Why Magazine Covers Are Making A Comeback

Designers can thank newsstand sales

Illustration: Yuliya Kim

Illustration: Yuliya Kim

On magazine covers so far this year, we’ve seen President Trump falling down an escalator while shooting his thumbs straight up, Dr. Ford visualized using words from her testimony and wide-ranging, unique uses of typography. These covers have been eye-catching and in this quick-fire news cycle, it’s become ever important to design a magazine cover that’s relevant and noteworthy.

Declining newsstand sales are at least partly to blame for this period of creativity in magazine cover designs, media and design experts told Adweek. Because fewer people are buying magazines at newsstands, the covers, previously crafted to catch the eye of casual passerby, can now be designed to please the loyal fan base magazines have in subscribers. Designers said it’s been freeing to lose the responsibility of designing for a newsstand. Visually, it shows.

Designers are no longer including headlines to every single major story in the issue, which leads to more impactful covers.

“With newsstand sales being almost irrelevant, covers are a brand statement instead. They are to promote who you are and what you stand for and that’s been liberating,” said Charles Whitaker, interim dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Single-copy sales have continued to decline over the years. From June 2017 to 2018, single-copy sales declined by 16 percent, according to six-month averages from the Alliance for Audited Media, which used data from the more than 200 consumer magazines it audited.

Newsstand sales are a “much less relevant part” to the business, said New York Magazine editor-in-chief Adam Moss, adding, “This present business environment is just hugely liberating because you can just then make the cover the best cover you can.”

Magazine covers also have to be able to age well and that can be tricky with a news cycle that changes at the *ting* of a push alert.

“From the very start, New Yorker covers have not been about flagging a particular story inside the magazine, we almost never have what’s commonly called ‘a cover story.’ Instead, the cover is meant to be very much of itself, a moment of beauty or humor or comment about public life,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. “The cover exists in time—in a season, sometimes in a political moment—but it ought to have some lasting value, too.”

With that a magazine’s lasting value in mind, covers can be designed more as a piece of art, destined for a coffee table of a loyal subscriber, said renowned publication designer Roger Black.

“All of this is mixed with desperation,” Black said, given what magazine sales are, but it’s created some “energy, some craziness” in the design process.

Take Time’s three-part cover series, which just won Adweek’s hottest cover this year.

“Goddamn!” Black said. “That is one of the great political cartoons.”

Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal does consider this a period of “enormous creativity” and a unique one as magazines transform themselves to better serve their audiences.

“I think what’s really striking about magazine covers at this moment, and Time covers in particular, is the power of it,” Felsenthal said. “It really remains incredibly valuable real estate in journalism. And we think very hard about this, not just in politics, but everything we cover.”

The news cycle does move fast, and magazine editors and creative directors have to imagine how that will look days, sometimes weeks, down the line.

For The Atlantic, that means taking a step back and thinking through what kind of signal to the reader the cover will be, said Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg.

“We have to think very carefully about this because you can’t change it or fix it once it’s out there, you better pick the right image and story to highlight,” Goldberg said. “There’s a lot of luck and some prayer involved.”

As print moves even deeper into digital, magazines have seized on the opportunity, with some seeing viral success with tweeting out photos of the cover to animating the covers in GIF form.

There’s still opportunity in designing the cover since “it doesn’t have to perform the same way it used to when it was essentially a supermarket product,” Moss said.

“There’s a lot of bad news about magazines right now but this is pure good news,” he said.

BEHIND THE COVERS:

NEW YORK MAGAZINE TRUMP PIG COVER:

The Trump cover, featuring a pig nose, was “accidental,” and “great fun,” Moss says. “We were just playing with ways to illustrate a piece inside about the corruption case against Trump.”

The team played around with putting pig snouts on the cover until they found one that stuck.

“As most covers, it just kind of appeared,” Moss says.

THE NEW YORKER COVERS: 

Remnick says he has admired artists who have given magazines “a sense of identity.”

“The same is true, over the years, at The New Yorker,” Reminck said in an email. “Look at what Barry Blitt’s covers have provided in political terms, or Kadir Nelson’s covers, which are often about African-American life and history. Françoise Mouly, who has been editing these covers, first in collaboration with Tina Brown, and, for twenty years now, with me, is a wonderful partner to so many artists. She deserves enormous credit for bringing in a new generation of artists while, at the same time, working steadily with the artists who have been around for a while.”

In an email, the legendary George Lois complimented Blitt’s covers as being “truly great.”

“The refugee children hiding in the folds of Lady Liberty made me cry when I saw it,” he wrote.

TIME COVER:

“A good cover can certainly affect the digital traction and readership of a story,” Felsenthal said.

In September, for example, Time Magazine wrote a package about teachers and teacher pay and how they were making ends meet. The covers, featuring dynamic photography and bold type, went viral.

“That story is one of the most well-read stories on time.com this year, and I think that’s very much connected to the power of that magazine cover. You actually see the impact of the cover translate across platforms.”

ATLANTIC COVER:

Magazine covers depend a lot on timing… and luck.

Such was the case for The Atlantic’s cover for its story on “How Trump Radicalized ICE.”

“When that was assigned months ago, we did not know we would just be at the apex of anxiety, national anxiety, about immigration issues,” Goldberg says, later adding, “It takes some luck, it takes some prayer, but it also does take a lot of hard thinking about what’s coming, what are people going to be worried about in two or three months.”