The secrets of magazine cover design

The secrets of magazine cover design by Tony Quinn:
1. The key ingredients

magazine front cover design Shania model

Ingredients Use on front cover
Masthead (title, logotype, logo or nameplate) The name of the magazine displayed in a specific typeface. This is the visual branding of the title and is often done in a specially designed typeface to be easily recognised and unique. The masthead – also called a title – is usually used on the contents page inside as well as the front cover, and as a logo for advertising and branding purposes. Titles for big magazines are often designed by specialised typographers such as Dave Farey and Richard Dawson(Good Food, MaximDesign Week) and Matthew Carter (Private Eye).

Note that the Cosmo title above overlays the cover image. Some magazines will put the image on top of the title, as with the 1916 Bystander. Rarely these days, the title letting will be split or the whole title moved to allow space for an image

Dateline Month and year of publication, often with the price. Note that a monthly magazine usually hits the news-stands the month before the cover date
Main image In the case of this front cover there is a single image of the model Shania. The image is used in a classic way, the face is big enough to stand out on the news-stand, with the model making full eye-contact
Model credit This says: ‘Shania: So hot.’ It is unusual for such a credit to appear on a magazine front cover, but it is done sometimes on fashion magazines. The photographer and model credit is usually on the contents page
Coverlines From the 1950s, greater competition on the newsstands resulted in more cover lines. Today, some magazines print special covers for subscribers’ copies that use few cover lines. Cosmopolitan magazine uses a lot of cover lines, which are distributed around the main image without detracting from it too much. A mistake often made with cover lines is that they run over an image that has a lot of colour changes, rendering the words difficult to read. This is a problem here with the red text on the hair on the left and the smaller yellow text against Shania’s skin
Main cover line This is very large – taking up almost a quarter of the magazine cover – and comes in three layers, each with a different colour. It promotes the use of naked male centrefolds, a feature of Cosmopolitan in the UK since its first issue. Note the main cover line is positioned against the model’s shoulder so it shows up clearly
Left third The left third of the magazine cover is vital for sales in shops where the magazine is not shown full-frontage. The title must be easily recognisable in a display of dozens of competitors. The start of the masthead is important here, as are short cover lines that are easy to read

The top fifth of the cover – usually dominated by the masthead – may be the vital part in supermarkets, where magazines are displayed differently

Bar code Standard bar code used by retailers, displayed on UK magazines since 1988. Special subscriber covers often omit this
Selling line Short, sharp description of the title’s main marketing point (for Cosmopolitan: ‘The world’s No 1 magazine for young women’) or perhaps setting out its editorial philosophy
Covers evolve over time
They may be tweaked to exploit new printing techniques; switch from full face to a body shot; use illustration rather than photography; move the target readership age up or down; or simply to freshen things up. Take a look at 4Girl covers for one example; or 3 covers from Record Mirror. Compare the cover above with Cosmo’s first UK issue in 1972. What’s changed and why? Pay attention to detail – does the cover image go in front of or behind the masthead? Why do you think Company‘s 2001 mastheadis so similar to Cosmopolitan‘s?
More cover ideas
Legal issues

There have been many legal cases brought by publishers accusing each other of copying designs. The main charge is that one title is trying to ‘pass itself off’ as another. Among the battles have been:

  • The Financial Times tried to prevent London’sEvening Standard printing its business pages on pink paper. It failed, with the judge saying readers were unlikely to confuse the broadsheet FT with the tabloid Standard.
  • Celeb weekly Hello! warning OK! not to copy its look.
  • Red and Real clashed over their title designs, with the latter giving way and redesigning its masthead.Compare Red and Real here.

However, many titles do imitate another’s design or name and some sectors, such as the celebrity weeklies and home magazines end up with a similar look. Among the main design strategies are:


All credits for this go to: The secrets of magazine cover design by Tony Quinn

Part 2: Magazine cover design – the right mix

Part 3: Magazine cover design – some finishing touches