The secrets of magazine cover design 2: The right mix

(Back to part 1)
Woman & Home launch cover South Africa: magazine cover design example poster cover: Esquire Russia launch cover: magazine cover design example
Woman & Home was launched in South Africa into the competitive weekly women's sector. The cover has an even balance between words and image Poster-style cover, with minimal encroachment on the celebrity image of Bruce Willis, for the launch of Esquire in Moscow. Compare the way eeach face has been positioned
Look and feel   The way a cover looks is dictated by its publishing and editorial strategy.
The poster-style adopted by Esquire for its launch in Russia is laid back and confident – with the contrasting lighting giving a 'hard' feel to Die Hard actor Bruce Willis – compared with pastel tones for the first issue of Woman & Home in South Africa. Poster designs are chosen by magazines that feel confident they are not facing great competition on the news-stand. However, even the top magazines will only use this style occasionally.
The men's monthly must use a face that is instantly recognisable, put the magazine in an international framework and appeal to well-off, aspirational readers. The photograph of Bruce Willis for Esquire will have been taken by one of the best photographers, it will be processed by the best repro houses and printed on very good paper by a very good printer – it will both look and feel glossy.
Woman & Home is a mass-market weekly. Its female buyers will have a lot of options from which to choose. Also, Woman & Home will have to compete on newsagents' shelves where it will probably not be shown full-cover, but partly obscured by other titles. Esquire in Russia on the other hand will be sold in selected, upmarket outlets where it will usually be shown full-face on.
Cover lines   Both covers above have a main cover line and subsidiary lines. The Russian title keeps them out of the way at the bottom. Woman & Home uses a range of techniques to make individual lines stand out without overwhelming the others:
  • each cover line has two parts: a 'kicker' in a bold font with an explanatory line;
  • some are in colour, chosen to stand out against the background;
  • 3 flashes are used: New; More; and the Exclusive slash;
  • stars are used to list items rather than the usual bullets;
  • a line running along the top of the masthead lists the topics covered;
  • lines are restricted to the left and right thirds and the bottom of the page.
Notice that the 'New' flash is in the left third and just below the masthead so it will show up in all displays

The image  










See these Picture Post covers at Getty Images (a photo agency built on photographs from the magazine's publisher, Hulton)

Study of US Life covers (Web Archive)

Vogue magazine cover archive

Database of US covers

Consumer magazine editors worry more about the cover more than any other part of the magazine. It has long been a mantra that an editor should 'prostitute himself' for the cover, because it is so important to copy sales in the shops (particularly in the UK where more than 90% of consumer magazine sales are in newsagents).
There are no absolute rules to putting a cover together – as a look at the history of magazines shows. Technology has been a big factor in terms of what's possible (women's monthlies weren't glossy 40 years ago, but advances in varnishing and lamination have now made them so). Many people bemoan the move away from the sort of covers that made the Illustrated London News and Esquire famous, but readers' tastes change; magazines must change with them or fold.
Generally, photographs are felt to work better than illustration, at least since the mid-1950s. However, what works for one title might fail on another – computer magazines tend to like a factual look, with white background and photographs; yet computer gaming titles prefer moody illustration.
The models on women's weekly covers will not usually be household names; instead, they reflect how the target readers feel – or want to feel – about themselves. Models will be chosen to look younger than the target reader (except on teen titles).
Bruce Willis is chosen as an international screen icon who moves in the sort of circles that Esquire magazine's aspirational buyers would like to see themselves in.
Note that the faces are not centred on the nose, but instead on one of the eyes.
People prefer images of others with wide-open pupils – a sign of attraction in everyday life.
Colour: many editors avoid white, black and green. Red stands out but can be over-used. Contrast between colours may be more important.
Numbers are used to suggest there is a lot in a magazine. The bigger the better, with many editors preferring figures such as 162 to rounded numbers such as 100

Dick Stolley's mantra for
People in US







"Young is better than old.
Pretty is better than ugly.
Rich is better than poor.
Movies are better than music.
Music is better than television.
Television is better than sports
. . . and anything is better than politics."

This mantra for cover images – and many variants of it – has been around since the early 1980s. It was coined by Dick Stolley, the founding managing editor of People magazine in the US in 1974. He has stressed that it was designed for People, which is regarded as having established the celebrity sector in the US. In a 1999 interview with the Peoria Journal Star, he added: "And after 1980 I amended the final line to 'And nothing is better than the celebrity dead'," following the death of John Lennon, "... which was the best-selling cover until Princess Diana on the occasion of her death became the best-selling news-stand cover."
  Back to part 1 On to part 3
  Other relevant pages: