Designing Magazines

Cover and Logo Design

This is the web version of one of my classroom lectures, it is intended for a student audience:

This week we’re starting on logo and cover design. Let’s take these topics one at a time. In most cases you can click on an image to see a larger version.

As a magazine designer considering your logo (or flag or banner), you have the same set of concerns every other designer of logos has—you want to create a mark that is distinctive, recognizable, is appropriate for your topic, and is usable in a range of places, only one of which is a magazine cover. The flag will end up on letterhead, signage, and advertising for example. But, your nameplate does have a main job to do—it should identify your magazine on a newsstand and in the mail box of readers which means you will have additional concerns. Because the majority of magazines overprint the banner on a photograph or illustration, it must have enough weight to stand out from a cluttered background, and it shouldn’t have too many details (such as fine serifs or illustrative components). Your logo may also be partially covered (by the head of a model, for example; or physically by another magazine. A good flag is still recognizable when partially obscured. As a magazine designer, You will always choose cover imagery carefully—lots of great pictures aren’t suitable for cover use—but a strong logo will make your job easier down the road.


This banner for Fly Fisherman is failing on almost all fronts—made from a generic serif typeface, it couldn’t be more hum-drum. Worse, it wouldn’t stand out at all if it did not have the drop shadow and outlines around the letters—gimmicks most designers try to avoid because they add unwanted details and further reduce the distinctiveness of the letterforms.


This logo also could be bolder—note that magazines may need to be recognizable from across the room, and they may sit on a shelf with lots of competition for the attention of the buyer. When the size is reduced (which simulates seeing the magazine from a distance), The logo fades into the background. This cover is unlikely to attract the attention of someone not specifically looking for it.


Russia, a new magazine, has a much better flag—distinctive, bold, and easily identifiable, even at a distance. Magazines tend to have short names because it allows them to make their logo bigger. The use of the Mixed-width types also makes this logo unique. Many logos—even ones based on standard typefaces, modify some of the letters for distinction or to improve letter fit—we’ll talk more about this next class.

In addition to strong design, the Russia logo is more readable because of color choices. Logos stand out more when they use value rather than color contrast. A dark color on an even light background (or visa versa) will be more readable than any cover type that relies on only color contrast. Part of the reason the Fy Fisherman flag fades away is that even though the yellow of the flag is a different color than the light blue of the sky, the two are similar in value. Russia puts bright white, against only dark grays and blacks. Even though there is no color, value contrast and readability are strong. Red, a dark color, probably wouldn’t be nearly as readable. As you look at the rest of the covers on this page, you will note that value contrast is always part of what makes cover type readable. See some color comparisons here. However, note that the red, blue and black versions will likely be more legible on your screen than they would be if they were printed out. If you’d like, give it a try and see.

I will say more on logo design next time.


On to the whole cover:

This Rolling Stone cover also uses value contrast, but I’d like to look at the way the image is used to create 10 organized, readable cover lines. Covers like this one don’t happen by accident. The background and wardrobe were carefully chosen, dozens or hundreds of shots were taken and this one was finally selected because of its attractiveness, certainly—but also its suitability as a cover image. We’ve talked quite a bit about grids this semester, but here the grid is created by the photo. The empty spaces around Nicole Kidman’s body are filled with type. There is a direct correlation between space size and importance of story. The Kidman story is not at the top of the left column–as you might expect on an interior page, nor is it set off with a different color. Nevertheless, the reader knows it’s the most important because it is biggest. You might also guess that Missy Elliott, Tom Petty and Nine Inch Nails are next most important and the others follow. It is possible to use scale—and just scale to define a page’s hierarchic structure—and this can work on interior pages too. Readers assume the biggest thing is the most important thing.

This technique of using the body of a cover model as essentially a hanger for cover lines is common (see Cosmo, Maxim, etc.) but it’s rarely done as well as it is here. Because, as a student, your cover images will not emerge from a custom shoot done just for you, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stuff this many coverlines on your cover—and there is no reason you should feel obliged to create the overflowing covers some newsstand magazines have. Think about how type and images are interacting on your cover, what’s right for your magazine, and work towards a balance in which neither is diminishing the other.


This Esquire cover is using the same basic strategy as the Rolling Stone cover (high value-contrast type against a carefully created sparse background)—but the subject is more striking. Readers of this magazine would have been aware that Tyson, shown here to be a loving father, had recently been arrested for violence. While the designer could have put type in the upper right hand corner too, the image would have been diminished—it would have lost its intimate and open feel. Imagery can have tremendous power to communicate—but many would-have-been great cover photos and illustrations are mucked up with too much type. Choose your cover images carefully, then treat them with respect.

As you look at covers, you will note that type generally kept off faces and used minimally on bodies.


With both logo and cover design, you must always keep the personality of your magazine in mind and work towards bringing that personality out on the cover. Martha Stewart is about elegant living, That’s apparent on the cover—from the pallet of creamy colors and spare understated typography. If it had too much type, too many competitions for attention, or too much detail the fundamental message would be undermined….


…and that’s what’s going on here. In some senses, this AD cover is at war with itself. Also about luxury, the elegant serif typefaces (chosen before the magazine had so many coverlines) seem right for the book’s personality, but compete with photographic details. The text is an intrusion. Most magazines use sans serif fonts for their covers because the stand out on a cluttered background, but I don’t know that they would help here, both because the picture seems intimate and because there is so much detail in the background.

I ike the simplicity and attitude of this cover, which I link to.The Interiors cover seems to be working as a whole package, the colors, image and type go together.

Another approach:


Some students may consider graphic and or humorous approaches to covers. This Fast Company cover is simple, but bold and effective; and using the UPC (which your cover need not have) as a mustache is a nice touch. Of course, this would have to be appropriate for your title but humor can work for a surprising number of publications, and is technically much easier to obtain than a professional-quality illustration or photograph.

As you look at the successful covers as a group, what they share is simplicity. Simple clear type combines with simple easy to understand imagery. It is possible to tell a rich, complex story with a picture, but the cover is not the place to do it. Covers have only a few seconds to reveal their secrets and grab attention. The cover is not the place to ask the reader to unravel an obscure image, or struggle with hard-to-read type.