The Ultimate Guide to Magazine Cover Design

Designing a contract magazine cover is a challenging task… A good magazine cover gives life to a publication and can be crucial to its success. If done right, mag covers can become icons, acts of protest or sources of wonder. But what makes a great cover?

Nowhere in a magazine is the interaction between words and images more important than on the front cover. The cover has to do two key jobs for a magazine; “It has to sell the general concept of the publication as well as to reflect, through its design, the intellectual level of the editorial content” (Swann 1991). Other commentators suggest it has more personal than intellectual functions: “it is the magazine’s face… like a person’s face it is the primary indicator of a personality” (Click and Baird 1990).

Photography covers

This is the most effective and well-used approach to cover design, usually of a celebrity, or industry figure, portraying a positive message. The accepted rule is that the model should offer clear eye contact and the level of the eyes should be as near to the masthead as possible – selling both the issue and the brand. This approach in widely used in most newsstand magazines. Membership sector magazines might need to modify this approach slightly. A trade union magazine might choose a favoured politician, a prominent spokesperson or one of their activists. Most types of membership magazine reflect their readership by featuring high quality shots of members, strengthening the bond between organisation and members.

Illustrated covers 

From the beginnings of magazine publishing until pre-second world war, drawn illustrations were the only way of creating the cover artwork. The most notable magazine with an illustrated cover today is The New Yorker, having not changed their illustrative style since its inception in 1925. Contract magazines can use illustrations to present something extraordinary, or to convey complex conceptual ideas, and the hand-drawn style takes a softer approach to emotional subject matters. Magazines can also use computer-generated graphics to help process a conceptual subject, while taking into consideration time and budget restraints.

Typographic covers

This style of cover, varying from handwriting to calligraphy, tends to be striking and even alarming. There’s a special impact and beauty in the way a typographic cover looks and represents your message, whilst providing an important message hierarchy, making it is easy for the reader to follow. Probably the most famous typography based cover is Esquire’s disturbing and startling “Oh My God, We Hit a Little Girl!” by George Lois.

Concept covers 

This approach can be a mix of all the ideas discussed. Again, it’s best used to present a powerful message. The trick to the concept based cover is that it must be instantly understandable; something not easy to achieve. The idea may be funny to you and your editor, but will it be amusing to the readers? Will they understand it? This type of cover is usually seen in business magazines, weekly news magazines, independents, supplements and subscription only publications.


Headlines and overall text colour on the page is significant. A common mistake from rookie designers is to put non-contrasting elements on the page. For text to be read, it must be light on a dark background or reversed. Besides doing this through the fonts, there is the possibility to darken or lighten areas of the imagery for readability. However, one shouldn’t be afraid of getting creative with colours. Often we will consider a brand-based colour palette, and apply our knowledge of colour theory. These are important details resulting in creating a visually appealing design that fits in with the readership.


A cover without a focus is a magazine without a focus. It may seem simple at first, but creating a magazine cover needs a lot of thought. It usually starts with a sketch and after that the layout modifies gradually but not in a dramatic way. Although you might think this process would take just a few minutes, it usually takes hours to get the right result.

When designing a cover you can play around, you can exaggerate, but remain within your concept and style. A cover needs one headline that will pop out in size, colour and attitude. You also need a focus point. Whether it’s a face, a headline or a number, something has to draw the eye.

Use word play, but only when you will be sure that the readers will understand it immediately. Everything should be instantly clear. If you plan to use a question as the cover line, give it an answer. The biggest cover line does not have to be the biggest feature in the magazine. The biggest cover line should appeal to the biggest section of your target readers.

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