The magazine cover is a designer’s dream. There are enough constraints to give you structure — a set space of 8 by 11 inches or so; a few unifying traits that carry across issues — but beyond that it’s up to you to arrange text and touch up photos, working with some of the best photographers and illustrators in the game. Your only mission: reveal the magazine’s content in a way that makes it jump off the shelf.
The world of print media may be shrinking but the magazine cover continues to offer a wealth of helpful takeaways for designers of all sorts — web designers and packaging designers in particular. Here are 8 magazine cover design techniques that all designers should know.
1. Dark on light, light on dark text placement
The basis of most magazine covers is going to be either a photograph or an illustration. Either way, appealing images tend to have a good amount of contrast between light and dark regions. Obviously, for text to be readable, it must be light and set against a dark background or vice versa.
So, much of magazine cover design is finding a suitable spot for text — look at how New York Times Style magazine below places the phrase “talking dirty” in the one region of George Clooney’s shirt that is most blackened, or how the text over Keira Knightley on Interview magazine follows the line of her dark coat.
Conveniently, modern designers have access to editing software like Photoshop, so digitally lightening or darkening areas of a photograph is always a possibility. That crashing wave in the foreground of the Morberg magazine page is a great bed for dark text spelling out the magazine’s contents but it may not be a “natural” part of the image. The designer could have lightened it up or even planted it there altogether! If done well, we’d never know.
2. Match and complement text color
Black and white are always solid choices for subtitles or other smaller text, but a magazine cover’s bigger, bolder text elements are a great place to inject some serious color.
As any skilled designer knows, selecting color is never random. In magazine cover design, common approaches are to either match or complement certain vivid areas of the photograph or illustration beneath. The below issue of Home Miami, for instance, samples the vibrant red tone from the patio chairs, just as the issue of Seventeen magazine samples the pink color of Avril Lavigne’s lipstick. Dwell, on the other hand, picks an orange that is not present in the photo, but which nicely complements the image’s dominant blue and feel tones.
3. Use 3D text behind and in front of the image
The magazine cover may literally be flat but that doesn’t mean all of the design elements have to share a single plane. Indeed, one common approach is to place a photograph or illustration so it partly obscures some text while appearing behind other text, effectively setting up 3 layered planes.
Vanity Fair employs this approach in its cover with Tina Fey, and Rolling Stone really goes all out with its cover featuring Taylor Swift — she almost entirely blocks the title text! Notice how in the cover of New York magazine, the illustration of the earphone begins to wrap around the letter “k.”
4. Placing emphasis with backgrounds, bolds, italics, etc.
One of the main functions of the magazine cover is to sell the issue’s inside stories. This often means a lot of short teaser lines floating about the cover page. The more of these there are, the more methods a designer must come up with to draw the reader’s eye to each — especially in popular magazines, which typically go for a loud approach.
On the most obvious level, bold and italic fonts are your best friend. From there, you can get fancy with colored or shaped backgrounds — check out the pink and yellow strips on Wired‘s cover, and the highlighting and blue serrated ribbon on Popular Mechanics. Cosmopolitan, as you can see, takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
5. Combining photography and drawing
Harkening back to the humble doodle, a combination of photographic and illustrated/designed elements is often a great way to make a cover stand out. Check out the clever ways in which Fiasco magazine and Nature magazine blend the worlds of illustration and photography, and how Esquire Malaysia surrounds Daniel Craig with hand-written text in place of typical typographic fonts
6. Take illustration and digital design all the way
Although less common than the photo-centric approach, it’s possible to pull off an engaging illustrated or typographic-only cover. Good color and a unique style are, of course, key here.
7. Spice up the boring stuff
These 3 elements, although perhaps not of much interest to most designers, do need to be placed nonetheless. Most magazines take a pretty hands off approach, leaving them in a conventional spot in the bottom left corner. Some magazines, however, have found unique places to put them, making them striking design elements in themselves.
For example, see how The New Yorker includes the price and date above the title line, in the classic New Yorker font, or how Little White Lies always includes the barcode front and center in the centered circular window. This particular issue of Slanted is laid out to look like a printing error, with the result being that the barcode, here in purple, sits dead center.
8. Consistency is key
While all of the above techniques give a designer plenty of room to get creative, it is ultimately important to remember that every regular publication needs some degree of consistency from issue-to-issue, in order to keep its branding intact.
This does not mean a template (although some publications seem to adhere to one), but it does mean that the overall layout and feel remain more or less constant. Check out these screen grabs of Cosmopolitan, Dwell, and Time magazine covers to see what we mean.