Cover story

What makes a good front cover? Fiona Sibley talks to top creatives and discovers that there are no golden rules. Yes, it’s about the perfect image and coverline, but it’s also being true to a title’s core philosophy


Terry Jones

Editor-in-chief and creative director, ID magazine

You have to treat a cover like a front door. Take chances, and once you’ve clearly made your identity, stick with it. With ID, I established the ‘wink’ [the cover model winking] very early on, and it became a challenge to sustain it, yet this made the results even richer. At Vogue, some of my favourite covers were those that broke the rules. One was a full-length shot of Manolo Blahnik and Anjelica Huston; another was out-of-focus. These were argued for and pushed through, but they often turned out to be commercial disasters. Even when you’re creating a classic headshot, the freedom is infinite – every face is different. Some publications sell on coverlines, so a good copywriter can definitely make a cover work. The perfect image can come out of the blue from a photographer who has never done a cover before – they just come up with a surprising image. I like to make a cover that you remember as a marker in your life. I’m happy if that happens once or twice a year.

Fernando Gutiérrez
Founder, Studio Fernando Gutiérrez

A good cover needs to connect immediately, and if you want to stand out and not just rely on the value behind the masthead it has to be creative. I like to think of a magazine as a treasure trove, full of insights, stories and ideas to discover. The cover represents the energy inside. Magazines are about the here and now. My best experiences have been when the editorial team has a common goal, helping one another to push the boundaries and letting the magazine evolve. So many titles just fall back on formulae. I admire what The New York Times is doing with its Sunday and special fashion supplements, for its creative input and ability to surprise. Time magazine produces weekly news in a very accessible and contemporary way, and still maintains its longstanding credibility.

Cornel Windlin
Art director, Tate Etc magazine

To do a graphically arresting, or even beautiful cover is not so difficult, in theory. To create one that is both surprising and also hits the target, in terms of reflecting the content and reaching its potential market, is quite another matter. Naturally, to do a cover for a not-so-commercial magazine with a not-so-narrow-minded readership is a lot easier than to battle with the constraints of a more conventional title. I’m always surprised that marketing people pretend they know what doesn’t work; unfortunately, they never know what actually does. The reality is nobody really knows, and thank God for that. Let’s keep it that way.

Paul Cohen
Art director, Draft magazine

The best covers immediately strike a chord with the target market and look like nothing else on over-crowded newsagents’ shelves. With every issue, we try to create interest, curiosity, intrigue and desire for the cover as an object in its own right. If we get this right, it will set the tone for what our audience can expect to find inside. Draft is an independent magazine: we are the publisher and the editors. This means that all our decisions are based on what we think is good, not on outdated formulae based on what marketers think will sell.

Jeremy Leslie
Executive creative director, John Brown Group

There’s no simple answer: some have tried to write checklists, but end up with rigid rules that are followed rather than interpreted – you only have to look along the shelves in any newsagent to see where that leads. Others rely on ‘experience’ – I still cringe when I recall a senior manager at Time Out insisting that a front cover featuring a black person wouldn’t sell. The front cover is where the balance between commercial and creative sensibilities needs to be perfectly tuned, and that tuning depends on what the magazine is, who it is for, how it is distributed and how it wishes to be seen in the context of its competitors. A good cover positions the magazine in relation to its competitors while standing apart from them. It is an art, not a science.

Tony Chambers
Editor-in-chief, Wallpaper magazine

If we are talking about a commercial, newsstand cover, then the definition is easy – it’s one that helps sell the maximum number of copies while staying true to the magazine’s core values and image. When I was at GQ, the covers were such a conundrum. The cover image and design that would safely sell more copies was inevitably the cover that the title’s upmarket advertisers would be uneasy about. If covers were more tasteful and compatible with the aesthetic of the advertisers, then we’d have a bad seller on our hands. Most revenue comes from advertising, but without strong sales the advertiser will demand reduced rates. So it was a magician’s act to satisfy both. Wallpaper is much easier – very upmarket advertisers and very upmarket readers. My only philosophy for designing a cover is, ‘Be true to yourself, and be true to the magazine you are producing the cover for’.

George Sheldrake
Magazine designer, Research Studios

The secret to a cover is balance, strong imagery and beautiful type. It’s good to have more than one cover image option. Making the type, masthead and image work together is the most important thing, whether you direct the cover shot or buy in an image. The cover of Amelia’s Magazine always has an interesting use of texture, and it would be great to see more of this. Tate Etc has a great cover with multiple images. Many companies are beginning to see the value of customer magazines now: they have a different agenda, so there’s the potential for covers to be quite different to newsstand titles.

Yorgo Tloupas
Creative director, Intersection magazine

Mostly I’m bored by the lack of imagination of 99 per cent of covers. The coverline invasion of the 1980s and 1990s shows no sign of recession, apart from exceptions like Wallpaper or AD, which send coverline-free copies to their subscribers. Intersection’s special positioning on the market makes it harder to get a cover that sums up the magazine. A car magazine needs a new car from 3/4 front on a blurry background with the driver obscured. A porn magazine needs bare flesh and feisty eye contact. A fashion magazine needs a studio shot of a model looking bored. A celebrity magazine needs Britney Spears crying. We need all the above together.

Gary Cook
Founder, Cook Design

Don’t be a sheep. Celebrities will be around for some time, but that doesn’t mean you have to have one on your cover. With today’s tidal wave of similar-looking dross on the shelves, magazines are fighting for the same advertising to survive. If you look at celebrity weeklies, the stories are the same, but the covers have to work harder to beat the competition. A news-led cover will have its own momentum and covers will arise from this. A specialised fashion magazine may be less news-led and more visual, but in both cases, the designer needs to think about an approach that suits their magazine and justifies its standpoint.

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