The Quest for the Perfect Cover
When a magazine’s cover “worked,” we can never determine for sure exactly what worked. Was it the photo? Was it the subject of the cover story? Was it the big type run in process yellow? Surveys can be taken, focus groups convened, but experience teaches that you can’t escape flying by the seat of your pants. That’s another way of saying that we depend on the editor’s gut feeling. I was one of the judges awarding “best cover” medals in an intramural competition at a publishing company large enough to warrant such an act. The company’s owner—who ought to know given his company’s output—told me that the only factor he could be sure of is the coquettish, come-hither look in the model’s eyes. (That is a somewhat frustrating criterion if your product doesn’t deal with that kind of subject.) Here are four cover stories to illustrate the complexity of the problem.
1. One cover stands out vividly from the thousands in my half century of magazine-ing. They were refurbishing the newsstand in the Stockholm airport terminal, so their magazines were spread out on the sidewalk. The standout was greenish all over: in the picture, the logo, the type, the coverlines. It was the Swedish Golf Digest, so its greenness was perfect for its subject. The cover carried all the usual elements, but they were blended by the color, and that simplicity popped it out from its surrounding, gaudy competition. Less is more, but can you imagine the arguments before they agreed to go with it?
2. In the late ’90s, there was a period of intense competition among three women’s general-interest weeklies in Norway. One of them decided to abandon fashionable elegance and do some hard-selling by covering the cover with as many pictorial and verbal appeals as they could squeeze in, using every color (especially process yellow), typeface, angle, overlap, silhouetting, shadow and trick. The startling difference created enormous curiosity, and their sales skyrocketed. The other two quickly latched onto the technique in their own variations, and after a few issues, the only way to tell them apart was to decipher the logos.