Books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, but magazines certainly are. Your magazine cover is your chance to make your publication the one that customers choose. Maintaining the balance of brand consistency and mixing things up enough to engage readers and keep them coming back can be a juggling act. Luckily, we’re here to walk you through the process.
Take It From the Top
Your masthead, more than anything else on your magazine cover, is your brand. It should be instantly recognizable, but you’ll never build any kind of brand identity if you’re not consistent. Some flexibility is okay, like changing color depending on what palette you’re using for any particular edition, but it should still be instantly recognizable from edition to edition.
While some people might tell you that your masthead placement is absolutely sacred, don’t feel like you can’t put anything over it. Like any deviation from the norm, it can be used to grab attention. So, be thoughtful about it.
Image is Everything
Since your magazine will be judged by its cover, keep your contents in mind when designing it. That starts with your choice of cover art.
Having your cover model make eye contact with the camera is a time-tested and true way to grab a customer’s attention. It’s a great way to quickly engage with a viewer who may be walking by a rack of magazines or scrolling through an online newsstand. On the other hand, choosing another pose will draw interest because it’s so outside what people have come to expect. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!
Not all magazines benefit from having model on the cover. Creating a travel magazine? A gorgeous landscape photo will do more for you than any covergirl (or guy). A well composed shot of an appetizing dish can sell your foodie mag better than a celebrity chef on the cover.
But before photography became commonplace, illustrated magazine covers were the norm. While most publications have moved away from illustrated covers, it can still be a valid choice. Some magazines eschew photography altogether and go for illustrations instead. The New Yorker is probably the most famous publication that goes this route.
And sometimes, words are worth a thousand words. Typography can be used alone if you’re not afraid to be bold. However, with no artwork to prop it up, make sure that your text is engaging enough carry the weight of a cover by itself.
Don’t be afraid to mix things up, too. Illustration and words can play nicely with photographs.
Down to Details
We won’t go too deeply into color theory here (that’s a post all by itself), but it’s important to have a harmonious color palette in mind when you’re designing your cover. The colors of your design elements should mesh well with your choice of cover art.
Speaking of color, make sure that you have light text on dark backgrounds and dark text on light backgrounds. You’d think this would be obvious, yet people still keep making that mistake.
Instead of fighting your background photo to find a place for your text, use it to inform your text placement. For a 3-D look, consider putting some text behind your cover image and some text in front of it. It creates a sense of depth in an otherwise flat surface.
Conclusion: Consistency is Key
Time Magazine is a timeless (pun intended) example of staying consistent in the face of changing trends. They’ve mixed up their cover art through the years, starting with illustrations in the 1920s to innovative choices like using a reflective cellophane surface to make you (yes, you!) the 2006 Person of the Year. However, they’ve remained consistent about their red borders and serif font masthead. A Time Magazine cover from 1923 will be just as recognizable as a Time Magazine cover from 2023.