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10 ways to make your magazine cover stand out

In a declining industry plagued with tumbling circulation figures and title closures, designing covers for newsstand magazines has become increasingly fraught.

Limitless digital content available in a split-second makes the monthly print cycle of magazines look ever more anachronistic and irrelevant, and the corresponding decline in revenue from print ads only hastens print’s downward spiral.

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The battle is no longer print versus digital. Digital has already won. The challenge for print is simply to co-exist, and the frontline of this battle is the cover of your magazine, which must somehow engage, cajole and convince readers that buying something written six weeks ago might somehow still be a worthwhile experience.  

But despite all the gloomy headlines announcing the death of print, there are still bold launches and thrilling innovations that suggest all may not be lost. And just as the book publishing industry defended itself against the assault of e-readers with more beautiful jacket designs that celebrated the physical properties of print, so magazine publishers and designers must remind their readers why print is different, not inferior to digital.

01. Beware the formula

GQ (left) doesn’t want you to miss out on any content, so it lists most of it on its cover. Esquire (right) hard sells one story, creating a cover that exudes confidence

An exhausting checklist of unofficial best practices – The Formula – has accumulated over time. These guidelines include adding flashes in the top left quadrant (the hot zone of visibility), running sell lines above your masthead (to grab the browsers attention before they’ve even seen your logo design) and keeping the main cover hit in the top half of the cover (so it’s less likely to be hidden by other titles). The list’s endless: models should make eye contact; the colour pink is ‘feminine’; ‘green shouldn’t be seen’…  

The obvious problem with following The Formula is that nearly everyone else on the newsstand is doing the same thing. Browse any magazine shelf and you’ll see an exhausting repetition, a visual cacophony where every title is cancelled out by its identikit neighbour. And despite the apparent common sense behind some of these rules, common sense rarely makes for a truly thrilling magazine cover.  

It takes courage to promise less and deliver more, but this is the essence of good design

It takes courage to promise less and deliver more, but this is the essence of good design: make a beautiful image that attracts and engages the reader. Your cover is a (visual) tool to draw your reader to the (written) content. For that split-second when the reader first sees the cover, aesthetics must take precedent for the process of seduction to begin.

A text-heavy cover is shouting at a tiny, vanishing audience – the casual reader browsing a local supermarket or newsagent is all but extinct. If your cover is confident and clear, it will stand out in the crowd.  

02. Own your cover image

The Sunday Times (left) frames Tracy Emin from her distinctive arched eyebrows to her chin, her personality powerfully communicated in a daring crop. The New York magazine cover (right) demonstrates how a banal image can be electrifying when daringly cropped 

Unless you’re lucky enough to commission original artwork every month, you’ll mostly be faced with making covers from supplied images. Sometimes you'll be sharing an image with another magazine and almost certainly the internet, so you need to make your treatment stand out.

One of the most effective ways to take ownership is to crop the image differently.  

Inexperienced designers will tend to use the source image unquestioningly as the cover composition, but experienced designers will look for different crops to make the cover unique.

Imagine having a head-and-shoulders portrait as your source image. The obvious solution would be to have the head roughly fill the available area – so the face is as large as possible – and position coverlines accordingly. But by changing the crop you can radically alter the tone and deliver a fresh editorial message.  

Zoom in closer for a larger-than-life face, an instantly arresting image. Shrink or discard the coverlines to increase the cover star’s status, or type them on top of their face, so suddenly your story is more important than the star. Desaturate or even eliminate the colour to communicate a different tone. Or apply illustrations on top of the image to stamp your ownership.

03. Use special print treatments

Despite paying for 100% coverage, Gist (left) uses foil sparingly to make a wonderfully classy cover. Wired Italia (right) applies a fluorescent Pantone pink to stunning effect

Foils and fifth colour Pantones (an additional plate to the default CMYK) are the most effective way of triggering the magpie instinct in readers. The powerful physical presence of foil instantly lifts it above flat colour printing: it reacts to the light, changes tone depending on how it’s displayed and carries a unique currency of quality and luxury with consumers (which is why it’s the de facto choice for so many cosmetics brands). There’s no printing technique as reliable as foil to lend desirability and opulence to your cover.  

As foils are costed according to the percentage of the cover area they’re applied to, you’ll see quite a few titles foil their logo, not so many that lavish it from corner to corner. But however you use it, impact on newsstand is guaranteed.

Pantone inks – especially fluorescents – are significantly cheaper and can radically weaponise your design. Explore the back catalogue of Wired (UK and US) for a thorough masterclass in fifth colour treatments.

Spot UVs, embosses, dies-cuts and bespoke cover stock finishes can all be applied to maximise impact, and the best way of finding out what you’d like (and can afford) is to visit your printer. They will be manufacturing a host of other products, from food packaging to corporate brochures, so explore what materials, techniques and treatments might be available. Your printer wants your (repeat) business, so negotiation is not uncommon.

04. Make your cover work on social media

Both covers stand out on newsstand but work just as well as thumbnails

Social media is likely to be your biggest promotional tool and first contact with prospective readers. Your cover design must work both at newsstand and at a radically smaller size.

Just as the music industry has embraced the miniaturisation demanded by the digital age, with album designs increasingly sparse and iconic, so magazine covers must work at different sizes and in different media.  

Reduce. Simplify. Email your cover to yourself and look at it on your phone. If it looks cluttered at that size and minor hits are illegible, are they worth retaining? What does your cover communicate about you when compressed to little more than an icon? Does it project authority or chaos?

And use social media to promote your cover before it’s even on the newsstand. Create audience anticipation and give them a reason to look out for you. Post photographs of your best spreads, tag your illustrators and contributors, take advantage of the powerful reach of social media to make your cover (and issue) visible to the vast majority of people who aren’t in WHSmith that week. Don’t be afraid to use the internet to celebrate print. There’s no time to hold grudges.

The two magazines above are so utterly confident in their own brands that they ignore any formula. Elle (left) brutally crops Emma Watson through her chin while eye contact is well below the midpoint of the cover. Even her name is essentially invisible, yet as a thumbnail, the white magazine logo condenses to be wonderfully clear. Bazaar’s cover (right) is equally bold, awarding Paltrow the entire cover but daring to hide her face. Both covers stand out on newsstand but work just as well as thumbnails.

05. Trust your reader (and your instincts)

A ‘commercial’ newsstand Esquire (left) and ‘desirable’ subscriber cover (right) demonstrate the wild disparity at the heart of consumer magazine publishing. The perfect cover probably sits somewhere between these two extremes

Many magazines publish two different covers for the same issue: a regular, text-hit heavy newsstand version, and a subscriber covers, usually stripped of words and featuring a more daring crop. The logic is that the subscriber cover doesn’t need to work at newsstand, so the loyal subscriber is rewarded with the cover they'd prefer.  

This practice reveals the low opinions many publishers have of the average reader, who they fear needs to be cajoled, hectored and bullied into parting with their cash. But are the two objectives (selling and looking good) really mutually exclusive? The best magazines dare to imagine that their readers are as smart as them, and design accordingly.  

Design is no longer a mysterious art – the aesthetics of Apple’s new OS are discussed at the water cooler along with the new Game of Thrones episode – and simplification and decluttering have become synonymous with quality.  

Similarly, trust your own instincts. If something seems wrong with your cover, even if you don’t know what it is, it’s still wrong. Take it all off and start again. Workshop as many different ideas as possible. Don’t waste time refining small details or honing type. Make it work as a whole, first.  

And don’t be dismayed if your editor asks you to try something else. If your cover needs explaining, it’s a failure. No amount of polish will save a fundamentally flawed idea. A spontaneous, radical new direction can deliver a killer cover in less than a minute, while bad covers usually take forever because they are, ultimately, never finished. They just get sent to the printers when there’s no longer any time left…

Next page: five more ways to make your magazine cover stand out…

06. Mind your language

Wired (left) is legendary for type-only covers, often employing eye-popping Pantone colours to make the text shout even louder. With a title as respected as Time (right), abandoning artwork reinforces the urgency and power of the headline  

As the designer you should know the language and editorial tone of your magazine as well as your editor. Each word is as important as the image, every sentence is another opportunity to reinforce brand values. Design is communication and therefore essentially an extension of vocabulary. Great covers should exhibit a seamless synthesis of words and imagery.  

For this reason, designer and editor should ideally work in unison on the cover. Designs batted back and forth between editorial and design are less likely to deliver a cohesive solution. That ‘what if?’ spark needs to be caught instantly and allowed to catch fire. The best editors will invariably have great instincts for design, and good designers will love words (or at least typography) as much as images.

Type-only covers have become increasingly popular and the best examples demonstrate the art/editorial hybrid mind in perfect harmony. Provocative statements or urgent questions can engage the reader just as powerfully as an image, the subliminal message being: This is too important to waste time with a pretty picture.  

Type-based covers are difficult to pull off, but well executed treatments can make for powerful brand statements and inevitably stand out against cluttered competitors. If all else fails, do one thing and do it well: sell your cover line. And question the value of supplementary sell-lines. Additional hits should support and enhance the overall design, not exist for their own sake.

07. Be controversial

Candy magazine’s Terry Richardson photograph of Miley Cyrus (left) might have been viewed as merely risqué in 2015. In 2018, it’s difficult to imagine it being published. Adbusters (right) seldom pull the punches with controversial subject matter, and it is impossible not to be struck by this stark, witty cover treatment. Would a top left bubble flash really help?

Grab the attention of the reader and you have achieved your primary purpose: making the magazine a purchase option. But shock tactics aren’t appropriate for all titles, and shouldn’t be deployed gratuitously. Readers will be suspicious of cynical or engineered controversy. Context is everything and provocative covers are meaningless if they doesn’t support a genuine message. However if the editorial team do have a daring idea to communicate, your duty as designer is to amplify it.  

Of course, getting your magazine withdrawn from the newsstands is a very real danger. Magazines do get taken from the shelves and if you read your audience wrong, you’ll alienate them in the short term and damage trust in the long term.

Sex isn’t the only shock tactic: religion and politics are probably the riskiest subject matters, and cultural tastes are fluid. A sexually provocative cover in 2018 will fall under much greater scrutiny than it might have done pre-#MeToo. Politically sensitive subjects should be approached with maximum caution, although provocative treatments may evade censorship (and rancor) if tempered with sophisticated wit.

08. Brand your own content

Time keeps the cover star behind the logo, establishing a hierarchy of importance. Vogue Italia makes cover model Hadid huge, but the black, stamped masthead is dominant. Both magazines choose subjects that are of equal status to their own brands

Your magazine is more important than your content. Whatever your cover, and however big a deal it is, your brand – the masthead logo, the identity, the values – are your primary concern. Your cover is more than just a billboard for your current issue, it is an ongoing advertisment of brand.

A film magazine with an exclusive on the latest Star Wars movie might be forgiven for sacrificing their own masthead legibility in favour of letting the cover image dominate, but by transferring brand collateral over to your cover star, you make a subtle statement of subservience.

During the design process, you should be constantly printing out your current cover and setting it against the previous half-dozen to see what, if anything, is happening with your brand. Over enthusiasm (or over-promising) can sometimes lead to brand-wounding cover treatments that weaken credibility and dilute authority.

So be prepared (with your editor) to push back over supplied imagery and/or resist commercial pressures. In an ideal world, you will only run covers that share your values. Remember, your brand and your cover subject are inexorably linked, and if there are early doubts over the merits of your cover subject, it's better to address them immediately (and find another cover) than be forever haunted by your own back issues page…

09. Make your cover an event

Multiple covers don’t have to be variations on a theme. Port took an opportunity to deliver two radically different covers for the same issue. The confidence this communicates to the reader is itself an affirmation of Port’s identity and brand authority

Split-run covers can be an effective and cost-efficient way to get attention on the newsstand and generate social media interest. It’s likely your cover is printed four-up – four covers on one sheet of paper which are then cut down and bound – so supplying four different designs can cost next to nothing. Suddenly your new cover is not just about your latest issue – it’s an event.

There’s something intrinsically satisfying about seeing variations on a theme. Simple transitions on social media of your different cover treatments engage reader attention and give an additional spin to your new issue narrative: which cover will you find on the newsstand?

Suddenly your new cover is not just about your latest issue – it’s an event.

And split-runs don’t have to even be for the reader’s benefit. They can be a valuable testing ground for new ideas or treatments. Why not print 75 per cent of your covers with a regular design, but put out 25 per cent with a more daring treatment, as a subtle piece of market research? Regular readers rarely have trouble expressing their preferences and audience feedback is always valuable.

Part of the pleasure (and torture) of magazine design is that however many colour proofs you make, when the finished magazine comes back from the printer, its physical presence will always be slightly different to how you imagined it. Publishing straight to the internet is a brutally efficient, digital exercise – what you see is what you get –  but printing magazines is analogue, mercurial and magical.  

10. Pay attention to indie mags

If God made magazines, they’d probably look like Migrant Journal (left), the undisputed indie hit of recent years. Port (right) is now an elder statesman of indie publishing, and its smart redesign shows it to be just as hungry now as it was in 2011

The success of the indie magazine market can be a source of anguish for mainstream magazine designers, who often look at their opulent production values and resolutely non-commercial cover treatments with hopeless envy. And whilst their largely subscriber-based/specialist shop distribution mean there are few practical lessons to be learnt from them, their energy, passion and enthusiasm offer a timely reminder of how magazines can still be valued as prestigious products to be celebrated on their own terms.

Recent successes like Migrant Journal and Mushpit both radically rethink how a magazine can look and read: the former presenting deep content with a clinical precision closer to an academic journal (albeit beautifully designed), the latter brattishly throwing every convention of ‘good design’ out of the window and reengaging with readers in a playfully aggressive fashion.   

The (best) indies demonstrate the magazine format to be an infinitely mutable medium, capable of radical reinvention and continued relevance. It is the indie mags that have responded most readily to the challenges of existing in a digital world, championing the value of magazines in their own right. Adopting the (more often than not) wilful obtuseness of their cover designs is unlikely to translate to a mainstream, newsstand title, but there are underlying principles of audience engagement, brand-as-content and bold experimentalism that can be inspiring and instructive.  

Mark Wynne is the art editor of Computer Arts magazine, the world's best-selling design magazine. Subscribe to make sure you don't miss his next cover.

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