Cover Design: What Makes a Winning Magazine Cover

Posted: March 8, 2011 in Articles, For Editors, magazines, publishing, Redesigns
Tags: , , , , , ,

What makes a cover tick? Its artistic merit? Stop-you-in-your-tracks cover blurbs? Incredible colors? Clever photography?

None of the above. What makes a cover tick is its readers’ desire to pick up the issue, open the magazine and plunk down cold, hard cash.

Sucks, huh? We editors and designers think we have it all figured out. We don’t. It reminds me of something Zach Frechette of Good Magazine said when he spoke to a group of us about magazine covers at the 2008 Folio Conference: “Don’t be fooled by the big guys. No one else knows what they’re doing either.”

I was inspired by this post by Folio today. It’s a great article in which the writer asked several editors what their least selling cover was and asked them to analyze the reason for the low sell-through. All of them said some version of the same thing: The readers didn’t connect with the cover. The image here of the Inc. cover is an example. No matter how cute the little girl with the guitar is, readers of this business magazine don’t really connect with her.

We did an experiment at work one time where we had four covers we liked. Our editor thought it would be a great idea to put the four covers on our website and let our readers vote for the winning cover. They did, and, boy, were we way off! The cover we all liked the least won. The colors were awful, the angle of the photo was weird, and it paled in comparison stylistically to the covers that all of us in the office preferred.

The difference was that the winning cover had a big ol’ bass on it. That’s right! That’s what our fisherman readers love most. The thrill of the pursuit, the mastery of the biggest fish in the water, the conquering of bass bigger than what your friends have caught. We know that’s what they like, but we didn’t know they valued that more highly than all the other factors, combined, that make up a cover .

So what makes a good cover? Frechette told us what his art and editorial teams at Good decided on as their rules for each issue:

1. Don’t sell out subscribers. Don’t go for the newsstand look so much that it alienates those readers who have committed to you.

2. Create art. Be proud of what you create. Make it wall-hangable.

3. There’s no secret success formula. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you there is. Everyone’s just guessing.

Frechette added that these are the elements the magazine minds look for when creating covers:

  • clever, provocative, fun
  • simple
  • edgy content
  • compelling cover lines
  • bold visuals

What do you look for on a magazine cover? Have you ever bought a magazine because you specifically liked the cover — or not bought one because you didn’t?

Want more related reading? Try out these articles:

Seven Design Principles of Magazine Covers

20 Magnificent Magazine Covers

The Most Controversial Magazine Covers of All Time

Great Magazine Cover Design

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Comments
  1. Fascinating post! But I’m probably not a good person to ask about this. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a magazine because of the cover–in fact the cover may have nothing to do with the article I want to read which is why I’d buy the magazine in the first place. And I’m insufficiently artistic to pay attention to the covers of magazines I subscribe to–I just sort of process them.

    PS–I don’t like the little girl with the guitar either!

    • I think cover design is much more important on the newsstand than in the mailbox. As a subscriber, you’re committed before you open your issue, so the cover doesn’t have to excite you as much in order to get you to open up that wallet. Did you know that, because of that, many (maybe most) magazines have a different newsstand cover than subscriber cover? It helps magazines be more intimate with their proven fan base, rather than yelling at you to “BUY ME! SEX SELLS! THIS PERSON IS BEAUTIFUL!” Generally, only the words are different, not the photo.

  2. flyinggma says:

    What draws me into purchasing a magazine is an article with a title that catches my attention on the cover. I love beautiful photography on the cover which is what initially draws me in to read the article titles. Interesting post!

    • Cover photography is such a science! I once visited the headquarters of Southern Living Magazine, and one thing that was so neat was their cover photo studio. The set was made up for that month’s cover (which was November, so it was a Thanksgiving theme), and the camera lens had a sort of filter over it that showed where the nameplate and all the blurbs would go. That way, the photographer could shoot the photo knowing exactly where each prop would end up on the cover, and none of them would be blocking any words.

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