Judging a Book by Its Cover

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.  Voltaire

“Judging a book by its cover” has the negative connotation of shallow perceptions and narrow-mindedness; however, in a recent Design Principles unit, 7th and 8th grade students examined cover art of young adult books to critically evaluate design principles and to brainstorm ideas as they created snowflake-themed posters. This unit was part of an elective class, Literary Magazine, but these ideas could be adapted as a library unit on media literacy, in particular a discussion on how media messages are constructed using a media language with its own rules, thereby supporting the following AASL standard:

2.1.6 Use the writing process, media and visual literacy, and technology skills to create products that express new understandings.

The following description of the design project may spark ideas for your own students to identify design elements, evaluate how the elements are used for persuasive communication, and create their own products that incorporate effective design.

Collaborative Learning and Discussion
GO! A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd became the textbook for learning about design principles. (This resource text and the initial design activity was the brainchild of my librarian predecessor, Dorcas Hand, and I am grateful to build on her creative lesson.)

Working collaboratively on a Google slides presentation,  each student summarized a design principle from a chapter in the GO! book and chose one image from the book to illustrate the design idea. Using a Google image search of advertisements, students selected a second image.  Book cover art was used as a third example, and in a serendipitous opportunity, our library had just received new young adult novels through donations at our Book Fair. Spreading out these new books on tables, students began to explore cover art that best matched their design principle. Following are a few examples of book covers students selected and shared in a group discussion of effective design (all book cover art from Amazon):

Book:  Twenty Questions for Gloria
Author:  Martyn Bedford
Design Principle:  Cropping

(Landscape image with girl beneath tree is cropped as a silhouette of a girl’s face–Student commented that the tree is positioned to mirror the girl’s brain, suggesting that this book involves psychological intrigue.)

Book: The Skeleton Tree
Author:  Iain Lawrence
Design Principle:  Asymmetry

(Student added a yellow line to the image to point out the asymmetrical design: large, black cliff on the left balanced out by the smaller cliff edge with two figures overlooking an immense wooded valley.)


Book:  Towers Falling
Author:  Jewell Parker Rhodes
Design Principle:  Inversion

(Inverted image of twin towers is mirrored in harbor waters with current building, the One World Trade Center, in upper half of image. Young characters in the story are trying to bring meaning to the reflection, memory, of the 9/11 disaster.)

Book:  The Weight of Feathers
Author:  Anna-Marie McLemore
Design Principle:  Vertical/Horizontal

(Horizontal lines add a sense of stability and strength to a design–like the strong horizon line in a landscape.  According to the design textbook, horizontal lines can also be used to suggest seriousness, and the thin lines of the tree limbs reflect the precarious balance of the two young people who fall in love.)

Book:  The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
Author:  Janet Fox
Design Principle:  Light/Dark

(Large, dark mass of the castle threatens danger and the small lit doorway illuminating the children suggests a mysterious adventure awaits.)


Book:  Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Design Principle:  Big and Small

(Journeying/Quest theme of book is emphasized with small image of the walking girl contrasted with large, shadowy wings of the flying bird–Swallow Man–who travels with her.)

Collaborative Poster Design and Discussion

Students used a combination of design principles to create their own poster to advertise for writing and art submissions to our school literary magazine. Beginning with a paper doll pattern and white paper, students cut out their design of a taller student holding the hands of a younger student, which supported our theme of
unity/community participation in the literary magazine.  
These paper dolls were created in a circular pattern, giving the design the appearance of a snowflake.  This link provides sample directions to creating circular paper dolls (snowflakes).  The snowflake image signified the unique aspect of each student’s creative efforts.

Students shared digital photos of their paper snowflake in a Google file so that each student could assemble images as they wished for their final poster design.  Using Google slides to create their  poster (two slides created for an upper and lower half of the poster–joined together after printing in color), students demonstrated wonderful collaboration as they helped each other with newly discovered design approaches, such as 1) cropping snowflakes as a circular shape rather than the square-shaped cropping tool, 2) showing each other how to use gradated colors rather than a solid fill option for shapes, and 3) suggestions on style, size, and weight of type fonts.

Students wrote a reflection paragraph that discussed the following:

  • design principles used in their poster
  • design challenges and how they solved the challenge
  • slogan to encourage creative submissions to the literary magazine
  • intended audience for the poster (whether to hang the poster in the lower school or the middle school)

Resulting posters, like the snowflakes themselves, were uniquely persuasive in their ad messages.  After an animated discussion, students voted whether the posters should be hung in the lower or middle school, and students posted their ads strategically in the two buildings.  As a confirmation of the effectiveness of their ad designs, I had one teacher approach me immediately after we hung the posters with an armful of concrete poetry by her fourth grade students.  Here is a video featuring some of the student poster designs.

Follow-up Activities
In keeping with the theme of the importance of creativity, I shared the story of Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.  Bentley devoted his life to photographing snowflakes, feeling that his work gave people something just as valuable as a “practical” occupation like raising cows.

To emphasize the importance of design decisions, I showed students the “turquoise belt” scene from The Devil Wears Prada in which the fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), gives a tongue lashing to a young intern (Anne Hathaway) while putting together a fashionable outfit from a vibrantly-colored dress. I had students point out the design decisions that Miranda makes very quickly: 1) color (complimentary colors of orange-red dress with turquoise belt); 2) scale (proportion contrast of the short jacket with the long dress); and 3) bright-colored yellow hat to compliment warm tones of the dress.  One big idea of this scene is that design decisions are not accidental, they are well thought out and follow principles of design.  You can view a clip from the scene and a debate on design industry in this Huffington Post article

Additional Resources

Media Literacy:

AISL blog, “Messages in the Media”

Center for Media Literacy

ACRL Standards
See discussion of “metaliteracy,”  collaborative learning with emerging technologies with an emphasis to “collaborate, produce, and share.”