How to design an eye-catching magazine cover, with David McKendrick and Studio Ground Floor
“In this day and age,” David McKendrick asks, “when there is so much noise, so many images, and so much information, how do you make an arresting image?” This is the challenge faced by designers when designing a magazine cover in today’s world. Whilst we’re glad to see a rebirth of the magazine format within the creative field, they arguably need to work harder – with and for the algorithms – to capture our focus. Within the field of communication, the cover aims to be an “arresting image,” and consequently a direct piece of dialogue with the viewer. So, what do you want to say? What information and content need to be prioritised on the cover for the reader to absorb at first glance, and why?
“With Paperboy for example,” McKendrick explains, describing his self-published magazine that delivers ‘only good news,’ “there are three key elements, a confident name and logotype, a strong colour and an interesting use of physical material.” Three pieces of information that, when designed on the finished cover, evoke interest and a feeling. The London-based duo Studio Ground Floor – who are also no strangers to creating eye-catching covers for the likes of Pilot and TYPEONE – believe the information included on the cover is a direct reflection of the publication itself; the themes, the concept and the content. “After all, the cover is an audience’s first impression of the magazine,” they note, “so we want to reveal as much of the mag’s vibe as we can, in as simple a way as possible.” When working on Issue 2 of Pilot – a digest dedicated to all things creative, experimental, and authentic – they reflected the ‘Hardware’ theme of the issue by “unearthing what you usually don’t see.” This involved “a lot of seemingly ‘unnecessary’ details on the cover, or info you wouldn’t necessarily expect on a cover (e.g. page count, typeface names, etc).” By not following conventions or engrained magazine design rules, Studio Ground Floor were able to create something that stands out on the shelf.
For the long-term collaborators of TYPEONE, the issue’s number comes above all else, proudly presented with a bespoke numeral to reflect the typographic nature of the publication. “That way,” Studio Ground Floor continue, “the system we put in place has allowed us to explore the individual themes of each issue within these parameters – whether that’s working with a single practitioner relevant to the subject or collaborating with a number of creatives.” Whilst the concept is the leading priority, there are still important details to include such as the price, barcode and sponsor logos. “It’s just making sure that these essential details don’t overrule the cover’s concept,” unless that is your concept, of course!
You want to intrigue people to pick it up and see what it’s about, they don’t need to know what it’s about straight away.
Once the magazine cover’s content has been decided, the next step is usually to define the driving concept and visual approach. “You want to intrigue people to pick it up and see what it’s about,” suggest Studio Ground Floor, “they don’t need to know what it’s about straight away.” This is certainly an approach McKendrick can agree with. Following several years of experience designing covers for others – notably Esquire, Cloakroom and Wallpaper* – McKendrick launched his own series in 2021 with Paperboy. Here, less really is more – there are no extra frills. With a striking and minimal cover, the magazine’s wordmark on a plain background, the creative director explains that for him, “a simple idea for a cover is key. A committed, confident approach. For me, simple is key.”
Perhaps it comes from his experiences, or, in his own words “might be a bit of PTSD” from his days as Creative Director of Esquire. “There were all sorts of bullshit rules from marketing departments about how to sell a magazine because magazines relied on newsstand sales, so magazines were fighting for people's attention on shop shelves,” he reveals. “It was a struggle as a designer, when someone says bullshit like ‘green doesn't sell’ or ‘we need eye contact from the cover star.’ Complete bull. That era of magazine covers resulted in a real ‘vanilla’ newsstand, of guess what, a bunch of magazines that all looked the same.”
With this in mind, to what extent should we look to other designs or publications we admire to stay inspired? For McKendrick, the duty of any designer or art director when producing a cover is first and foremost to communicate an important idea, in a direct way. “I feel like it is very easy to reference other designs in a similar field and I see a lot of that and I think it is dangerous, because we will never create anything new.” On the other hand, he references his “good pal” Rory McGrath from OK–RM, whose work on Jack Self’s Real Review is a worthy example of a unique approach. For one, he notes, “their references existed outside of the magazine world, and as a direct result of this, they created something new, arresting and successful.”
Like Paperboy, there’s no missing the eye-catching numeral or vibrant colour of a TYPEONE cover. “When it comes to some magazines, such as TYPEONE, we’re very pleased that it tends to stand out when you walk into a magazine stand,” Studio Ground Floor tell us, “however, we actively try to stay away from referencing other magazines in our work when we’re designing – nothing new or exciting comes from that!” This is why, for the duo, an original concept always comes first. “If the concept is unique enough, and if the magazine has enough of an angle or something to say, the concept that follows should be able to reflect that and provide a unique angle too.”
We truly believe that, just like a brand identity, publications should have identities too.
In any publication series, keeping things exciting brings readers back to each new issue. That’s also the joy of the design process, to make sure each new cover continues to excite and intrigue readers old and new. Therefore, to what extent is it important to keep things consistent? “We truly believe that, just like a brand identity, publications should have identities too,” Studio Ground Floor explain. “So whether that’s a consistent concept that drives a visual direction (like in TYPEONE) where the numbers create the link across issues, along with the monochrome and Pantone system, and minimal approach.” This ensures that the issues by no means need to be identical. “Having these set parameters means that there is a strong link between each issue and that they feel like a set, but that there is enough to play with each issue that it isn’t a set thing. That way, the magazine isn’t boring for both its audience when reading it, or us when we’re designing it.”
Having said that, the pair are not opposed to magazine covers that sit at either end of the scale; either maintaining a near-identical look or bringing a completely new approach each time. “Again (and we’re probs sounding boring by now!), but it always comes back to the concept and content of the mag. What’s appropriate and what’s relevant?”
Consistency for McKendrick comes down to a “perfect mix” of attitude and design. “You can fart around with the design a lot, if the attitude stays the same,” he notes. “I feel too much consistency in design can get boring by issue 10. And, although you need to maintain a degree of continuity, this can be achieved by maintaining the same message and attitude.” Whilst he enjoys the consistency of Paperboy’s first four issues, he’s keen to try something different design-wise for future issues… “but I'll be sure to keep the same, strong attitude,” he concludes.