Monthly Archives: May 2012

Should magazine covers now be designed for social media instead of the newsstand?

Would you breast feed your 4 year old?This is not the new issue of Chat, and I’m not saying it should be. But given the success of TIME’s recent breastfeeding cover, it’s worth understanding the power of social media on newsstand sales. It’s been a while since one cover so completely dominated the  conversation. If you missed the controversy, have a look at adweek, the Guardian and newsstandpros.

The topline is that all this social media activity allowed TIME to sell a lot more issues on the newsstand. They significantly increased their subs, both in print and digital and in addition, it wound up both Newsweek and Bloomberg, creating a good buzz around the whole newsweekly market.

Are you mom enough?

One of the reasons why newsstand sales are going down, is because readers are not going up to the rack in the first place. But if the cover can create a noise online, curiosity can make readers seek out the title, to see what all the fuss is about.

So, out of my own curiosity, I mocked up Chat with the TIME cover picture. The resulting cover breaks every single rule in the real life canon. There are not enough stories, there’s no rape or murder, there’s not enough colour, and there are certainly no prizes. It won’t sell, or at least it won’t sell to Chat readers


No matter how good Chat’s covers are (And they are, see my earlier post at coverthink),  they never generate the online buzz that TIME did.

Fashion magazines have long been able generate press with their celebrity access, as demonstrated by Elle’s excellent new Beckham cover at gymclass magazine and magculture.

Given that mass market women spend as much time in social media as anyone else, I think this is a space we could push our bigger circulation covers further into.

The one reason Rolling Stone Italia’s cover is now better than the American original

Dave GrohlThis is a recent cover of Rolling Stone Italia, which I found on the excellent Magazine Wall tumblr site courtesy of Magculture. It’s everything you’d expect a cover of Rolling Stone to be: powerful, memorable, a genuine event. It’s hard to make work this good look so effortless. I should know, I was Art Director of Rolling Stone in America in 2002-4, and would have been delighted to have done a cover this strong.

So why is this European cover better than the American? Well, if anybody tells you different, don’t believe them, because size really does matter.

The original Rolling Stone format wasn’t unique, it was shared by ESPN, and before that Premiere at launch. But these were the only magazines that had this fabulous, widescreen format, and it was Rolling Stone that made it famous. The title stood apart from everything else out there, it conferred a sense of difference, a feeling of being special.

But there were problems. There was only one press in America that could print it, and it was wearing out fast. The print quality was deteriorating, it couldn’t incorporate inserts and it wasn’t going to be replaced. So the printers had Jann Wenner over a barrel when it came to the price. In addition, the subscriber postal charges were sky high for such a big envelope, while on newsstand, it had to be sold on the plinth, not in the racks, making it hard to find.

So, several years after I left, they reduced the size, as reported in the New York Times. And then swapped one kind of pain for another. Because now the proportions are quite different. By comparison, the mag is now tall and thin. Which significantly diminishes the logo, one of the finest media brand marks of all time.

Rolling stone logo

The logo may be powerful, but it’s also relatively long and thin. It needs to be used on a wider format to have any chance of being seen, or imposing itself on its subjects. A wider format allows the logo to go over the subject due to its shallow height. Equally, if the logo goes behind the image, then there’s plenty left to see due to the extra width. The subject of logo over or under the picture is worth a post in its own right, but that aside, what does Rolling Stone look like today?

Rolling Stone Obama and games of thrones

Well, this comparison is unfair in many ways, but totally accurate when it comes to the actual sizes of old and new formats.

The Obama cover, quite rightly, won the ASME cover of the year in 2009. It’s the newsstand version, and as such possibly my favourite cover of all time; one of the last to be produced on the old format. On the right is the current issue, featuring Peter Drinklage. There’s nothing really wrong with it, apart from the obsession with the Parkinson font, and weird use of yellow on black. But there is no way this is any kind of event. It will not win prizes, it will not be remembered. The creative team on Rolling Stone is among the best I have ever worked with, so whatever irritation I might have with the format, their pain must be a hundred times greater.

Horse & Hound chucks convention out the window. And makes a great cover as a result

The QueenThe Jubilee is almost upon us, and that is reflected(!) in the IPC Editors’ Group’s covers of the month. Overall winner is Horse & Hound for its portrayal of  ’Britain’s best-loved horsewoman’. No, it’s not Katie Price, it is of course, Her Madge.

There must be something about the royal family that just gets magazine editors all excited. Kill the coverlines! Make the picture black and white! Silver foil block the logo! And so it is with this really excellent cover. I love it when a brand identifies a high value subject (or ruler) and proves decisively that it truly owns them. Vogue does it, but it’s still a pretty rare event. Here, Horse & Hound shows that despite everything, the Queen is a Horse & Hound reader at heart.

But there’s a new side to this story that I only learned today. Horse & Hound was conducting research on the title last month, and decided to take advantage of direct contact with the readers by showing them a whole bunch of different pictures, and seeing which they preferred. They discovered that initial interest in the idea was cool, but as the Jubilee approached, the pictures became more appealing

Here are a few of the pictures that were shown. The winning picture is bottom left, next to big fat colour shot that was the second choice. Rejected in the end, because it felt too familiar. The cover has been a huge hit, it’s the best selling issue of the year so far. There are many reasons of course, but for me the thing I like about it best is that the Queen is not wearing a hat. This NEVER happens on equestrian titles, for reasons of ‘elf and safety. So for one glorious day, here we have the boss breaking the rules, and the readers secretly imagining they can do the same.

Red. Black. White.

The White StripesThis post was first made at npdnotebook in February 2011

So the White Stripes have split up. Which gives the NME to choose the defining image of their career.

And this is a great picture. There is an extraordinary amount to look at and enjoy. The dark shadows under his eyes, her knowing smile, the position of the chairs emphasising his size, whilst all the while maintaining their shared body language.

I could go on and on, but I don’t need to because the cover is RED. Red is the NME’s brand colour, so all the love towards the White Stripes is able to infuse the brand, likewise the brand has a clear opportunity to claim ownership over the content.

The challenge with this cover is the tension between timeless and timeliness. The lines themselves are full of urgency, but here their presentation is more akin to what Vanity Fair might do one month later.

The NME is a weekly, just the same as Chat. Both must create a genuine sense of event, this week the NME have been handed one on a plate, and so they’ve got away with a cool aesthetic. The challenge will be next week, when they’ve got an unheard of indie band on the cover.

All said, given that no-one has actually died, the black border and RIP detail are moments of quiet genius.

My bum needs its own sofa

I castrated my evil dadThis post was first made at npdnotebook in October 2011

I do wonder about the ease with which Chat’s editor Gilly Sinclair peels off her brilliant coverlines. ‘My bum needs its own sofa’, ‘Sliced Off! I castrated my evil dad’, ‘Saved from the pot! What a lucky plucker…’. It all seems to suggest an imagination that frankly, I’d rather not know too much about!

Much like a tabloid newspaper, in a real-life weekly it’s often the words are the most important visual component. It is they that create images in your mind, they that deliver colour, and they that determine the layout of the page.

Right from the very first issue (Knit your own Royal Family!) Chat’s lines have always been a shrewd blend of knowing gags, weird shit and truly shocking ideas. It’s voyeuristic, nihilistic, and often entirely unrealistic. Like its readers, it really does live in the moment, as evidenced by the genius strapline: ‘Life! Death! Prizes!’

But the world is becoming ever more visual, so Chat has responded with this new and significantly improved cover design. The key decision is to make the lead story image the canvas that carries the splash line. It’s subtle, but very effective in establishing the primacy and cut-through of the lead story. There are fewer stories overall, only five against the market’s usual six, but they have more room, and are well detailed, so there’s no loss of value.

The ‘new’ messaging is worth noting also. As well as the monster blob top left, the new franchises are continually labelled as such, allowing art editor Rob Plowright-Taylor to let the whole package literally crackle with a sense of excitement.

How to shift a million copies on the newsstand. Every week!

Family tragedyThis post was first published at npdnotebook in June 2011

What’s on TV is not at the glamour end of the business, but it consistently sells over a million copies a week thanks to genius pieces of work like this. As a brand it completely defines the budget TV listings market. Often copied, but never bettered: it invented the conventions, adheres to them and constantly enhances them to maximum effect.

The content pops from a blue back plate. And here, the glow adds an additional level of movement and feeling. The yellow splash is present and correct, but the black outline has been turned all the way up to eleven. You could see this coverline from space! It’s important to visualise the price clearly, which is why green is such a shrewd move. It stands out from all the other colours, yet never gets in front of the content. Dark blue and magenta add accents, but overall, Art Director Dave Richardson’s colour palette is pretty restrained to let the splash stand out.

Editor Colin Tough’s lines are really good too. Absolute brevity and focus on what’s important, which in this market is ‘Family’, closely followed by ‘Tragedy’.