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.
3. Newsstand sales are vital to magazine circulation in Brazil. The problem with selling them in São Paulo is that the pollution sneaks dirt between the pages, and who wants to buy a soiled copy? Therefore, plastic-bagging is essential. But if the issue is bagged and you can’t flip the pages while you’re browsing at the newsstand, how do you know what’s inside? Coverlines—lots and lots of them. Nevermind that your product is stylish and elegant, and the gorgeous cover subject is ruined by all that type. All that type is inescapable, given the outside sales conditions, like it or not.
4. A few years ago, I came across a unique cover problem in Ecuador. All the covers of the local, general-interest weekly newsmagazine bore pictures of partially clad young ladies, though there was one issue on the wall in the editor’s office that showed jungle guerrillas with guns. That had been an experiment and a circulation disaster. The mail system could not be depended on to deliver magazines, and newsstands were few, because they required a lot of investment. Circulation depended on boys who bought a handful of copies to peddle in the streets. The cover with the boy-oriented guerrillas was a failed attempt to appeal to these newsboys. Convinced that they couldn’t sell a magazine that lacked a pretty model on the cover, the newsboys refused to buy any themselves.
No matter what you put on the cover, keep the six functions of covers in mind:
1. Familiar recognition from issue to issue (that’s the brand)
2. Emotionally irresistible (that’s the image’s appeal)
3. Arousing curiosity (that’s to pull the casual glancer in)
4. Intellectually stimulating, interesting (that’s to promise benefits)
5. Efficient, fast, easy to scan (that’s showing off the service)
6. Worth the investment of money and time (that’s the “What’s in it for me?”)
No wonder that the cover is a complicated puzzle. But all these qualities are essential, so they must be borne in mind when the inevitable arguments arise.
Four reasons not to judge your cover on-screen:
1. The screen is the wrong size, no matter how big it is. You can’t see it intimately as if it were in your hands.
2. It lacks scale because it is isolated in its own magic electronic world, so you have nothing real to compare it to. You can only guess at type sizes and hope they’re OK.
3. It glows in vivid colors that will inevitably turn disappointingly dull when printed in ink. A hard-copy printout may be closer.
4. Worst of all, it is virtual. It is just an illusory likeness of the physical paper product that your potential buyer will ultimately be holding. If you are producing magazines on paper, think and remain conscious of “paperness” all the time.
Four ways to judge your cover:
1. Covers are the prime sales tool that must be judged realistically both for content as well as form (i.e., what they show and how they show it). Never trim a printout, mount it beautifully, and display it with its alternates on the finely polished surface of the conference-room table. Designers love to do this, because to them, the cover is enormously important (and so it is, but not necessarily for their reasons). That framing, matting and mounting in a formalized presentation cheats you into believing that what you are being shown is “art” that you must judge on aesthetic grounds, liking it or loathing it … “Can we make the type a tad redder?” Few magazines qualify for covers that are “art.”
2. Instead, ask the designer to print out all the alternates as hard copy, trim them accurately to magazine size and glue them onto old issues, so you can see them as close to the real thing as possible. Now, toss them on a tabletop, so they flop around and overlap like real magazines do.
3. If you can spare the time, go to the local drugstore or bookstore, and sneak your upcoming issue in among the other magazines on the racks. Does it hold its own or does it disappear? To ensure that atmosphere of realism, I persuaded that multititle publisher to invest in a full-color, life-size photomural of a newsstand and have it permanently installed. We attached clips and glass shelves on it to hold the mock-ups. The realistic circumstances not only improved the noticeability of the covers, but reduced friction between art/edit/circulation/management, because everybody could see what the reality of selling was about.
4.If selling on newsstands is not your problem, but competition among executives is, gather copies of what your targets might be reading, including your competition, of course. Mock up an executive’s in-box or tabletop arrangement in some way, and place yours among them. That is the realistic way to judge your cover. Keep that still-life stack for next month’s headaches.
Three fixes—avoiding a weak cover:
1. If the cover pops out from its background, don’t weaken it by fussing with it. You’ve probably done something courageous (like that all-green Swedish Golf Digest) and deserve congratulations. Leave well enough alone.
2. If it is invisible like wallpaper, decide what element is worthy of becoming dominant by enlarging, by isolating, by more controlled color, by more clever wording. … Do it deliberately, strongly, with conviction. The great thing about seeing the sketch cover in its realistic setting is that it warns you away from itsy-bitsy decisions that don’t matter. To succeed out there, you have to realize that you are making a poster, albeit in miniature. A billboard.
3. Check out the suggestions about the four type sizes. (See related content.) A magazine is first and foremost a physical product, so experiment with it as such and be sure to make the most of its capabilities. Unfortunately, every decision will demand a price. Example: The spectacular, shiny coverstock that helps the colors vibrate is so slippery that the magazine falls on the floor. To whom are you catering? Youngsters don’t mind bending down to retrieve it, but seniors will let it lie there, because it is too damn much trouble. It is all really psychology, isn’t it? Well, of course it is! Publishing is a form of person-to-person conversation. The cover triggers it.
Jan White, the author of the book, “Editing by Design,” lectures worldwide on the relationship of graphic design to editing. After 13 years with architectural magazines at Time Inc., he established his own publication-design firm in 1964. He has written dozens of books on editing and design techniques.
Related story: The 4 Functional Scales of Cover Type