10 ways to make your magazine cover stand out

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As the rules of engagement between mags and readers change, your cover matters more than ever.


In a declining industry plagued with tumbling circulation figures and title closures, designing covers for newsstand magazines has become increasingly fraught.

Limitless digital content available in a split-second makes the monthly print cycle of magazines look ever more anachronistic and irrelevant, and the corresponding decline in revenue from print ads only hastens print’s downward spiral.

The battle is no longer print versus digital. Digital has already won. The challenge for print is simply to co-exist, and the frontline of this battle is the cover of your magazine, which must somehow engage, cajole and convince readers that buying something written six weeks ago might somehow still be a worthwhile experience.

But despite all the gloomy headlines announcing the death of print, there are still bold launches and thrilling innovations that suggest all may not be lost. And just as the book publishing industry defended itself against the assault of e-readers with more beautiful jacket designs that celebrated the physical properties of print, so magazine publishers and designers must remind their readers why print is different, not inferior to digital.


01. Beware the formula

GQ (left) doesn’t want you to miss out on any content, so it lists most of it on its cover. Esquire (right) hard sells one story, creating a cover that exudes confidence

An exhausting checklist of unofficial best practices – The Formula – has accumulated over time. These guidelines include adding flashes in the top left quadrant (the hot zone of visibility), running sell lines above your masthead (to grab the browsers attention before they’ve even seen your logo design) and keeping the main cover hit in the top half of the cover (so it’s less likely to be hidden by other titles). The list’s endless: models should make eye contact; the colour pink is ‘feminine’; ‘green shouldn’t be seen’…

The obvious problem with following The Formula is that nearly everyone else on the newsstand is doing the same thing. Browse any magazine shelf and you’ll see an exhausting repetition, a visual cacophony where every title is cancelled out by its identikit neighbour. And despite the apparent common sense behind some of these rules, common sense rarely makes for a truly thrilling magazine cover.

It takes courage to promise less and deliver more, but this is the essence of good design


It takes courage to promise less and deliver more, but this is the essence of good design: make a beautiful image that attracts and engages the reader. Your cover is a (visual) tool to draw your reader to the (written) content. For that split-second when the reader first sees the cover, aesthetics must take precedent for the process of seduction to begin.

A text-heavy cover is shouting at a tiny, vanishing audience – the casual reader browsing a local supermarket or newsagent is all but extinct. If your cover is confident and clear, it will stand out in the crowd.

02. Own your cover image

The Sunday Times (left) frames Tracy Emin from her distinctive arched eyebrows to her chin, her personality powerfully communicated in a daring crop. The New York magazine cover (right) demonstrates how a banal image can be electrifying when daringly cropped

Unless you’re lucky enough to commission original artwork every month, you’ll mostly be faced with making covers from supplied images. Sometimes you’ll be sharing an image with another magazine and almost certainly the internet, so you need to make your treatment stand out.

One of the most effective ways to take ownership is to crop the image differently.

Inexperienced designers will tend to use the source image unquestioningly as the cover composition, but experienced designers will look for different crops to make the cover unique.

Imagine having a head-and-shoulders portrait as your source image. The obvious solution would be to have the head roughly fill the available area – so the face is as large as possible – and position coverlines accordingly. But by changing the crop you can radically alter the tone and deliver a fresh editorial message.

Zoom in closer for a larger-than-life face, an instantly arresting image. Shrink or discard the coverlines to increase the cover star’s status, or type them on top of their face, so suddenly your story is more important than the star. Desaturate or even eliminate the colour to communicate a different tone. Or apply illustrations on top of the image to stamp your ownership.

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