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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 wordsfrom 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 Nitro-Net. 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 Nitro-Net’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.