The Cover Story: Harvard Business Review
Business magazines are often overlooked when it comes to design. But in reality, many are producing some of the most visually arresting covers across magazine media. Need proof? Look no further than Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune, Forbes and, of course, Harvard Business Review. All of these publications have their own distinct design approach, and aren’t afraid to make heady topics fun and irreverent.
A good example is HBR’s October cover. For some, the CGI image may evoke nostalgic (or frustrating) memories of building models as a child. It’s both a well-executed image and a creative solution for visualizing a topic that doesn’t offer a clear design concept—”Building A Workforce for the Future.” We caught up with art director Matthew Guemple to hear how this cover came to be, and how HBR approaches all of its covers.
min: Tell us about the genesis of this concept.
Matthew Guemple: What’s interesting about covers at HBR is that we rarely have a “cover” story per se. Everything in the well is significant, and more often than not has as much value as everything else. It’s not like we get the exclusive Madonna shoot! I run the first round by Amy Bernstein [editor] and James DeVries [creative director]. When we have three possibilities we like, we meet with Adi Ignatius [editor-in-chief] to run through them. Usually we come out of this with three distinct directions, sometimes with two variations on two themes. We have the luxury of testing all our covers. When we have a set we like, we send them out for testing, and once the results are in, we polish the winner to as high a gloss as we can manage. In this case Amy and I met and talked about the possibilities and ended up with two different directions. Amy generated some lines for those, and I started working up concepts based on them. It’s HBR, so it all starts with the words! The original direction was quite different from the final, which came together at the last minute.
min: How did you develop the actual image—who created it, and how many mock-ups were there before you finalized this one?
Guemple: Once we had a clear concept, developing the image was fairly straightforward. Generally the challenge is making sure it conforms to our overall cover aesthetic: a single simple object captured or realized in a “tabletop” fashion, incorporating the usual subtleties of art direction—you know, the details that pretty much no one notices… except other art directors. My go-to guy for this kind of 3-D rendering is Peter Crowther. He is just brilliant to work with: super fast, always manages to suggest something that improves the idea and really easy-going. It takes three rounds, tops. I think we had this one resolved in two.
min: What was the biggest challenge in designing this particular cover?
Guemple: “How to Future-Proof Your Workforce” was our original line. And that was a huge challenge. There is a lot of action and identity in that line, but none of it is easily rendered as a cover image. The visual it conjures is either very complicated or cliché. But it was a great line for us, and the piece it referenced was important. So we grappled with some “future” images—all chrome and Lucite and back-lit—and doubled down on the retro. But none of it was really working. In the end, Adi suggested the “building” angle, and that was gold for me. The idea of the Revell model kit has cropped up in a variety of contexts. I’ve pitched it a few times, and for whatever reason it’s never been quite the right solution—until now. For people of a certain age and demographic, it evokes a sensory association that is without compare.
min: What’s your primary objective when you design a cover?
Guemple: Most of our readers are subscribers, so the newsstand is icing for HBR. When we start crafting cover language and imagery, we have to balance what is useful and meaningful to the reader against what will appeal and communicate quickly on the stands. But since we don’t have a Brangelina option, we have to put the most significant, vital—to the reader—and challenging—to the culture—ideas on the cover. Our readers are intelligent, are willing to pay for good content. They enjoy the visual presentation as well as the solid, well-researched, informed material we deliver. And newsstand sales are up 10% this year. Crazy.
min: Do you think about social media’s ability to make covers go viral?
Guemple: Absolutely! Both art and editorial are very conscious of the importance of, and keep a regular eye on, the marketplace to make the most-effective newsstand cover we can. We do a lot of social media, but our content doesn’t often produce “viral” covers. #hbr on Instagram is kind of fantastic, though.
min: If you had to tweak something with this cover, what would it be?
Guemple: In the original render the entire cover was a modeling sprue: logo, headline, dek, etc. It was really cool. But the dek looked wicked busy, and the superimposed type didn’t really jibe with the overall feel. It would have been great to have made that work. But one of the things I enjoy about this team is that at some point someone says, “Whaaa?” and you realize it’s time to move on. So we dialed it back to keep the messaging and image clear, simple and direct. It’s a shame, because I was looking forward to having it 3-D printed for holiday gifts!