Drum roll please… Today, the UK’s Stack Awards announces its much-anticipated list of independent magazine winners. Launched two years ago by Stack, a monthly indie magazine subscription service, the event is a chance for small publishers to be judged by the likes of The New York Times Magazine’s design director, Gail Bichler, and AIGA Medallist Steven Heller, without having to scramble together the steep entry fees that often come with design ceremonies.

This year’s prize for Cover of the Year goes to the UK’s international review of graphic design Eye for its innovative stunt in generating 8,000 unique front covers for its annual Typography Special. It’s win is telling: it gestures to the changes in the design, meaning, and function of a magazine cover today.

An Eye for an Eye

To create the bespoke collection of Eye covers, graphic design studio MuirMcNeil used a systematic set of rules and HP Mosaic—a piece of software developed for the HP Indigo digital printer that enables millions of designs to be created from a limited number of originals, referred to as “seed” image files. Coca-Cola and other brands have used it; but this is the first time HP Mosaic has been used for editorial purposes.

Heller, one of the judges of the Cover of the Year category alongside the blog CoverJunkie’s Jaap Biemans, said: “My criteria was simple. Immediate IMPACT, aesthetic pleasure, and innovative concept. There were lots of good covers that followed a current minimalist trend. There were only a few that set a new standard. Eye’s concept is courageous. It was pure abstraction—not what a cover design is expected to be. It was improvisation. It was jazz. The idea that no single reader got the same cover. Incredible!

Eye’s cover was unexpected in many ways—a magazine’s cover is usually the same for every reader. Conventional cover design lore determines a front should have a face, layers, and hovering, functional cover lines to draw a reader in.

“The modern cover needs to be an event to stand out from the crowd,” says Jeremy Leslie, founder of the magCulture journal and judge of the Magazine of the Year category, in response to Eye’s win. “It needs a story attached that works on Instagram, etc. And the Eye cover did precisely that.”

Winner of the Stack Awards Cover of the Year 2016: Parterre de Rois, the Happiness issue.

Face-Off: Follow the rules, or break them?

Eye’s covers point to several changes in the way that magazines are viewed and distributed, especially for the makers of independent titles. Last year Stack’s Cover of the Year was awarded to an Italian biannual called Parterre de Roi, a hefty mag that interviews an imaginary dinner party guest list for each issue and is filled with fashion spreads and a lot of dense pages of glossy artwork. The winning cover is a delightful pink with a big, black scrawl of a face splashed across it, sardonically gesturing to the issue’s ‘Happiness’ theme. Although silent without a masthead, its design follows a lot more conventional wisdom than Eye’s.

Google “How to design a magazine cover,” and every guide that appears attests to the importance of a face—anyone versed in the art of cover design will know that eye contact can be everything. It’s why when you’re at an airport newsstand you’re confronted with an overwhelming crowd of smizing faces with tussled hair, beckoning you to “pick me”. While the vivid pink Parterre de Rois is an abstraction of a face, it is still a face nonetheless, and Leslie suggests its popularity has to do with that very fact.

Parterre de Rois, the Black issue.

Leslie’s magCulture shop in London is dedicated entirely to independent magazines. Unlike those smizing rows at the airport, the crowd of covers you’ll find here is a lot less conventional and breaks a lot of so-called cover design rules. According to Leslie, Parterre de Rois’ pink face “stormed out of the shop”, while the cover of its next ‘Black’ issue—a gloss word “Black” printed on black matte paper—did sell out, but took three times the time to do so.

“The new indies can ignore most of the traditional rules because they are expected to be alternative,” says Leslie. “Yet intriguingly, when they do follow a rule or two, they show the rules still count: the Printed Pages SS16 puppets were a great set of life-size heads that could a have been on any sensible mainstream mag in terms of the ‘life-sized head and shoulders + eye contact’ tradition.” These sold out speedily.

It was the same with Printed Pages’ SS17 issue—the pink field and abstract face of the cover echoing Parterre de Rois’s winning image. This issue sold out fast, says Leslie, yet the magazine’s latest comic cover is slow to sell in comparison despite the online animations supporting it.

Printed Pages, SS17

“It doesn’t matter to the makers, but it illustrates that the rules still apply,” says Leslie. “People can ignore them, especially because the mags have a longer on sale time than monthlies, who have a limited period to sell so have to tow the line. Some rules apply, some don’t. More importantly, indies can pick and choose as they wish. Ignoring the rules is a badge of honour.”

Eye’s cover gestures to a different kind of “rule”. To make an impact today, a cover needs to stand out, and not just from a crowd of other covers. Unless you’re lucky enough to have an independent magazine stockist in your local vicinity, the place you’re most likely to see an independent magazine is on social media—amongst a cornucopia of other images, faces, smiles, colors, and headlines. It’s here that a cover must catch the eye, and the imagination.

Edel Rodriguez, Melting Trump, Time, 2017.

Iconic Icons: Design in the Time of 612px x 612px

“The design of a cover has to stand out as an overall ‘thing’, not a series of things (logo-image-headline-contents list) as it used to,” says Leslie, “partly because of the tiny social media image size.” Heller pragmatically agrees: “Now magazine covers are indeed reduced to icons, you can only fit so much on an icon.”

The abstract Eye or the stripped-back face of Parterre de Rois are not fussy—when you pass the rectangles on your streams, it’s clear what you’re looking at as they lack any twiddly cover lines or fiddly details. As Heller would say, immediate IMPACT.

The covers I most vividly remember this year have had a simplicity to them, one well-suited to the way images circulate online, whether that’s covers of indie titles, larger-scale monthlies, or newspaper supplements. Edel Rodriguez’s Melting Trump for Time, which Heller cites as one of the most memorable covers of this year, has the instant recognition—and reduced forms—of an emoji. His similar covers for Der Spiegel have been equally impactful.

Edel Rodriguez, Der Spiegel, 2017.

I’ve started to think of covers as distanced from the contents of a magazine because of social media. If I’m at an airport newsstand, I will pick up Vanity Fair to read the interviews advertised on the front but online, a cover becomes its own thing, like a poster, and one that doesn’t necessarily spark immediate sales but is memorable and gathers momentum in a different way.

A magazine has its shelf-life, but now it also has a social media-life. The size of social media imagery naturally effects how something is designed; the more eye-catching and simple, the more likely a cover is going to be seen and shared.

Krass Journal, issue 3, 2016.

An Event to Remember

The winning Eye cover is aesthetically and formally simple, but its Stack Award also derives from the story behind it. As well as its jazz-like concept, it had a second more practical function in how it generated “social media buzz.” People photographed their bespoke cover, creating a patchwork of abstracted forms online that Eye then re-shared. It’s infectious: “I got this cover, which one did you get?”

One of my favorite independent magazines, a feminist journal from Australia called Krass, featured a bold, reflective cover for its last issue, with spiky typography. The cover, like Eye’s, begs to be photographed: its surface is a perfect mirror for readers to pose in and then post. Wielding a copy of Krass, you can become your own blurred cover-star in a satirical distortion of the cover-girl fad. It’s a statement: “Look at me, on the cover of this magazine that reflects me and my opinions instead of just telling me what kind of woman I should be.”

Knowledge of an independent title’s release circulates on social media through pictures, something that both Eye and Krass have played with poetically. You’ll know a new Cereal has landed when you see pictures of cacti-laden marble tables with the latest cover artfully tilted to the side á la Kinspiracy, or you’ll discover a title like Krass through punchy pictures of its readers reflecting themselves into the Instagram fog. A central question for art directors of independents then is not only how to make covers into catchy icons, but also how to generate online energy. Eye gestures to the way that to stand out, a cover must not only be visually striking but also an event, with its own statement and story to tell.

Riposte, issue 8’s double cover.

Picture Perfect

Eye’s concept is an elegant, thoughtful approach to the modern cover of the modern magazine. Yet not all magazines today have such a considered and inspiring touch when it comes to generating social media hype.

Last year, in the final issue of editorial design magazine Gym Class, editor and writer Kevin Braddock wrote an opinion piece criticising the trend for typographic covers in the world of independent magazines. These typographic mags are true Instagram fodder: bold typography on contrasting backgrounds, listing a magazine’s interviewees with minimalist vigour. Riposte is perhaps the most well-known to have all-type covers, though since last year it has begun photographic treatments too; another example of the type-list cover is Actual Source’s Shoplifters. (Gym Class satirized the general trend of typographic covers with its classic type cover in 2016, too.)

In the article, Braddock writes: “The implicit idea seems to be that the names of these people are in themselves attractive enough to warrant perusal […] It touches on something else: the ascendancy of design, and magazines being made first and foremost with a design/creative direction mentality rather than an editorial one […] A cover with a list of the names of cool people in a cool font is more like a piece of cool graphic design than a functional piece of communication.”

Riposte’s type covers are complicated in this analysis, because while the design choice was certainly aesthetically led, it also marked a rejection of the “cover girl” mentality. Now, its photographic covers subvert the idea of a cover girl further—especially with its last cover featuring breast cancer survivor Ericka Hart, and you could say it actually subverts more powerfully with pictures than type alone. Braddock’s argument points to a larger issue in contemporary magazine making, and that’s a lack of a point of view: a magazine made purely for the sake of design, not for the sake of words and meaning. “Are we actually buying or looking at magazines because we want to read them in a deeper way than casually flicking through?” Braddock asks.

“The same question applies to why and how we are making them. In many cases I’m not sure, and this is what I mean when I talk about magazines being led by a visual/design/style mentality rather than an editorial one. The cover is where these questions all played out.”

If an independent magazine’s cover is to be pictured for the aesthetically led world of social media to get noticed, then it’ll have to be heavily visually led, too. Not a problem, if the story and concept is crisp, but an online context encourages a drift in emphasis: it’s not as important to have something to say—with clever, punchy cover-lines and smart, satirical details for example—but rather it’s more important that a cover asks to be photographed. Instead of enticing you with what’s inside, there’s a tendency towards enticing you to take a photo.

“There have been a range of magazines and covers following on from Cereal (I presume) which offer a curated, rather introverted world of zen-like, almost Presbyterian simplicity,” says Braddock.

“These magazines ask the readers to share a solemn reverence for, say, an oak bench or a grain of rice or a bespoke doorknob which features on the cover. Again, doubtless these magazines have their audience, but I find the underlying mentality rather meek, perhaps even fearful. It’s been a long time since a magazine cover tried to make me laugh (Viz, Private Eye, Fantastic Man and Brand Eins are the honourable exceptions).”

Eye has juggled new rules in a way that feels very Eye. Its winning cover is meaningful while also being immediate: aesthetically pleasing and snapshot-worthy but also conceptually innovative; faceless but with a point of view; a simple graphic, but with a story attached to it. A cover is a doorway into a curated, edited, and often wordy world; what the doorway says and how it entices us says a lot about what you’ll find inside.