Cover Lesson

There are many ways to successfully skin a mag, and the plurality of approaches can make for more interesting and surprising newsstands

White gets grubby. Black-and-white’s too serious. While green, so runs the old industry myth, is the ultimate ‘color non grata’ when it comes to designing the cover of a magazine. But is there a magic formula which makes readers pick up a new title from the shelves? Or is it a wilfully inexact science, relying solely on how arresting a particular image used at a particular time might be? As some of the speakers at The Modern Magazine conference revealed, there are many ways to successfully skin a mag.

What works for one will not necessarily work for all, but the plurality of approaches can make for more interesting, certainly more surprising, newsstands. So here are eight magazines, seven of which featured at The Modern Magazine talks, that show how, these days, cover design is no longer confined by any rules.

Bloomberg Businessweek, November 4 2013

At The Modern Magazine conference, Richard Turley, creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek said that he regarded each cover of the magazine as “an event”. Far from simply enveloping the latest issue, it is a way of communicating the content before publication and, in BBW’s case, this can mean distilling the cover story down to a single powerful image ripe for sharing on social media. Turley and his team’s covers are invariably bold, sometimes brash, and look nothing like any other business and politics title out there. The November 4 edition, shown right, played with the notion of the classic cover portrait to great effect, using a generous amount of white space in the process.

Apartamento, issue 09, April 2012

Real, lived-in homes are the focus of Apartamento and its raw and candid covers reflect this attitude. The photography used throughout the Spanish publication is similarly unaffected, the aim being to represent the glorious messy reality of people’s living spaces. As an antidote to the hyper-sterile interiors featured in many a style bible, Apartamento proudly wears both its personality and soul on its sleeve. This cover, featuring another no-no, the back-of-head shot, was photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans and art directed by the magazine’s co-founder, Omar Sosa.

The Gentlewoman, issue 6, a/w 2012

The then-86-year-old Angela Lansbury photographed by Terry Richardson (and wearing the snapper’s glasses) adorned one of The Gentlewoman’s biggest selling issues to date, editor-in-chief Penny Martin revealed at The Modern Magazine conference. The bi-annual title, art directed by Jop van Bennekom, certainly stands out among typical glossy women’s magazines through its pared-back design and, as in this case, often unusual choice of cover star. And it’s all the better for it.

Colors, issue 87, September 2013

British designer Patrick Waterhouse took over the creative direction of Colors magazine in 2011, beginning his tenure with issue 81 in July that year. That issue’s cover was a pictogram-laden illustration on the theme of Travel, while more recent editions have foregone the single image shocker of Colors of old in favour of a jam-packed illustration of the contents – the Shit (82), Going to Market (85) and Looking at Art (87) issues are excellent examples of Waterhouse’s use of illustration to catalogue the contents of a magazine on its cover. The results can be more compelling than coverlines and are indicative of Colors’ approach to tackling the many and various aspects of a particular theme. The Art issue cover (shown above) was illustrated by James Graham.

Harper’s Bazaar, October 2013

Five limited edition covers were created for the recent October issue of Harper’s and, according to editor Justine Picardie, the version featuring Karl Lagerfeld and his beloved cat Choupette proved to be very popular (up against the regular issue’s cover star, Scarlett Johansson, no less). As ‘selfies’ go, it’s unusual in that the veteran designer hands the limelight to his beloved moggy but manages to continue the feline theme through his choice of extra ears (or hairstyling?). While the cover was only available to buy in a few outlets, including WH Smiths in Selfridges and Harrods, its rejection of coverlines (usually a trick set aside for ‘subscriber editions’) proved that an arresting image is often enough to sell a magazine on its own. Creative director: Marissa Bourke.

Monocle, issue 66, September 2013

Holding court at The Modern Magazine conference, Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé espoused a meticulous business plan behind the magazine (which has now grown to include products and cafés in its stable), but one that relied heavily on instinct and on decisions that simply felt right. The success of Monocle’s covers, he disclosed, was also only quantifiable to a certain extent. But some of its biggest selling issues have had several things in common: eyewear, beards, aprons (with pencils) and dogs. Make of that what you will, but the current Arctic issue boasts a very handsome husky (and a bearded chap with binoculars). Creative director: Richard Spencer Powell. Photographer of issue 66 cover: Henning Bock.

Eye, issue 86, autumn 2013

Eye magazine’s art director Simon Esterson and art editor Jay Prynne take noticeably different approaches to cover design, as the former revealed at The Modern Magazine. Esterson tends to favour crops, while Prynne often combines two disparate elements to make a single image (as featured on the cover of its current type special, shown above). The page size and logo remain sacrosanct, Esterson explained, but aside from that everything else is up for grabs. It’s a design process that is also regularly documented on the Eye website.

Creative Review, June 2012

“This cover is interesting as an example of another industry proscription: don’t put backs on the cover,” says CR art director Paul Pensom. “In fact it’s just another one of those rules that is often strikingly broken. So much so that you could easily posit a counter rule: if you want to stand out from the crowd,
put a back on the cover. NME did it memorably with David Bowie in 1976 (with the inspired coverline ‘Bowie’s Back’), and when we saw US-based photographer Brea Souders’ wonderful photograph Sunburn in Naples we couldn’t resist giving it a try either.

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London - Competitive


London - £35,000 - £40,000


Birmingham - Salary £30-£35k


Leeds, West Yorkshire - £20,000 - 30,000