Building a great magazine involves a lot of processes, players, deadlines and content. It’s a relationship that’s not easy. Successfully marrying good ideas with quality execution takes planning and patience, especially when creating the cover of the magazine. We consider the cover one of the most critical areas requiring strategy, second only to content strategy. It’s important to think about cover solutions early in the process to reflect this plan.
What is your magazine’s cover strategy? This goes beyond the logo, coverlines and color palette. It’s about defining what will be on each cover in terms of quality and commonality of the images, and overall tone.
More Than Just the Cover Story
For many magazines, cover strategy is defined as whatever the team can get with relation to the main feature. While this approach can be a start, it’s not the end.
Some magazines jump back and forth between photography and illustration. It can work, but few have done it well. Wired’s covers are great examples; they may have a conceptual photo, an interesting portrait shot, or a creative illustration but the commonality between them is the high level of quality and a great idea driving the image. Lay six different issues side-by-side and you’ll notice the covers are clear expressions of the same brand, but also individually engaging.
Many association and b-to-b magazines struggle with this, and are challenged by budget restrictions and finding the right image to tell the story. Most shy away from taking risks, leading to the use of literal imagery. Going the safe route every time soon becomes stale. Stock images can be a useful resource, but custom visuals always make a stronger impact.
If budgets are tight, don’t be afraid to negotiate for a better rate. Consider non-traditional resources like art or journalism schools, which may have excellent senior-level students looking for the opportunity to do real-world work to build a portfolio.
Start thinking differently about your covers by setting aside time to brainstorm and create a plan. Get it down on paper, then measure each cover concept to the strategy. Remember to engage the reader quickly, as it’s the cover’s job to pique interest and capture attention. Your magazine is on the reader’s table with a pile of other things—be the must-read! Here, questions to consider during your cover strategy work session:
1. Which editorial content drives the cover (the feature, or are there other opportunities to create a dynamic image)?
2. Does the cover lead the reader inside?
3. Are your covers clearly and creatively tailored to your target reader?
4. Does your cover have substance, or is it “wallpaper”?
5. Are cover images crisp, high-quality and have a clear focus?
6. Where do the images come from?
7. What are the struggles you encounter in getting a great cover image each issue?
8. How can you overcome that challenge with your new cover strategy?
9. Can you increase the budget for your cover by lowering costs elsewhere?
10. If you need to use a stock image, would your budget and circulation allow for the use of a unique rights-managed image as opposed to a royalty-free image?
11. Can you create a strategy that will allow multiple issues’ cover images to be photographed/created at the same time to save money?
12. Who determines the cover image concept—editorial or creative? Should this change or be collaborative?
13. How important are your coverlines? Should there be more or less?
14. Does your cover template need a redesign to be ready for great images?
Additional questions are sure to come up along the way, but hopefully these will get you started. Chances are, stronger solutions are out there if you have the desire to strive for improvement. It will all be worth it when you see your readership make a lasting commitment to your publication.
Debra Bates-Schrott is president of design firm Bates Creative Group and has more than 16 years of experience in design strategy, management and art direction for magazines and organizations.