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When it Comes to Yearbooks, People Do Judge a Book by its Cover

It’s April, and — we hope — your book is completely (or nearly) done. Congratulations!

Now it’s time to think about next year, which means planning.

We suggest that the first decisions you make about next year’s book should involve the big three: Theme, Tone and Style. Before you do any of your design work, you should do some serious thinking — and make some at-least-initial decisions — about Theme, Tone, and Style. We will soon be releasing a whole blogpost about these three, but here’s a thumbnail of what we mean:

  • Theme: What is the book about? What is the main idea that you’re building around? This should be able to be expressed in a’s much more an idea than a feeling.

  • Tone: The attitude or mood you’re trying to create; this is what you want your readers to feel. Sometimes it’s hard to put tone into when you’re trying to explain on social media how you feel, and it’s just easier to put up a picture or video or emojis or some music.

  • Style is how you express the tone and theme you’ve chosen; it’s about ‘how-to’ decisions and questions like colors, fonts, picture size, rigid-grid or free-flowing pages, and more.

Now, the clearest expression of your theme, tone, and style is your cover! A great yearbook has a great this case, the old saying is wrong: People do judge a book by its cover! When you’re advertising the book, the first thing (often the only thing) your students will see is the cover, and you know how important first impressions are. When the book is on your shelf or sitting on your desk, what do you see? The cover! The cover should be the expressive, most creative example of what it is you’re trying to accomplish with the whole rest of the book.

And it’s literally a blank canvas, right? It can be pretty much anything you want! Well...almost anything. There are a couple of important things to remember about covers before you start:

  • If the cover should be the ultimate reflection of the theme of the book, you need to decide on a theme for the book before (or at the same time) you decide on a cover. This is why some schools try to involve the whole staff in choosing or developing a theme, so it’s not just the editor’s or adviser’s decision.

  • The cover should match or coordinate well with the look of the inside of the book. If you have a cover that’s dramatic and edgy and energetic, the inside should match that. Where possible, the colors and imagery on the cover should show up on the inside.

It’s tempting to go on Pinterest or Google images and find a million different options; that’s stimulating and exciting…but remember that your cover should reflect what’s inside the book and vice-versa, and it should help tell the story of your school year. You don’t don’t just want a great cover; you want to make a book that has a coherent and consistent theme, tone and style.

Designing a Cover Case

Before we go any further: We’re not just talking about the front cover here; there’s also a spine and a back cover. Those three pieces together are called the Cover Case, and your design decisions involve the whole thing.

There are really 3 decisions that need to be made:

  • Your graphic design

  • Your color scheme

  • Your cover enhancements

Your graphic design

This is your chance to let your creativity run free...or maybe not.

Perhaps your school has a tradition about how the yearbook cover looks. If you are a new adviser, you should find out (a) if that’s the case, and (b) how much creative freedom you have, if any.

At most schools, the yearbook cover is left up to the adviser and the yearbook staff, so you will have decisions to make. You want a cover that will have your audience shiver in anticipation, wanting to see more…keeping in mind that it needs to match or coordinate with the inside of the book (tone, style), and it needs to help tell the story of your school year (theme).

"The attitude or mood you’re trying to create; this is what you want your readers to feel."

The graphic design for your cover can be a purchased image, a photograph, a drawing, a painting, or some combination of these. Some categories include (and there are many more on the UYB website):

  • Classic - Plain background with text (often stylized) only.

  • Abstract - Paintings, illustrations or cartoons, retro or vintage images (if this is an anniversary or commemorative year), geometric or patterned images, digital/photoshop pictures, many others.

  • Authentic - Photo(s) of campus/students/staff, either posed or candid, either single image, grid or collage.

There are two other pieces of Graphic Design you need to think about; your Title [or Headline] and your Slogan. Your Title is the text you want to display on your yearbook on the front Cover (and probably on the spine). Even at schools where the cover is left to creative whim, there may be traditions and standards as far as the title and slogan.

  • Your title may be the name of your school and the year (Baldwin Park High School, 1977).

  • At other schools, the yearbook has a formal name, like the Crimson & Blue or The Nautilus. One school in Seattle has a yearbook named The Wa-Wa. Really.

Your Slogan (or tagline) is optional. A slogan is the unique choice of words you want to use to describe the spirit, culture and students of your school this year. So ideally, it’s your theme, captured in a few well-chosen words. For example, one school’s mascot was an eagle and they achieved a lot of awards that year in academics and sports, so the slogan (as well as the theme) of their yearbook was “Soaring to new heights.” The cover slogan may be the only place you explicitly state the theme.

Your school may already have an official slogan or motto that you use instead, such as “Heart, Pride, Trust” or “Home of the Braves.” College mottos are often Latin, like Yale’s lux et veritas (“light and truth”). Many yearbooks do not use a slogan at all.

Some schools run school-wide contests to get cover designs; just announce the theme as well as the size specs, colors to be used (if you want to), headline and text specs (if you want to), and come up with a cool prize! And the entries that don’t win but are still cool could go someplace else in your book (like the back cover); it’s a great way to drive up awareness and excitement!

"Color is also one of the main ways to communicate tone, the feelings you want to convey and the emotions you want to evoke."

Your color scheme

UYB has forthcoming blogposts — available shortly — about choosing Colors and Fonts. But let’s talk briefly here with regard to color on Cover Cases.

The effective use of color is one of the most powerful tools you can use to carry out your theme. Color is a nonverbal message you use to attract attention (or not!), and make a particular statement. The colors you choose affect the way people perceive your yearbook.

Color is also one of the main ways to communicate tone, the feelings you want to convey and the emotions you want to evoke. For example, think about your favorite color. Whether you realize it or not, it triggers a response that is often not just emotional but physiological. The same is also true of your least favorite color.

Your first decision is choosing a main color. This isn’t just a main color for your cover; it’s the main color for the whole book! If you have two or three main colors that show up throughout your book, it’s very cool if you can ‘introduce’ them on the cover, even in small doses.

  • School colors are an obvious option. Is your school color a big deal at your school? At some schools, it isn’t!

  • Is there a color that honestly reflects the culture of this year? Was it an exciting year that calls for bright colors, or more of a “chill” year that needs cooler hues?

  • What kind of message do you want to show your student body (and parents, don’t forget!) when they look at your yearbook?

The color should (obviously) work well with the graphic design you’ve chosen for the cover, and also with the sections and pages inside. A particularly garish color might look good as a contrast on your cover…but not so good repeated a dozen times inside the book. You probably shouldn’t have a color on your cover that isn’t featured inside the book (unless it’s a photo).

Next, find a complementary color (or colors). has a helpful color wheel, with different versions of “complementarity.” How many complementary colors you use is a style choice. Our UYB designers suggest using no more than two complementary colors per main color, so (for example) if you select two main colors, you should have no more than four complementary colors.

Your cover enhancements

Beyond just the cover image and color scheme, working with United Yearbook gives you options about what your cover will look like, options that go beyond graphic design and color.

Options like foil-stamping, embossing, cross-grain embossing, die-cut, heat-sensitive ink, real or imitation leather, spot UV, and lots and lots more are all available; you can view them on the UYB website.

Choose wisely. It’s important to remember that all these variables need to work together, and that a cover enhancement might affect both your color scheme and your graphic design. For example, choosing a particular enhancement might mean it would look better with only one color on the cover, instead of two, or choosing an analogous color instead of a complementary color. Also, if you have a complicated graphic design and then add a cover enhancement, it might make the cover look too “busy” or even confusing.

"Good decisions about theme, tone, and style — which are then reflected in good cover choices — will go a long way toward building a beautiful..."

So which do you decide first?

Is it the graphic design, the color, or the enhancements? It’s really up to you, because all three can be of equal value on a cover, and they all affect each other. The boldest choice will likely drive the remaining choices; for example, you may have a graphic design that you really like, so it should help determine the choice of colors and enhancements.

So you may go round and round for a while, and that’s fine. It may take you a few hours of hard thinking and decision-making, and maybe you will have to give something up to make the final product better. Good decisions about theme, tone, and style — which are then reflected in good cover choices — will go a long way toward building a beautiful, meaningful, and sellable book.

I hope we’ve been able to help you make decisions about your cover’s graphic design, color scheme, and enhancements.

United Yearbook regularly offers workshops and resources on this and other topics, for both new and experienced advisors. To learn more, contact us at 877-489-7462,, or visit our website at


Dr. John Tuttle, Curriculum Specialist & Lecturer

Dr. John Tuttle is a lecturer for UYB’s in-class workshops, and also works with curriculum development, podcasts, and blog posts. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Biola University, where for ten years he was Director of Student Communications. For several years, Dr. Tuttle has also worked as an adjunct faculty member within Biola’s “great books” program.


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