By Daniel Waas published December 20, 2012

Content Design: 3 Steps to Create Compelling Covers

content design, a compelling coverAre your white paper cover images text-only, virtually shouting, “I’m a dull read” in your prospect’s face?

While “don’t judge a book by its cover” might be the credo of a teenage wallflower longing for her first love, it certainly shouldn’t drive your design or content marketing efforts.

On the web, where users spontaneously decide if something is worth their attention, a dull cover is a sure way to kill your landing page conversion rate. Convincing the reader to take action is best achieved with an appealing hero image.

Now, you might think that creating a high-impact cover image for your white paper is a job for a graphics designer, and you would be partially right — a talented designer certainly helps. But if you’re short on time, anyone on your content team can actually create a stunning cover in mere minutes.

Here’s how:

Step 1: Spice it up with an image

To make your content design stand out, you’ll need a high-quality image that fits your topic. If you have the time and the budget, go get an illustrator. But if you don’t, start by visiting a stock image website. I like iStockphoto, but if you’re looking for images that are less commonly used, you can opt for services like Corbis Images or Getty Images. I recommend favoring photography over artwork in most cases, as artwork on stock image websites tends to be overused and will give your cover a “clip art” look — something you’ll want to avoid.

Let’s say I wanted to design a cover for an eBook on content marketing. Using Elvis to illustrate that “Content is King” is probably not very imaginative, but it’ll do as an example.

Here’s the image I’ve chosen to use:

content design, content is "king"

© iStockPhoto.com

Step 2: Design a 2D cover

Now that you’ve picked an image, the next step is to create a two-dimensional version of the cover. This will go in your PDF. Fire up Photoshop (ideal), or your image editor of choice to get started. Take inspiration from Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen and:

  • Let the image take center stage.
  • Add your title in (very) large font and a “by [Author's Name]” in a smaller font.

You can also add branding to the bottom, if you’d like, such as a logo or company tagline. If you know a bit about Photoshop you can get creative with Bezier curves and gradients. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, you’re done.

Here’s what I came up with:

content design, add branding© WhitepaperDepot.com

Note that I purposely left some space on the left. You’ll see why in a moment.

Step 3: Turn your cover into a 3D hero shot (instantly, and with zero design skills required)

Small caveat: You’ll need Photoshop for this step, but the relatively affordable Photoshop Elements will do.

The great thing about Photoshop for our purpose is that it features something called “actions.” These actions work similarly to a macro in Microsoft Office — they’re basically a step-by-step recording of a specific task in Photoshop. The incredibly cool thing about actions is their simplicity. All you really have to do is push the button of the action you want to execute while you have the image open that you want to edit.

In our case, we will need an action that takes a 2D image and turns it into a 3D book cover. Fortunately, a couple of freely available actions that do just that can be found on the internet. Here is one from Sergio Valle I particularly like (go and download it if you want to follow the steps I describe below):

content design, photoshop book cover

What you need to do next depends on your version of Photoshop Elements. All versions up to Photoshop Elements 10 require some manual copying of files. Starting with version 11 you can install actions right within the program itself.

Below is a quick step-by-step guide for Photoshop Elements 10 (for more details, you can also watch the video tutorial here):

  1. Copy the action you have downloaded into this directory:
    Windows 7
    “C:\ProgramData\Adobe\Photoshop Elements\10.0\Locale\en_us\Workflow Panels\actions”
    Mac
    The process is a bit more complicated on the Mac. This PDF will help you get the action installed.
  2. Open Photoshop Elements and create a new file. Click File > New > Blank File.photoshop elements, new file
  3. content design, photoshop stepsGo to the “Guided” tab in the right-hand panel. Scroll all the way to the bottom and you’ll see a button called “Action Player.” Click on it.
  4. Select the “3D-book-square-free” action.
  5. Select “Step 1″, and click “Play Action.”
  6. Paste your 2D cover into the template that just opened. Adjust the scale and crop the image, if necessary.
  7. Select “Step 2″ and click “Play Action.”
  8. You’ll be able to watch Photoshop do its magic.
  9. Convert the result to a web-safe image format, like PNG.
  10. Marvel at the results.

The end result

Here’s my result. What do you think? Let me know how you like it in the comments below!

content design, 3D Elvis cover © WhitepaperDepot.com

For more ideas to help you grab the attention of your customers, read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook

Author: Daniel Waas

Daniel Waas is a B2B marketer with a passion for digital and a keen interest in content strategy and creation. He heads up the Demand Generation team of Citrix' Online Services Division in Europe (opinions his own). He also owns and runs WhitepaperDepot.com, a brand-new white paper distribution service. You can follow Daniel on Twitter at @WhitepaperDepot, or on Google+

Other posts by Daniel Waas

  • predsicker

    Excellent tips! Thanks so much for sharing Daniel. I’ll definitely use your tips for the white paper I’m currently working on :)

    • http://www.WhitepaperDepot.com/ Daniel Waas

      Thanks, Patricia! Send me a copy of the paper and its cover shot once done. Would love to see these tips applied :-)

      • predsicker

        You’re a gem Daniel – will do! Merry Christmas!

  • http://www.agrotising.com/ Chris Agro – Agrotising, Inc.

    Love it! Thanks for sharing. I was wondering how those book covers were getting done.

    • http://www.WhitepaperDepot.com/ Daniel Waas

      Hey Chris, glad the post was helpful. Same here. I too got pretty frustrated with the limited quality of what I and Paint.Net could do. When I discovered Photoshop actions I couldn’t help but giggle maniacally at the time & effort saved.

  • Stephanie@Maile Weddings

    Great help, thanks! Terrific for downloadable Bridal Guides,

    • http://www.WhitepaperDepot.com/ Daniel Waas

      Not the first application I had thought of. No matter. Yay, brides! ;-)

  • Keith Meadows

    All great if you have Photoshop!

    • http://www.WhitepaperDepot.com/ Daniel Waas

      Hey Keith, Photoshop Elements I believe is $99. I think the higher conversion rates you get from a compelling hero shot will quickly make that investment pay off.

  • http://www.reportcontentwriter.com/ Rachel Agheyisi

    Cool, actionable tips. Breakout the DIY toolkit!