Cover design has always, to a degree, followed a basic set of tenets for composition, color and type design. Keep it straightforward, but with enough flash to stand out and attract the busy newsstand browser. And covers tend to latch onto a trend and copy it to such a degree that the newsstand is awash in bright orange asterisks, plus signs and brackets.

However, there are a few publishers who take particular pride in designing covers that appeal to the more cerebral newsstand browser, creating a composition that challenges the buyer to think a little harder about what they’re looking at. It’s a case of reverse psychology—when everyone else is following the same set of rules that drive simplicity and flash, a thoughtful cover can have an automatic appeal—and stand out.

The Anti-Cover Line

Esquire began contorting its cover lines in the fall of 2006 and, for the past year and a half, has literally made the covers part of the magazine’s overall brand. “If everybody’s following the same set of rules, it’s easy to break the rules and get noticed,” says David Curcurito, the magazine’s design director. “It wasn’t difficult for me, it was actually refreshing. It’s nice to leave your mark, we just went for it.”

Curcurito notes that editor David Granger wanted to “overwhelm” the cover with type in a way that merges the two. The image and the coverlines become a single subject, instead of the coverlines playing a supporting role.

In fact, a reader’s ability to actually read the coverlines becomes subordinate to the overall effect. “The words become the art, and the interaction between the subject and the type creates a sense of depth,” says Curcurito. “What’s legible and what’s not doesn’t matter. It’s a weird exercise.”

Benefit of the Doubt

“It’s a tricky line to walk, but right now we err on the side of giving our readers the benefit of the doubt,” says Zach Frechette, editor of Good magazine. “If we have something that looks good and the composition is right, our readers are the kind of readers that will spend the extra two or three seconds that it takes to be engaged with our covers.”

Typically, celebrities dominate the cover. Frechette and his design team, however, decided to miniaturize Danny DeVito for the January/February issue and let the issue’s theme—big ideas—take center stage.

Getting to the final version requires contributions for edit, design and circulation. While early versions of a cover tend to be heavily design influenced, by the time it makes it through a circ-department critique, it shifts back toward newsstand friendliness. “We start with the ideal cover and work towards a cover that’s as newsstand friendly as we can make it—without compromising our aesthetic,” says Frechette.

It’s All About the Image

“The only perspective I have on the cover is it has got to work on the newsstand,” says Penny Garrett, co-head of graphics at The Economist. “We do them as mini posters to stand out in the crowd, but occasionally we do go for quite a complicated one.”

Despite the newsstand being a small representation of overall distribution—10 percent of its 700,000 North American distribution—the covers are the graphic team’s main focus.

More often than not, however, The Economist’s covers tend to rely on a single, dramatic cover image that’s simple in presentation, but carries the full meaning of the cover story it represents. “We don’t want to be too cryptic, but if you lead people by the hand too much it tends to become predictable,” says Garrett. “We try to be something new and interesting every week.”

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