SR5 Graphic Design Blog: The Cover Is Everything

By now, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the cover of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. If not, here it is:


Today we’re going to talk a little about how it came to look like that. Near the end of July 2012, the core group of Shadowrun developers/authors/management met up in Seattle to talk about a new edition of the game. At that time we had a good idea of what was on the table as far as rules tweaks and changes to game mechanics, so we spent a lot of time talking about presentation of the books themselves. How would it look on your shelf? How would it be presented in a store? How do we stay true to the Shadowrun look?

Everything was up for discussion, but we needed to do some research to make an informed decision. After all, the decision we were going to make would impact the line for years to come. Talk about pressure!

book spread

First, we looted eBook developer Peter M. Andrew Jr.’s massive Shadowrun collection and covered every available horizontal surface with books. It was like a bomb went off, but instead of damage and carnage, it left only Sixth World awesomeness. We then chose aspects of the books we liked, pointed out things we didn’t like, and made suggestions on what could change. We noted everything down and then went to Step 2, a retail excursion.

The folks at Olympic Cards & Comics ( let us take over their RPG section (it’s huge—stop at their store if you’re ever in the area, it’s absolutely worth your time) for a few hours to study the presentation of RPG books in general. Not only could we see directly what works and what doesn’t work in a retail environment, but the staff were also happy to tell us what worked from their perspective. This was great, because a lot of their points were things most people might not think about and are used in a different way by retailers than they are by players: location and size of the product number, orientation of text on the spine and even the type of binding they like to see on books.

Once the research was done we started making notes and drawing sketches. We came up with a list of ideas:

1. Logo needs to be big and up top. It gives the book pop, and many retailers show off books in a “waterfall orientation” where the upper portion of the book will be showing.

2. The spine needs to identify the game immediately and be easily readable.

3. We should have a framing element for the cover. The SR4 line of books nearly all used full-bleed art for the covers. This was cool and gave flexibility to the designer, but over time lead to a disparate look to the books. A frame would allow us to keep the look concise and consistent, at least for the first year or so of books.

4. We could do away with the regular Catalyst branding elements: the black bar across the bottom and white text identifying the type of book. When CGL was young, it helps immediately identify a Catalyst book and help establish the company, but wasn’t necessary any more. The CGL logo would stay on the cover, but we could now move on from that standard branding.

5. It’s all about characters. Focus the covers on characters as much as you can, at least on the core line of books. Don’t get me wrong, cityscapes and gear illustrations are awesome, but when it comes down to it, it’s the characters that matter, acting as a proxy for the players.

6. The back cover copy needs to be concise and to the point. You hear it all the time—attention spans are getting shorter. Don’t go on and on about what’s in the book. You should be able to both summarize the book and draw a player in with only a few short paragraphs.

So, with those notes I immediately went to work. That night in my hotel room I started putting together ideas. And they sucked! They sucked so hard I’m not even going to post samples here. But, that’s all part of the process—very few projects are perfect on the first attempt.

Over the next few weeks and months, I went back and forth on the design, streamlining and tweaking it until we had what we wanted. I’m very, very happy with the final product and think it stands up strong against the covers of the previous edition core rulebook covers (I went through and applied the SR5 cover art to the different editions because why not?).



Matt Heerdt
“I’m Not Sure What My Actual Title Is So Let’s Go With ‘Media Design & Production Guy'”

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  1. Posted June 19, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    You should include that, the SR5 cover with all the previous edition frames, in with the PDF.

  2. Posted June 19, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    What is the book in the bottom left corner, the one with the Yakuza like people with swords? I don’t recognize it and I thought I had everything for Shadowrun.

    • Matt Heerdt
      Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

      That’s one of the GM screens from few years ago. Don’t remember off hand, but I think it was 2011.

    • Reverendo
      Posted June 20, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      it isnt a book. Its the limited edition gamemasters screen

    • Talonious
      Posted June 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      That is on one of the GM Screen from 4th edition. I don’t remember if it is the Runner Toolkit or the stand alone GM screen. Cheers!

  3. Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    It’s the Limited Edition GM Screen.

  4. Wolfgang Von Bek
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    looks good with the old skull logo, I’d love a limited edition with the old 1st and 2ed edition trade dress (or the new design with the Elmore piece)

  5. Downtym
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I would buy the heck out of the copy with the 1st edition/2nd edition cover styling.

  6. Greadle
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Seeing the editions lined up that way, I hate to say that I’m still rather fond of the third edition look… Still, I do admit that the new red/black color scheme is rather nice! 😉

    @Canterbury Tail: That’s the cover of the German “Unterwelten” source book with a cover by Arndt Drechsler. Arndt is responsible for a lot of the German covers (for some reason, they consistently seem to be unhappy with the original artworks. Or, alternatively, they’re creating additional incentives to wait for the German translation or buy both). The German source book “Unterwelten” translated the English “Vice” and “10 Gangs” into one book…

  7. Randall
    Posted June 21, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    BookWyrm: There is a fold out art page that includes the four editions of the book with their original art.

    Canterbury Tail: That is German cover art; specifically we used it on the Limited Edition GM Screen.

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