Designing a magazine cover is not any different from any other type of design. It has its own challenges (and trust me, there are lots of them), tips, tricks, tools of trade and well done examples. You can find them all over the internet, however I’ve decided to bring together in this article the best tips for designing a magazine cover I could find. Without further introduction, here are the winners.
1. Guides and Templates
It is important for a magazine to be consistent in design, not only from one page to another, but also from one edition to the next one. All the big brands such as Sports Illustrated, FHM (example below), Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest or Men’s Health have a style that they keep for a long time before deciding to totally revamp it. It’s like web design, changing your page’s design too often will not help you build a strong visual identity.
The basic idea is that you have to keep the same layout and styles throughout and this will make the readers come back for more. Do not consider all these guides, templates or sheets as rules, but as frameworks you have to build on when you design a magazine cover. Now I’m not saying everything has to look exactly the same, but I would set up my positioning, grids and guides and use them for every cover that I designed for a specific magazine.
2. Planning in advance
The cover can be the element of a magazine that takes the most time to design, because it is also the most important one. If the readers don’t like it, they are less likely to buy the edition. Therefore you have to put a lot of effort and thought into it before actually starting to design. Ask yourself what you want to achieve with the cover and why. Which colors or set of colors should you use and the impact they have on the readers’ mind. It can be intriguing, fascinating or stand out; either way, you need a lot of time to think about it.
Unfortunately this doesn’t always work, because we all know that working on paper is not the same as actually designing. The colors might not be good, the contrast might be too low or high, titles might not fit in well because of the amount of letters, images may have issues and so on. We all experience this once in a while. It is always a good idea to have a back-up plan which will spare you some time if the first ideas can’t be achieved.
If you are not inspired, then get inspired. If you always work within the same style at some point in time your creativity might get limited, but fortunately there are ways to avoid this. Don’t be boring and remember that you need to stir up some emotions in the reader when he turns the page. If you feel uninspired, take a brief look at other publications, see how they’re doing or, the most popular method, go and take a walk. Relaxing is good for your mind and you will come back home or to the office with fresh ideas.
Tip: I always bookmark in a separate folder everything that I find on the internet and I like. If there is a stunning website I ran into, I bookmark it. The same with nice showcases and collections from developers. This helps when I severely lack ideas. I scroll through all my bookmarks and I always find something to use as a starting point for my projects. You should try this too, because I am sure it will come in handy in the future.
I can’t stress enough how important typography is on the internet; it is even much more important in print. When you have a lot of text, as you usually do in a magazine, typography can make a huge difference between a boring article and one you would like to read. Hierarchy is one of the important concepts. What is important is always larger and maybe with another color, which has a higher contrast with the background and is more visible.
As a designer, you decide how the information is provided to the reader. If you do it properly, then the titles will always stand out and the most important information will be easy to find. You can see in the image below that even if there are few colors and no images on the page, the designer managed to make you want to read the content on the left page. He did it through typography, headlines, pull quotes, font colors and hierarchy.
We live in tough financial times and it is not always easy to find images, icons or whatever you might need. Fortunately there are some cheap stock-art websites on the internet and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr or deviantART which will come in very handy. Most of the photographers will not ask for money if you want to use their work, although they will retain the copyright after publication and will probably ask for a credit.
It’s a bit more difficult to find illustrations, but illustrators are usually easy to find and do not charge unreasonable prices. Try to find some steady people to work with and use them all the time, they might agree to work cheaper if you can continuously provide them work.
Somebody said that design is in the details. It is quite true, especially for print. Before delivering the final version, take your time and check every small detail you can think of, starting from alignment to overlapping text and image boxes, color matching, spacing, breaks and more others. Pay attention to the black color and be sure it is the same type of black throughout the whole edition.
7. Befriend the printer
Once you are done with the design on your computer, there is still some issues you have to take care of. The printer usually gives headaches because on paper it never looks like like it does on your screen. Colors will be different (even the CMYK ones sometimes), images may be moved, text might be too small and so on. The way you bind the magazine is important too when designing. If you use your printer well, you will be able to avoid these issues which are small and easy to solve, but take a lot of time. The printer can help you determine the amount of overlap you need and can also give you the output specifications to assure the high-resolution images are compatible with the system.
8. General advice
Us, designers, know that every thing we do is challenging. A magazine cover/layout offers challenges too. You need to be organized and keep a balance between ads, text, titles, headings and other elements. Ads have to be placed somewhere and combined with the right aesthetics to give the wanted result. Designing a magazine cover/layout is much more than just putting some elements together. The good designers spend hours and hours moving elements around only to go back to the previous version, because that is the one that looks best.
Sometimes a title might not fit because of two letters, ads might take too much space and, as you are not allowed to modify them, you will have to build on that, images will not fit your grids and so on. Working with the design and customizing it as much as possible is the key to success for a magazine designer. The best designers take an in-depth look at each article and might sometimes even send it back to the author for small adjustments. Don’t be afraid to do this, but don’t do it too often. The finished product should show consistency, creativity and cohesiveness. Now that’s what designers call a successful cover.
I said it twice before: only because it looks easy, doesn’t mean it is. Designing a magazine cover is part of a long process and takes a lot of time and work, therefore do not think that once you started, you’re done in two hours. It requires design knowledge such as typography, guides, aesthetics, placement and so on, and not everybody can design successful covers.
If you are part of such a project, start early, have a plan and one or two back-up plans, get inspired maybe before starting the design process and make sure every detail is in place before delivery.
These were the most important tips for designing a magazine cover. Do you have something else to share with us?
How to design a magazine cover in InDesign on Layers Magazine
on Youth Designer
30 Awesome Magazine Cover for Your Inspiration on Smashing Wall
The Secrets of Magazine Cover Design (part 1) on Magforum
Christian Vasile is an enthuziastic Romanian web designer currently living in Denmark. He is passionate for the industry and writes about design, usability, coding and freelancing and is a regular publisher here at 1WD. You can follow him on Twitter at @christianvasile or visit his web portfolio by clicking on the link above.