The thing about exercise books is that when you’re reading one, you’re almost never exercising.

The other thing about exercise books is that their covers are typically hype-y, featuring a photo of a semi-dressed, very fit person on the front, and neon text shouting about amazing body transformations that can be yours in X weeks!

But once in a while, something makes a different promise. I came across this cover today, and immediately it spoke differently.


The topic of the book, as suggested by the subtitle, is somewhat of a paradox. Burn fat faster by exercising slower? The title and the subtitle are in italics, which to me suggests speed…but the letter spacing in SLOW slows the reading experience. The placement of BURN under the image subtly reminds me of the caloric burn occurring under the skin. So far, the paradox and message is reflected in these design choices.

Yet, the overall design destabilizes me in a way that doesn’t energize. I see several contributing factors. Although the additional “sells” about the book are aligned with the break between SLOW and BURN, nothing else follows that logic. The first author’s name is the only centered element on the page; the other pieces of text are vaguely freeform, left aligned, or right aligned. The margins are not symmetrical; the right margin is nearly twice that of the left, and the bottom margin is very narrow compared to the top. The large block of white space on the left does not feel balanced to me by the text block on the right.

And perhaps most unsettling of all, the cropping of the photo feels like the entire cover is tipping towards the right. The photo itself could benefit from cropping by the rule of thirds, but with the text positioned as such, I’m not certain that would create overall dynamic balance.

After all, the runner’s height and the text blocks share similar sizes. The eye (really the brain, of course) is very good at picking up on patterns, and similarity is less engaging than contrasts. Similar (yet not exactly identical) sizes repeated across a space without a clear purpose creates a effect not unlike that of freshly washed socks dumped on the living room floor—a random array with hints of things that should be paired together (but might not actually have anything to do with each other). Below, I’ve highlighted the not-quite-but-nearly-identical dimensions that stand out the most to me. Imprecise visual relationships weaken the messaging of intentional exercise strategies; more dramatic contrasts could serve this better.


What’s more, it’s not clear what the photo is meant to do. It’s attention-grabbing, but the real focal point within it isn’t. The runner is fit, but distant enough that it’s not really about her physique. It’s not engaging; she isn’t looking at us. And it’s not modeling a slow workout; she’s flying by, already headed off the page, ponytail a blur. Plus, the entire photo has a filter applied that makes it not really the focal point… so maybe the title text was meant to be the focal point? If so, which word? They are separate and look different, yet are similar…again, low contrast makes it challenging for the eye to make decisions quickly.

Although the overall hierarchy of information is clear at a glance, the energy of this design feels awkward to me. Does it to you? If so, how might you redesign the cover of Slow Burn so that it more powerfully conveys its promise of teaching an alternative calorie-burning strategy?

By the way, I looked around to see what else has been published under the title Slow Burn and how their covers were designed. I found an assortment of horror and romance novels (that is, horror novels and romance novels, though maybe some of them are horrifyingly romantic novels or even romantically horrific novels). Despite the graphic sensationalism of those covers, a few of which are designed well, this was the one that truly took my breath away:


I love this. There’s clear hierarchy. There’s a visual joke. There’s a hint of data vis. There’s pithy, sensory rich praise. There’s elegant typography (well, the O-W kerning could be improved). There’s a beautiful color palette. But it’s a bit off topic here, because nothing about this book promises anything about exercise strategies.