The rules of cover design have changed radically in recent years. So much so, that it seems there are no longer any rules at all. Once upon a time, a cover needed to have three definitive elements in order to succeed on the newsstand: a memorable masthead, clever cover-lines, and—crucially—direct eye contact. Nowadays, with magazine readers purchasing subscriptions online or discovering new titles via social, all the old print media lore has been thrown out the window. So we wondered, what does it take for a magazine cover to stand out today?
When we explored the new “rules” of the contemporary cover last year, we came to the conclusion that most covers have been freed from the reign of the newsstand due to two all-important factors:
- Social media. The place you’re most likely to see an independent magazine these days is on social media—among a cornucopia of other images, faces, smiles, colors, and headlines. These days, it’s therefore the Instagram square—not the crowded shelf—that an art director must keep in mind.
- Shelf-life. Independent magazines have a far longer on-sale time than weeklies or monthlies, which have a limited period in which to sell. Therefore, for smaller titles, a cover can be more daring and demanding of its viewers. It doesn’t matter if it sells out in a month—it can do so in six months, even a year.
To stand out amidst online chatter and the visual onslaught of Instagram, many art directors of independent titles are embracing the idea of a “cover as event.” To be memorable online, a cover needs a story attached to it that’s immediate and contagious.
“Covers are currency on Instagram,” says Jeremy Leslie, founder of the magCulture journal and London-based independent magazine store. “As soon as a new cover is revealed online, people call the shop to check its availability.” A cover reveal is an anticipated moment; when it’s an “event” and readers share it, there’s an opportunity to tap into new networks and drive sales.
Leslie highlights the third issue of feminist magazine Ladybeard as major example of a “cover as event” this year. Its “Beauty” issue featured a set of double-covers: the first, a tight close-up of an elderly woman’s lips, and the second, a close-up of an asshole. Ladybeard’s strategy is a subversive one: by highlighting two body parts rarely seen in the frame of a traditional cover—a space that historically reflects what a particular cultural moment deems “beautiful”—Ladybeard challenges the readers expectations as well as ageist, sexist, and normative notions of beauty. By blowing up the two images and proudly adorning the large format front covers with them, the reader is also invited to find beauty in the compositions and the intricate patterns of the skin.
A second cover that Leslie praises as a memorable event this year came from Fantastic Man. “Its series of covers featuring the different ages of man was an intelligent use of the (overused) multiple cover,” he says. “And their printer/distribution services distributed mixed boxes of the set. Too often a multiple cover concept is spoiled by only one or two of the variations arriving.”
When it comes to larger titles, Leslie cites two especially effective “events” from 2018. “There is of course the newsweeklies and their patronage of Edel Rodriguez and his Trump motifs that get great coverage online and on social,” says Leslie. “The illustrator’s reputation gets your mag coverage regardless of the piece in question—it always goes viral.” With Rodriguez especially, we’ve seen how covers can become meme; an audience shares a cover not because they’re a fan of the magazine’s actual contents, but because they agree with the picture.
“Elle’s cover shot of a grinning, pregnant Slick Woods was great to see,” adds Leslie. “A brave cover for a mainstream fashion title (brave in the context of its market, and a case of the creative team knowing its readers better than its management and being allowed to test that for once).”
Lastly, from a conceptual standpoint this year, Leslie highlights Swim—which featured a miniature flat plan of the entire issue across its front and back. Varoom!’s revitalized issue had a cover by Bráulio Amado, which was very strong in terms of sales. Despite the perceived wisdom that a black cover will slow down sales, which has been true at magCulture, the first exception to that rule was the debut issue of Suspira, with its subtle image and embossing. Here, darkness was key to its horror theme.
For Jaap Biemans, the art director behind the blog and Instagram account Coverjunkie, social has changed the art of cover design by giving mags “free attention and the possibility to shine.” He notes that 90% of covers, especially those in mainstream arenas, are the same as they were 10 years ago—“dull and easy.” On his blog, he highlights the special 10% that are “exciting” and reflect “the times we live in.”
“The trend that I really enjoy from the past year is when art directors treat the cover like a poster—using it to raise social awareness and make a statement,” says Biemans.
He highlights Teen Vogue’s March For Our Lives cover, which traversed social with its accompanying video, and featured four of the young activists behind the march for U.S. gun reform. Biemans’ absolutely favorite from 2018, though, was the cover of ESPN that had no athlete and no ball on the front, but instead a powerful fist to represent its “State of the Black Athlete” issue.
Most beloved for his followers was the National Geographic “Planet or Plastic” cover released in May, which featured the tip of a plastic bag submerged in water in place of an iceberg. This cover also functioned and circulated like a classic political poster—for Biemans, 2018 has been a year of the cover as political poster.
“Another trend I’ve noticed is that a lot of people are drawn to minimal designs,” he says. “It’s been there for a while, see what The New York Times Magazine has been doing for the past 10 years, for example. Now though, it’s mainly adapted by the so-called ‘indies.’ I’m a bit critical of it to be honest—some of them are exaggerating it too much.
“There are some indies that show so little on the outside, it’s hard to know what they’re actually about. It’s strange, because ultimately a cover is still there to tease, to show.”
It’s within the current landscape of social media and online media that we approached the cover concept of our very own tri-annual Eye on Design magazine, which—drum roll please—we are ecstatic to announce won Cover of the Year at the indie magazine Stack Awards this November. For those of you unfamiliar with our concept, each issue is designed by a different designer to reflect our latest theme; only the format, and the cover—with two die-cut holes placed at the very center to form an eye—remains the same. Each guest designer may do what they like with this motif. The cover of our “Psych” issue, designed by Shira Inbar, took home the gold at the Stack awards.
“It was a beautiful thing, but also compelling for customers, and I’m not just saying that!” says Leslie of how browsers responded to our design. “One of the traditional tenets of cover design is the idea of eye contact on the cover, and the Eye on Design cover takes that to an absurd extreme: one large abstract eye. In the shop, at pop-ups in London and Edinburgh, it attracted one and all to pick up the issue.”
Our lead designer Tala Safié created the “eye” template when designing our pilot issue in 2017. “When you create a print version of an online platform, you don’t need to paste the logo everywhere in an obvious way,” she says. “The eye is our branding, so I placed it center-stage in place of a masthead. I played with the die cuts to show-off the materiality of the product, which is different from what you get online. Instead of just listing the contents in cover lines, it literally gives the viewer a ‘peek’ of what’s inside, as you get a glimpse of the interior.”
When an audience first sees the cover online, the tactile materiality of the object is immediately communicated by the die-cut. With each new issue, we also want our audience to ask: What will be next? How will the eye change this time?
“The issue explores the intersection of design and mind-altering experiences, so from the start, I thought the cover should be an experience more sensual than educational, so the reader would feel a little lost before reaching orientation,” says “Psych” guest designer Inbar. “The orange DayGlo ink is contrasted with indigo blue paper from Mohawk to form a strobing effect, while silver ink rays ‘pull’ the viewer in.” For Inbar, illustration magazine Fukt’s cover this year has been a stand-out. For Safié, it’s been Migrant Journal and Talk.
When it comes to grabby covers, it’s been about stories and a statement that have made thumbs stop mid-scroll.