In American political history, there have been two times when opposite sides have been represented by distinctive colors.
During the Civil War the colors were blue and gray, used respectively for the uniforms of the Union and Confederate armies. In our own time the colors red and blue have come to symbolize the Republican and Democratic parties.
It happens that these three colors—red, blue, and gray—can be problems not just in politics but in the design of book covers, particularly where red text is put atop a blue or gray background.
There is a persistent tendency among designers, particularly amateurs, to select red for text when red simply doesn’t go with the graphics. The designers seem to think red is obligatory for their genres. This tendency is seen especially on covers of murder mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories.
The thinking is easy enough to grasp: red is the color of blood and, secondarily, of fear. Mysteries, thrillers, and horror stores involve blood—sometimes a lot of it—and so the blood “needs” to be represented on the cover, if not in the image then at least in the type.
But that isn’t so. Look at covers of successful books in those genres. Few make use of red type, even those that show no blood in the image. White, off-white, and yellow-orange seem to predominate as colors in the typography, and they succeed not just in conveying the genre but in being legible. Red may succeed in the first, but it often fails in the second.
Consider the four covers shown here.
Red must have seemed the ideal color for the main title word of The Blood Cries Out. The choice may have seemed inevitable, but the designer should have found a way to make the inevitable avoidable. “Blood” ends up being the least standout-ish word on the cover because it rests against dark (black) or similar (brown) hues.
Bucharest may be a beautiful city, but the title of The Beauty of Bucharest isn’t beautiful because it’s hard to read. The main word nearly disappears in the gloom.
This book is labeled a thriller, but the maroon of “Bucharest” wasn’t mandatory. The cover might have worked adequately if that word were fire-engine red (or any of several colors other than red). As it is, the words that stand out are “the beauty of.”
Given how large “Bucharest” is by comparison, those three words apparently were understood by the designer to be less important than the name of the city, yet they ended up being the words that first catch the eye because they are in white and “Bucharest” is in red. They pop from the background, while “Bucharest” fades into the background.
A similar problem shows up in Castle Danger, where the whole of the title is in dull red set against a mottled gray background. Here again a bright red might have worked, without yet being quite right. I would have chosen a yellow or orange, as a link to the fire burning in the building.
On this cover, as it now stands, only the specks of fire stand out. The red title doesn’t stand out even as well as the author name, which itself isn’t bright enough.
Night of the Hidden Fang has two textual elements in red, the author name and the series tagline. The tagline would be difficult to read even if it were in white; the red makes it almost entirely unreadable. The author name, being so much larger, can be made out, but it unfortunately takes attention away from what should be the only red on the cover, the eyes of the wolf.
In each of these cases, it’s easy enough to imagine the designer’s thinking, but first instincts often led us astray. It may “make sense” to employ red on a cover of a book promising thrills and chills, but that abstract notion often fails in practice.
The covers on which red text “works” against blue or gray are few in number. There’s a reason for that, one that designers and authors should learn.