the Christian market, but I’ve not seen any such lists.  So here are a few from mostly Christian publishers in no particular order, taken from our Dallastown shop shelves.  What do you think?

Of course, if you want to decorate your loft with cool looking books, give us a holler. We appreciate your support.

!1.gifA Kingdom Called Desire: Confronted by the Love of a Risen King  Rick McKinley (Zondervan) $14.99  cover design by Aaron James, The Math Department.  I wish you could see the back cover where the black magic mark underlines and crosses out stuff in stark scribble.   Is there some hipster modern artist doing this kind of stuff?  Very cool, although not everyone seems to think so.

sects love.gifSects, Love, and Rock & Roll: My Life on Record (Cascade) $23.00 cover design by Jim Tedrick  If you’ve ever held black vinyl, you know how great this is.

!!1.gifYour Neighbor’s Hymnal  Jeffrey F. Keuss (Cascade) $17.00 cover design by M Stock Another music themed book from the same publisher, the plain but expansive red of the sleek couch, the hardwood floor, the lower case font, the extension of his arm.  The back cover is a bit busy, but the front, well, it rocks.

surprised by laughter.gifSurprised By Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis  Terry Lindvall (Nelson) $16.99 cover design by Charles Brock, Faceout Studio I think the scribbled title might be a bit too bold, but the muzzy and goatee on old C.S. is just perfect.  No, it does not make him look like Salvador Dali, but it is good of you to wonder.  There was an earlier edition of this out years ago (and they lose points for not noting that anywhere!) and that cover wasn’t funny at all.  Yippee.

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help
Robert Lupton (HarperOne) $22.95
Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America  Robert Lupton (HarperOne) $13.99 covers designed by Gia Giasullo.

 I love it when publishers re-issue an older book with a new cover that somehow matches the newer one. The yellow and the strips tie these together, and I love them both.  The unique vantage point of the camera capturing the drum circle on the older one relays energy and urban movement.  The b/w piciture of the cross hanging from the dashboard on the hardback cover of the new Toxic Charity is somehow ominous.  If this doesn’t win awards, I don’t know what should.

!!!.gifIr-rev-rend: Christianity Without the Pretense. Faith Without the Facade  Greg Surratt (FaithWords) $19.99 cover designed by Gearbox   If you don’t know these old wooden boards in traditional churches you may not get it, but I thought it was pretty clever…

!!!!.gifAwaken Your Sense: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God  J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Booram (IVP) $15.00 cover design by Cindy Kiple  I am a sucker for warm Earth tones, but the extra touches in this–showing the thorn, the bite out of the pear–make it extra interesting.  Nice touches on the back, too, making it a delight to view.  As it should be.

!!!!!!.gifAbundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace Jan Johnson (IVP) $15.00 cover design by CIndy Kiple  A perfect use of a clean font and two gentle hues on the print.  And that exquisite swan, so naturally centered.  This wonderful design matches the book so well.  

flunking sainthood small.gifFlunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete Press) $16.99  cover design by IHS Designs  One of my favorite books this year and you get the idea perfectly from the cover (at least if you’ve know what a typewriter is and how old-school corrections worked, ink hand-scribbled over the typing paper.)  The hilarity continues a bit on the back, too.  Love it.

work matters small.gifWork Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work  Tom Nelson (Crossway) $15.99 cover design by Tobias’ Outerwear for Books  Well, this effort could have flopped but I think they pulled it off.  Clean, intriguing, making the point. The light green of the authors name pulls it together, too… Do you like?

!!!!!!!.gifThe Cross and the Lynching Tree James Cone (Orbis) $28.00 cover design by Valentin Concha-Nunez  The designer also did the actual art that shows the cross in the shadow of the tree, making a stark and notable statement about the book’s claim.  The dust-jacket’s flaps are adorned with elegant quotes and there is a classic photo of Dr. Cone on the back, offering a traditional look that works wells for this esteemed if provocative scholar.  

!!!!!!!!.gifA Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor  Chris Seay (Baker) $13.99 cover design by Jay Smith-Juicebox Designs  The hand-lettering by Kristi Smith is brilliant.  The soft beige and blue hues, the hand-lettered font continued a bit on the back, it all works for a very contemporary feel.  The DVD cover art matches, too. 

!!!!!!!!!.gifA Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living  Craig L. Goodwin  (Sparkhouse) $12.95  cover design by Alisha Lofgren The best use of color of any book about basic Christian growth we’ve seen in years.  I guess it isn’t hard when you have a close up of a rooster, vibrant wildflowers, and a sweet kid holding giant vegetables.  Spectacular. 

!!!!!!!!!!.gifI Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives Doug Bender & Dave Sterrett (Thomas Nelson) $19.99 cover design by Thomas Nelson Inc.  White on white is a bit risky, but it worked.  The inside of the hardback covers show bunches of quite striking photo portraits, and there are some interestingly posed photos throughout, making this a very handsome package, just the right weight and feel and look.  The honest and raw stories needed extra visuals; well-done.

wisdom and wonder small.gifWisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art Abraham Kuyper (Christian’s Library Press) $14.99  cover design by Brandon Hill  Most heavy theology books (especially from a hundred years ago)  aren’t that artfully designed and I’ve noted in each of my reviews of this historic release that it is, indeed, an allusive delight.  You have to look closely, but the dirt under the tree has an (upside down) urban skyline.  Are the potentialities that have allowed us to create culture grounded (in seed form) in the goodness of the very creation God made?  A beautiful, suggestive image of a key Bible doctrine opened up by the Dutch neo-Calvinist.   The image continues on the back, the font is clean–I love the fluid ampersand between the crisp words.  And why are the leaves blowing from the tree?  Kudos to everyone involved in making this obscure but important work available in such a pleasant, aesthetically-pleasing way.  I’ve heard they’ve done a hardback edition as well, which I haven’t seen.

!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifMud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred Tyler Blanski (Fresh Air Books) $16.95 cover design by Left Coast Design  Okay, the coffee spills and rings have been done before, but this messy cover works so well; it would have been too obvious to use mud.  Good mix of upper case/lower case lettering. The visual tone is a bit bohemian and moody, which, of course, is as it must be.  Very cool.  The skyscape is Minneapolis, by the way.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifNaked Surrender: Coming Home To Our True Sexuality Andrew Comiskey (IVP) $16.00 cover design by Cindy Kiple  Comiskey works for Desert Stream Ministries and offers a Biblically-grounded, conservative vision of healing sexual brokenness and pain.  Some may find this a bit too stark, but the type design and white space and b/w photo make this very striking. Strong and artistic b/w photos on the back, too, tie this together as an excellent cover. I wonder if they worried that it was too sensual?

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifThe Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief Larry Alex Taunton (Nelson) $16.99 cover designed by Thomas Nelson Inc.  This is a fairly traditional design but the upward sweep and shadows and the perfect contrast of the deep orange creates a mature, classic look. 

tutu small.
gifTutu Authorized Alister Sparks & Hpho Tutu (HarperOne) $29.99 cover design by Cameron Gibb  We all know that the estimable, smiling Archbishop is famously photogenic, but this shot knocks me out.  There is a picture of him dancing on the spine, and one of him in prayer with a Bible on the back, but this close up is so striking.  Glad they kept the text sparse.

winter light.gifWinter Light: A Christians Search for Humility  Bruce Ray Smith (Kalos Press) $12.95 David Bedsole  This under-stated, warm, cover uses light calligraphy in a way that really works—not every calligraphed cover works so well!  Even their logo on the back enhances the cover.  This paperback was made with that slightly waxy stock, thick ink, making it so nice to hold.  Is the top half a very close up of ice crystals?  I think.  Kudos to a new, indie press, committed to excellence.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifShaped By God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth and Adults edited by Robert J. Keeley   Note the collage of words (as if from newsprint, or Sunday School worksheets or Bible pages) that form the watering can and sprinkle out.  In lesser hands it could have been cheesy, but I think this is artful without being didactic or clumsy.  I wish you could see it up close. Very creative.

!11.gifHell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) Brian Jones (Cook) $14.99 cover design by JWH Graphic Arts  It’s been done on album covers and ads and I’m sure bunches of horror books, which works, here, eh? Not too many words and nothing else, but… that red arrow sets it off, I think, and the red comes in to play on the back. Is it the devil’s tail? 

words made fresh small.gifWords Made Fresh: Essays on Literature & Culture  Larry Woiwode
(Crossway) $24.99 cover design by Gearbox Studio  When I gave this a
rave review in an September BookNotes I hinted that it seemed almost too
good for a Mid-Western religious publisher as it could have easily
worked on any of the top-shelf literary houses from New York.  The cover
design, also, stand head and shoulders above typical evangelical books
and Crossway obviously went the extra mile with some whimsy and yet
small touches of collage.  The dust-jacket is on a high quality, heavy, textured stock; if
only it had deckle edged pages.  Double kudos.

bloodlines small.gifBloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian  John Piper (Crossway) $22.99 cover design by Josh Dennis  I think this is  one of the most striking covers in years!  The smooth texture, the red line, extended around the back.  The nearly painful gravitas of the topic demanded a serious look, and this excels.


make college count small.gifMake College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life & Learning  Derek Melleby (Baker) $12.99 cover design by Lookout Design  You know that we’ve promoted this widely, our store and BookNotes gets a shout out, and we think it is the best graduation gift to any college-bound senior.  We had read the manuscript and knew it we’d be pressing it into the hands of many, so it had to look sharp.  This little hardback, sans dust jacket, succeeds wonderfully, with odd little plus signs and a rich fall color scheme that invites you right on campus.  The typography uses slightly different colors (and that plus sign is used as an ampersand.)  These nice touches  and the bright spine shows off a very intentionally created cover.  Good design inside, too.  Just great!

Jesus My Father small.gifJesus, My Father, the CIA and Me: A Memoir… of Sorts  Ian Cron (Nelson) $15.99 cover design by Christopher Tobias  It is risky to use a photo by the author of a book, but here it is essential: the wonderfully-written prelude is a moody and somewhat mysterious meditation on the old Polaroid.  This is one of the years best books and after reading the first few pages you won’t imagine the book with any other cover.  The red is nice little touch that makes it pop, as they say.  Top notch.

Falling.gifFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life Richard Rohr (Jossy Bass) $19.95 cover design by Rule 29  The clean lines of the simple chairs and table, placed interestingly, the earth tones, the smaller chunky size for a hardback make this one of the most handsome books of the year. Look how the subtitle is positioned between the two words of the title.  I love the look, the feel, the way it invites you to the gentle spirituality this Franciscan author offers.  Very nicely done.

!!!111.gifFaith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith edited by Kelly Monroe Kulllberg & Lael Arrington (Zondervan) $14.99 cover design by Extra Credit Projects  I raved about this when it was out in hardcover, with a slightly different title (they pitched it as a devotional — God bless ’em for trying) and a less splashy look. Sorry about the pun.  Just look at that cover!  A fabulous young design, fun and alluring (The splashing paint seems thick and liquid up close, the title situated vertically is a great call.)  If the previous “devotional” sub-title didn’t bring in the right readers, let us pray that this does.  A great effort at repackaging a great book.

math.gifMathematics Through the Eyes of Faith  James Bradley and Russell Howell (Harper) $19.99  cover design by Stefan Gutermuth   A profound, readable book on how religious commitments effect the ways we consider math, the philosophy of science, knowing, numbers and such—how in the world to you design a cover that isn’t blandly plain or overtly obvious (a page of numbers and equations?) An abacus!  Give these guys a medal of honor: it’s the best shot of an abacus I’ve ever seen, making this fresh, and yet tied in to the design format of the other Through the Eyes of Faith series. 


Public faith small.gifA Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good  Miroslav Volf (Brazos) $21.99  I wished the good folks at Brazos would have credited the designer;  the use of the stunning photo of a sea of candles (FrancePhotos–Homer Sykes/Alamy) fits so well, and coupled with the large type font, creates a very fine cover.  Granted, this is fairly standard design and was reluctant to show it here, but I keep enjoying it, happy to display it, not only because it may be the book of the year, but because of this great, appealing cover design.  Am I just a sucker for candles, or is this really a very beautiful jacket?  (By the way, this on-line copy doesn’t do it justice…sorry. It really is stunning.)

!!!11111.gifRed Like Blood: Confrontations with Grace Joe Coffey & Bob Bevington (Shepherd Press) $13.95   I love the choice of font, the crisp typography, but different weight, over the slightly swirly red. I’ve seen the swirly, diffused color thing done before, but rarely to such good effect.  A brighter shade blood, of course, would have been needlessly gruesome…well done.

1 life.jpgOne.Life: Jesus Calls We Follow Scot McKnight (Zondervan) $14.99 cover design by Curt Diepenhorst  The moment I saw this I was struck; it feels so sleek and modern, with that period there and the terse subtitles.  Very hip.  And the book is pretty darn great, too.  Makes a perfect gift for any younger Christian concerned about vocation, discipleship, the integration of faith and life.  One-Life.  Get it?  The dot is just a little bit of extra awesomeness.

!!11.jpgPlowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture  David Bruce Hegeman (Canon Press) $12.00 cover design by David Dalbey  This second edition of a long-time fav is a bit whimsical (on the back there is a Brussels sprout on a Greco-Roman pedestal) and the close up of a picture frame and a shovel is nicely suggestive.  The white space inside the frame was a risk, and is very cool.

!!111.gifSurprised By Oxford: A Memoir  Carolyn Weber (Nelson) $16.99 cover design by Christopher Tobias This story of Weber’s important time at Oxford could be have imaged in up close cheesiness of a professors stern look or they could have gone big with the building, all turret and spires and wrought iron. The expansive use of sky strikes me as a classy design (although the early version didn’t have the endorsing blurb up there.  Shoulda put it the back) and the french folds give the paperback an elegant feel.

contemplative-vision-guide-christian-art-prayer-juliet-benner-paperback-cover-art.jpgContemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art & Prayer Juliet Benner (IVP) $17.00 cover design by Cindy Kiple I told myself that using art books isn’t quite fair but then I noticed how many that use wonderful, classic art still somehow fall short.  The font, the color, the design or angle of text and how it is placed near or over  the visual all matters so much.  This just works.  A lovely book, with full color inside, to match the luminous gentle writing.  A treat to behold.

464658.gifRecovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News  Darrell L. Bock (Broadman Academic) $16.99  cover design uncredited This publisher has some real doozies, and, like most academic publishers, lots of bland stuff. But several are great. This is one of the most striking ones in their catalog.  The lime green books could have been lined up evenly, all the same size.  The Bible could have been too worn. They all could have had antiquarian leather covers.  What could have been a cliche is serious, classy, and just a bit surprising.  Well done.


It is hard to beat the very sleek and modern design (and the very well done staging and filming and the extraordinarily important content) of The Prodigal God DVD by TIm Keller, which should have been given awards galore last year.

This package, though, is creative and allusive and very well designed, I think, don’t you?
!!111111.gifDVD Stuck  Jennie Allen (Zondervan) box set $39.99
DVD Stuck Participants Guide (Zondervan)  $9.99


Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City used to be one of the most fuddy-duddy-looking, old school publishers around, reflecting their pietistic, Nazarene tradition. They have kept their Wesleyan heritage but have entered the 21st century with such pizazz that nearly every new release in the last few years has had a keen look.  Their catalog that shows forthcoming titles is itself a work of art.  Their radical youth division, Bare Foot (who publish the journal immerse) and their House Studio have done edgy, provocative pieces too. Their DVD packages of Shane Claiborne (The Economy of Love), Stanley Hauerwas (Sunday Asylum) and Walter Brueggemann (The Psalmist’s Cry) are stylistically postmodern and!!1111111.gif nearly disorienting to many viewers over 50.  Their participants guides are full color and graphically over-the-top. For attention to contemporary design, they deserve some attention from somebody more important than we.  I hope you don’t mind me using my friend Steve Lutz’s book on campus ministry as an example of a recent title.  What’s with the scribble you say?  If you have to ask, you may need the book more than you know.


We.jpgThis is a hard category to discuss as there are so many pieces created every season by many companies.  Most are pretty extravagant, a few quite cool.  I love, though, this corrugated cardboard look with red ink and the clean logo and thematic approach throughout this big boxed set, the workbook, posters and DVD cases (even a hand stamp.)  They invite you to “gather the whole church around the whole story” as they introduce a faith nurturing experience for the entire church family.

We (Faith Alive) $149.00  Sorry, I couldn’t on short notice determine who designed this; some of the Christian Reformed Church stuff is very classy, and I apologize for not offering due credit to artists and graphic designers behind this kit.  Check it all out at wecurriculum.org.  Do let us know if we can help you understand it further — the content is very good, but for now, I’m wishing I could show you the cool cardboard look of the whole project.

I was taken by one of these strong, creative designs when I ordered it;  the other had a different design, and I ordered it, too.  Both are great authors.  When they both arrived from the same publisher, the very same day, I had to scratch my head. They have different designers, but one of them had a cover design change from what was initially shown.  Somebody ought to get spanked, I’d say.  But here’s the thing: these are both tremendously written, great, great, (unrelated) books and you should own them.  Give one away if it freaks you out.@@@@.gif Or is it just me? 



I called the publisher to complain about the cover of Erasing Hell, a quickly released book against Rob Bell, in what I took as a blatant, cheesy allusion to an earlier Rob Bell book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  I really trust the well-respected editor who pleaded ignorance, but I suspect the design team knew exactly what they were doing.  Hmmm. Homage? Mean-spirited? Clever? Dumb? Freudian slip?  Who knows?


I love the fashion-plate colors, the TULIP joke (the acronym for the so-called “five points of Calvinism”) and the clean, uniform (but sligh
tly different) companion editions thing that’s going on. Very fresh (especially given the dense content.)  What’s wrong with a great concept? I think that the drooped tulips on Against… just aren’t eye catching and more than one person thought it seemed somehow biased.  What do you think?

A cool photo, a nifty idea and a heckuva good bit of writing, but somehow this fell flat.  Maybe!!!2.gif if the sign had a hand-scrawled  look—hasn’t the designer ever been to a real protest before?   That the placard seems photo-shopped in doesn’t help, either.  Sigh.  This book means a lot to me, though; we really recommended it when it first came out.  And the cover is a clever idea…anyway, still highly recommended.


!!!1111.gifTweet If You “Heart” Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation  Elizabeth Drescher (Morehouse Publications) $20.00
Really?  They couldn’t even use the image of a real smart phone?  And they had to use the “heart” emoticon, as if it were a 11 year old girl on myspace?  They deserve credit for trying, messing with the standard format of a cover, but look: this is a remarkably serious book (and I’m glad they didn’t want it to look boring, since it is not.) But is anybody with an ipad who is half-way serious about blogging or using the twitter platform going to take this seriously? I’ve been mocked all fall taking it to gigs where even old people rolled their eyes.  (If you are under 30, I’d bet you wouldn’t even pick it up, presuming it is goofy.)  Yet, this is very thoughtful book, believe it or not, by a serious, good writer, who, I would guess, wouldn’t “heart” Jesus for a hundred bucks. She might pray the hours on line and study semiotic theory as it relates to virtual community… let’s hope they repackage this, and soon.

Well, I do believe there are norms and principles for aesthetics so beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder.”  But, let’s face it, this is pretty subjective stuff, and I share these choices–I could have shown others that struck our fancy– as a bookseller, not an design expert or artist.  I do have opinions, though, as others do as well.  Here are the winners the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association award, and I am unconvinced about one, think another is terrible, and the third, Joel Salatin’s award-winning funny one with a chicken and giant egg, sorta creeps me out which maybe is as it should be.  Folks, This Ain’t Normal is one of the best books of the year, no matter if you like the cover or not.  Go figure.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Book Covers in Christian publishing: kudos for good design

  1. Great stuff, Byron. IVP sure has improved in this department. Though they don’t make the list, Eerdmans always struck me as ahead of the pack in this area.
    In my own little world, I’m trying to bring the kingdom of God to church bulletin covers.

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