What is that elusive thing that makes a magazine cover both memorable and beautiful? For university magazines, covers can be especially difficult to pull off because the subject matter varies widely—from timely and profound to soft and nostalgic. These challenges make for a uniquely creative opportunity, yet many alumni magazines miss the chance to be unique and suffer from bland sameness. Magazine covers are usually a combination of three elements: headline, image, and nameplate. What makes it so hard to find that magic balance necessary for a great cover? Here are some ideas, with examples. [Click on the thumbnail images and watch them grow.]
Provocative stories and great writing lead to great covers. Seems obvious (and I know I’m preaching to the choir) but how often does that happen?
Headline writing is an art in itself. Short is usually best, and clever wordplay is better—and a good headline can generate great visual ideas. The best covers promise a good read inside by using smart headlines paired with original visuals. Some great examples of short, clever headline writing show up on two covers for Bostonia from Boston University (of course it doesn’t hurt that the design of these covers, by Ronn Campisi, is also top notch).
The nameplate is a given, and it’s often one of the weakest elements of university magazine covers. It carries the identity of the magazine as well as that of the school. The nameplate design—its position, size, color, and typographic treatment—can make the difference between ho-hum and exciting covers. A favorite example of the creative use of a nameplate is on UCLA’s covers. Each cover moves the nameplate to a new position according to the design of the cover image, carefully juxtaposing content blurbs, nameplate, and image. Too often the nameplate appears in the “newsstand” position—as large as possible across the top of the page—contributing to the familiar sameness of so many covers.
Whether using photography, illustration, or typography, how do you create maximum impact with a single image in a relatively small space? There’s no scientific formula or foolproof solution. You can blow your budget on a fabulous photo shot by a great photographer,but unless your designer has the eye for sizing and cropping the image for maximum effect and balancing it with the other visual elements (headline and nameplate), it can fall flat. When planning a cover, think about the most surprising, original way to illustrate the cover story—and, if possible, develop the headline first. Often a good headline can lead directly to the perfect visual approach.
Since people and profiles are often subjects for umag covers, think creatively about how to make a portrait distinctive and meaningful. There are photographers with a special gift for shooting portraits. Hire one. If the subject happens to have a wonderful, expressive face, take advantage of it (see Kenyon’s fall cover showing the face of a Cold War survivor shot in black & white by John Noltner). Shoot on location if the environment has an important supporting role in the story (The Pennsylvania Gazette’s May/June 2009 cover is a good example). I recently designed a cover for Fairfield University Magazine featuring a student production of Romeo and Juliet. Art directing long-distance, the photographer, Bob Handelman, and I came up with a dramatic close-up of the two leads, Romeo in profile, Juliet facing the camera.
A portrait doesn’t always have to be a photograph. For the past ten years, St. John’s College has hired illustrator David Johnson to render a different classic author on the cover of every issue of The College, in keeping with St. John’s unique Great Books curriculum.
Conceptual illustration can make a powerful cover but it can be one of the most difficult solutions to implement successfully. Start by identifying an illustrator with a style that makes sense with the subject. There are lots of illustrators who can render objects or people in various styles. There are fewer illustrators who can take an abstract concept and translate it visually. The best ones can take a story, even a rough draft or synopsis, and come up with sketched ideas with very little art direction. Then it’s a matter of fine-tuning and finalizing finished art. From Loyola LMU’s fall issue featured a conceptual illustration (by Heads of State) for its cover story on teacher performance scores, “Bitter Fruit.” Simple iconic images—a segment of a standardized test form superimposed on a worm-infested apple—told the story in a more graphically interesting, and less literal, way than a photo ever could.
Display typography can also be an effective form of illustration. Some outstanding examples: Bostonia on HIV in Kenya; Drew’s “How to Do Everything Better” issue; NJIT (out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) on “synchrotron light” research.
Finally, these are some of my favorite recent UMag covers. They are hard to categorize, but all are wonderful in their own way:
• Denison’s “When the War Comes Home,” features Magnum-quality black & white photojournalism by Erin Trieb. The cover shot perfectly sets the stage for an emotionally wrenching essay on returning soldiers.
• Auburn’s “Teaching Them to Fish,” about a plan to save Haiti, shows a simple but powerful photo of a man holding a fish against an unbelievably blue sky.
• University of Cambridge (CAM) ran a portrait of a student looking straight at the camera, beautifully composed in front of a Florentine Renaissance painting. It just works.
• Bucknell’s “The Lure of the Beast,” about Bucknellians who work with animals, illustrates the “call of the wild” with a striking and dramatic portrait of a baboon shot in black & white.