From drowning to designing: Using AI to design a Business Book Cover

by | Jun 22, 2023

A robot holding a book

“Could we design the cover of the book using Artificial Intelligence?”

That was the question Mark Schaefer asked me back in October 2022.

My response? “I don’t think so… but… we HAVE to try!” 

I saw it as an experiment that we had to run, but one that might show us that AI was the wrong tool for a book cover illustration. I absolutely love Midjourney, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) image generator, I even wrote an article about using AI to illustrate blog posts, so why was I so unsure about creating a cover illustration?

Well, blog post images are, broadly speaking, a bit of colour to break up large blocks of text – they usually won’t have a massive impact on whether your post is a success.

A business book cover on the other hand needs to: 

  • grab attention
  • work on a small scale for Amazon thumbnails
  • convey a specific concept effectively
  • sell the book

So how was I going to get AI to do all that?

The first step would be to define the creative brief…

RISE community

The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever

What book are we designing the cover for?

‘The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever’ is a book written by Mark Schaefer and 34 marketing professionals from his RISE community (including myself and Marci), each sharing our top strategies for growing your business.

It’s a comprehensive marketing guide that will help you achieve your goals and succeed in today’s ever-changing marketplace.

The RISE community discussed what the cover might look like, and three themes developed:

  • Comic book superheroes – signifying the expertise in the team of authors
  • The greatest show on earth – symbolising the broad array of topics
  • Typographic treatment – the most common business book style; could we incorporate AI in the development of such a cover?
Drowning in AI images

I’m drowning! The big problem with AI image generators

To get started, I wanted to see where AI would lead me if I gave it the broad themes we had come up with. 

Bad idea.

AI is like the biggest blank canvas ever, so with broad themes there were endless rabbit holes to explore, I was drowning in images and none of the results seemed book-cover worthy.

If you’re choosing a human illustrator for your book cover, you research and find someone with a style you like. But with AI you have every style imaginable at your fingertips. So it becomes a massive time-sink unless you have a clear idea what you’re looking for. 

Shelly Palmer talks about this on Mark Schaefer’s podcast, where he likens it to the dawn of digital music – the technology allowed studios to become super efficient, but the ability to change things so quickly and easily meant clients spent more time in the studio trying every imaginable possibility. People were spending huge amounts of time creating 30 or 40 mixes instead of the 2 or 3 they used to create.

But if you knew what you wanted, you could get in the studio and be done in 30 minutes. 

This really resonated. I was drowning in AI images created from broad thematic prompts – the possibilities were endless. 

So I tested whether a more specific brief with a clear concept would result in better results.

Two examples of AI trying to replicate existing book covers

Given a specific concept, can AI create a book cover illustration?

I took the concepts from some of Mark Schaefer’s previous book covers and described them in my image prompts. You can see two examples above.

While they weren’t as good as the human illustrations, the AI images were good enough to prove that with the right concept in mind you could create a book-worthy illustration.

The problem was I had some broad themes to work with, but not a specific concept. But one did emerge from one of the themes. Here’s how it happened…

The evolution of a new concept 

As I worked on the superhero theme, our reactions to the AI output led us to something interesting.


Idea: Comic book superheroes. 
Result: The AI images look too much like an actual comic book. 

Superhero Emblem

Idea: What if it was more of an icon, like a superhero logo, maybe with lightning. 
Result: Looks good, but looks too much like an existing superheroes logo – we don’t want to get sued by DC for ripping off The Flash.

Lichtenstein style explosion

Idea: What if we took something else that is iconic and synonymous with comics? Like an explosion, like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art work. 
Result: Might get sued by the Lichtenstein estate. 

Comib book style explosion

Idea: What if it was a more generic comic book explosion? 
Result: Looks too violent. 

Idea: What if, instead of an explosion, it was an explosion of ideas? 
Result: Oooh… there’s something here… a ‘creative explosion’.

Community feedback narrows down the brief

At this point I had more images than I could count for each theme, plus some new concepts, plus a multitude of different styles. I needed help narrowing things down, so I turned to the RISE community for help. 

I pulled together 10 AI images that included a range of styles, and I created a Google Form to collect feedback from the RISE community.

At this point I just wanted to get a feel for which styles people reacted well to and which were non-starters. Since none were final designs at this point, I didn’t expect for any particular image to be a clear winner, I just wanted to see broadly which styles resonated. 

But as it happened, the ‘creative explosion’ concept came out ahead by a good margin.

Developing the final contenders

Kami Huyse (of Zoetica Media) is in charge of the marketing strategy for the book, and so Mark Schaefer, Kami, and myself used the feedback to whittle the ideas down to three image styles to work on further.

One of those designs was the ‘explosion of ideas’ concept, since it had tested so well in the community.  

I worked in Midjourney to strengthen the images for each concepts. Then I used another AI tool, Icons8, to ensure the images were print resolution. AI was also used within photoshop to extend the background to create space to overlay the text. 

And now we had three finalised designs:

  1. Explosion of ideas 
  2. The greatest show on earth
  3. Team of superheroes

This was close to our original list of themes, except the ‘explosion of ideas’ replaced the idea of a typographic treatment – none of the typographic treatments on AI background made the final cut.

Myself, Kami and Mark each had our favourites, and none of us had picked the same design – so at this point we had three people discussing the cover, and no consensus!

Three book cover mockups for the book 'The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever'

Breaking the deadlock with a broad survey

Kami created a survey for the three cover possibilities, and took it to the RISE community to share with their followers on social media. 

Both within the community and in the public survey the results were clear. The explosion of ideas was chosen by more than 60% of well over 300 respondents.

We had finally found our book cover. 

A hand holding the book 'The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever'

In summary: how to use AI in the creation of a book cover design

Using AI to design a book cover was not an easy process. The biggest time-sink was relying too much on the technology to inform the concept. I had hoped AI might have some great “ideas” all on its own. 

It didn’t. 

It leaned heavily on tired and overused imagery – although it did often realise them quite beautifully. 

But in the end, broad prompts played an important role in discovering our final book cover – using the results as creative inspiration, and then refining and developing more specific prompts.

So my advice would be this: develop as specific a brief you can for your book cover.

But allow time to go down some rabbit-holes, in case you uncover something wonderful. And don’t just assume your favourite cover will be the one that resonates, use marketing research to get qualitative and quantitative feedback along the way. 

Oh, and by the way, if you want more info on doing effective marketing research, get ‘The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever’ – myself and Marci wrote the chapter on marketing research, and it’s full of our best tips.

Frank Prendergast

Frank Prendergast

I've over two decades of experience helping businesses with their online presence. I'm also the owner of the most-talked-about moustache in the marketing world and I'm the Frank half of the award-winning digital marketing team Frank and Marci. Follow on LinkedIn