Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Activate Your Graphic Designer Superpowers

At Wisconsin’s last fall conference, Dan Santat spoke about the important role of graphic design in illustration. He described the job of an illustrator as 20% artist and 80% graphic designer. Dan said a lot of smart things, but this particularly caught my attention and motivated me to think about my illustration work in a more design-driven way.


Most recently, I asked a graphic designer friend for feedback on a graphic novel cover for my portfolio. She also said a lot of smart things. Here’s before:


Image 1_Before


And here’s after:

Image 2_After


I was blown away at how a few key tweaks made such a big difference. Here’s what changed and how it’s a potential superpower you can add to your illustration arsenal:


1. Less is More

Much like editing your writing, paring down your visuals is key to making sure you have one clear message coming across. Minimize visual noise by ditching distracting elements, textures, effects, etc. 

In my example above, I removed the texture on the back cover and ditched the drop shadow on all the text. The result is a cleaner, more contemporary look. It also gave everything room to breathe and made sure the focus is on the right elements. 


2. Stopping Power

With graphic designer superpowers, you can grab people’s attention and control where your audience looks first. The portion of your illustration with the biggest contrast is the first place people will look. 

Contrast can also help your work standout in a sea of other work. In the example above, the designer suggested popping the spine with a bright, contrasting color to help it stand out on the shelf and complement the rest of the cover design. BOOM! Super smart.


3. Cohesiveness

Graphic designers are great at identifying ways to pull through design elements for a consistent look and feel. On the spine, I ditched the weird embossed rectangle under “Nutty Pubs” (my attempt at a humorous placeholder for a publisher’s name). Since that style wasn’t used anywhere else, it simply didn’t fit the look of the rest of the cover.

My favorite thing that changed is adding the little circle on the spine with the scuba diving squirrel. Repeating the graphic element not only creates cohesiveness, but also adds an eye-catching visual to the spine to help increase stopping power. Two for one!


I also have a very helpful critique group that helped me with this piece well before the “Before” shown here. I highly recommend a critique group. Beyond practice, it’s been the #1 way I’ve grown as a writer and illustrator.


So if you haven’t already, seek out a critique group, take a graphic designer to lunch, or get started with these three graphic designer superpowers. I hope it helps you take your illustrations to the next level!


Sheri Roloff

Sheri Roloff is an aspiring author and illustrator of picture books and graphic novels. By day she writes multi-channel marketing pieces and leads a team of talented copywriters. In between writing and drawing, she enjoys singing, playing guitar, and writing songs. Feel free to contact her at roloff.sheri (at) gmail (dot) com, or visit her on TwitterPinterest, or her blog Sheri Roloff: Words & Pictures.