Cover story

There’s always more than one way to tell a story: New York Times Magazine design director Arem Duplessis takes us through the process of creating three covers for his title, from initial sketches, to final artwork, with some ideas along the way that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the grade

November 13, 2011
I must admit, I did not have a single good idea for this cover story detailing a prisoner exchange that involved one man (Gilad Shalit) for the exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. I tried experimenting with the few photographs that we had. The one pictured is of Shalit on the beach with his father soon after his release (shot by Yaron Kaminsky). I thought a large pull-quote would help reinforce the image but I felt something was missing. As a sat in my office on the Friday before the ship date, literally staring at my screen, the editor of the magazine, Hugo Lindgren, came in and told me he had an idea. “What if we put 1,028 little figures on the cover?” It was one of those ‘of course’ moments. I loved the idea, now it was time to execute it.

I used little rectangles as people and sketched out how I thought the cover should be structured. I then contacted the illustrator Tim Enthoven to see if he had the time to execute it. I’ve learned over the years that most illustrators prefer a starting point when given direction so I sent him the sketch that I did. My hope was that Tim would be willing to illustrate each prisoner, with no repeats. We discussed colour palette, line weights and the amount of detail he should include. To my pleasant surprise, he was crazy enough to take it on, and after a few sleepless nights he delivered his masterpiece.

My original sketch had a black bar separating the two sections, and Tim tried a few versions with barbed wire, but in the end the headline and subhead seemed to work best as a separator between the two sides. 

January 1, 2012

We floated around several ideas for this cover story on obesity for our first issue of the new year. The main point in the story, according to scientific research, is that in the battle against obesity our bodies are literally fighting against us.

The first headline that was given to me was “Do You Have to be Superhuman to Lose Weight?” Having this working head­line obviously helped my cause. I tried some superhero references and showed my editor a really rough sketch of what I was thinking. He liked it so I hired the illustrator/graffiti artist Jimi Crayon to execute the final. I sent Jimi my sketch, making it clear to him that he should only use it as a starting point.

Jimi played around with a few ideas, some more detailed than others. He did everything I asked, and was a pleasure to work with, but in the end my editor wanted something more graphic and kept going back to my original sketch.

Cover as poster
It’s not uncommon for us to pay different illustrators for pitching ideas with hopes that they’ll create something that eventually becomes a cover. With that in mind, I brought Edel Rodriguez into the process and invited him to execute some illustrations on the same subject.

One idea we had was to capture typical human behaviour when it comes to weight loss. Generally, when an individual sheds a lot of weight, they gain it back within a two-year period, so we created a diary of sorts.

I liked this approach but some of the editors felt it was not immediate enough. A cover should be poster-like, and if it does not communicate the message right away, it’s not doing the job. In the end, this one might have been too complex.

We also tried some photographs that we commissioned by Jen Davis.I loved this approach and I thought Jen’s photographs were beautiful but we all agreed that the flat graphic sketch had the best connection to the story and that’s the one that finally made it onto the cover. 

May 1, 2011

This particular cover story was about the American soldiers accused of murdering Afghan civilians. Some reports had depicted them as a rogue unit, but our story went deeper into the psyche of the American soldier and questioned whether the killings were symptoms of a much larger issue. We had an image for the cover but it wasn’t great, we also commissioned Pentagram partner Abbott Miller to take a crack at some type. Being a weekly, time was a factor, so we also executed some staff-produced, alternate versions of the cover, two days before it had to ship. We did more than can be featured in this article, but the following is a curated depiction of our process for developing this cover.

At first I was experimenting with a photograph we had of one of the accused. It wasn’t a great picture so it needed to be pushed in some way. I thought some bold type might elevate it a bit.

As a back-up to the photograph we commissioned the designer Abbott Miller to do a type painting based on his acclaimed wallpaper paintings. We loved what Abbott came up with, but the editors wanted to use a longer cover line that, in drip letters, was not legible.

We started with a type approach, experimenting with every font in our arsenal. We even tried filling the letters in blood.

While working on the graphic approaches, I asked our designer Sara Cwynar to begin experimenting with hand-lettering. She must have executed more than 20 versions right at her desk using an eye dropper, india ink and a tiny watercolour brush. Her best version had little soldiers around the type that added a nice texture but the cover still needed some colour and the soldiers felt too toy-like.

In the end we decided to enlarge the type and add some colour to the background (Pantone 185 to be precise). What may seem like a long, arduous process was actually a short, arduous process. The execution of the final cover happened within a period of two very intense days. 

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