Category Archives: Colour

How do you compete with a billion dollar logo?

buzzfeed-voxThis post was first published on The Media Briefing earlier this week.

Buzzfeed is now considered one of the world’s most innovative news organisation. It’s value is currently over $1b, getting close to the likes of The New York Times ($1.28b), and dwarfing other digital news sites. So it’s no surprise that more start-ups are wanting a slice of the pie.

American news site Vox is early out of the blocks, launched just three months after founder Ezra Klein left the Washington Post. He claims that Vox will ‘Explain the world’ but the site is already creating a stir, as evidenced by last weeks rant from a senior Facebook executive complaining that ‘Someone should fix this shit’

He was referring to Vox’s story about how you should ‘Wash your jeans instead of freezing them’, with the complaint was that they were not delivering  ‘A new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native’.

When it comes to content, you have to make your intentions very clear. Which is why design is central to a users understanding of what to expect. Can Vox persuade readers that it’s a real heavyweight political commentator? Can Buzzfeed change horses midstream and let us believe that they too should be taken seriously?

In short, what does the design of these two sites say about trust?

The logo fonts are fundamentally different. Buzzfeed’s is a functional sans, with an almost child-like feel created by the big lowercase ‘ee’. By contrast, Vox’s serif ‘V’ on their twitter icon is huge, and when spelt out has a sophisticated flourish. It feels high end, a bit like The Atlantic, redesigned by Pentagram not so long ago.

Newspaper-logosLikewise the colour means very different things. Not for nothing are serious newspaper logos black, and tabloids white out of red blocks. This visual language is impossible to deny: red means urgency, black is just inert. It has no opinion. (Although Stern have managed to have their cake and eat). But what does yellow mean in this equation?

Buzzfeed has built both traffic and reputation on spectacular viral techniques, listicles, cat videos, engaging headlines and their killer franchise, the online quiz, proving that content most people are interested in are stories about themselves.

But now they now want to do serious journalism. Reuters reports that they have boots on the ground in Ukraine, are publishing in-depth articles on Chinese dissenters and have had some big, breakout stories. But can Buzzfeed ever be regarded as a serious news site, when their key visual signature looks like this…

Buzzfeed-Logo-lolOr more precisely, LOL, in black type within a yellow circle.

The use of yellow has vexed media designers ever since CMYK was invented. It’s the brightest colour, but has the lowest tonal value, which means it has the highest level of visual cut-through.

US-small-coversNowhere is this more apparent than on a magazine newsstand, where yellow is the number one technique for getting a headline to stand out. For some brands, relying on yellow can cause real problems, as illustrated by the case of People, the world’s biggest and most profitable magazine brand. It costs a dollar more than most rivals, but because the whole category rely on yellow headlines, People looks cheap by association.

Moreover, in the world at large, yellow is often used to deliver marketing messages and price tags, which has taught us that when we see yellow, we’re being sold to.

Buzzfeed-desktop-homeIt all comes down to how it’s used. Like a celebrity news magazine, Buzzfeed, use bright yellow to draw our attention to comments, or small pieces of content that we may otherwise overlook.

It’s effective, but combined with a red logo, lemon tint panels and bright blue headlines, the combination of these colours creates a tabloid environment more akin to a Screwfix catalogue, than a premium destination for serious journalism.

Buzzfeed-mobile-articleAlthough to be fair, at the far more important mobile article level, the presentation is cooler, with the colour focused on social sharing buttons.

Grazia-magazineVox have taken a different tack. By making yellow the only colour, they’ve managed to retain it’s effectiveness, but without tarnishing it’s delivery. This is exactly what Grazia did in the magazine market. By using no colour other than yellow, the pallette looked like a fashion statement, and made the rest of the weekly market’s use of red obsolete overnight.

Vox--desktop-articleVox then go further by teaming yellow with grey, delivering a sense of sober authority. And in an unexpected twist, instead of black headlines, Vox use a very dark grey. When I first saw this in the ‘V’ of their twitter icon, I though it was an error, but this approach is consistently deployed in many places all through the site, particularly on mobile. The content can look pale and washed out, but it does prevent the words looking like sales messages.

Vox-mobile-HOMELinks are understated too, with a cool grey-blue, as opposed to Buzzfeed’s more eye-popping style.

Typographically, Vox has a cultured approach to their content. As any fule kno, there are only two fonts in the world, plain and fancy. Vox use both, with italic serif call-outs, traditional gothic headlines and modern sans text fonts. The feeling is sophisticated, although the small sizes create a somewhat pale reading experience.

Buzzfeed’s headlines and text are primarily in the highly legible and good-looking Proxima Nova. But with bits of Helvetica and other random fonts creeping in, there is a slight low-fi feeling and a lack of brand consistency.

Like Buzzfeed, Vox’s appeal is driven by virality of the headlines. Here’s a super-snarky story from Forbes, attempting to dismantle the thinking behind headlines such as ‘The Simpsons predicted the Ukraine crisis back in 1998’

VOX-desktop-homepageBut Vox are also using content curation as a way of building a content mix, as this homepage shows. Here, they pair a super-dull Russia and China story (good for credibility) alongside an orgasm story (good for clicks). Overall, I sense the desire to have a slice of Vice’s now very substantial content marketing pie.

Buzzfeed-mobile-HOMEBy comparison, even on mobile Buzzfeed go flat out for volume. Everything’s turned up to eleven, all of it looks fun, but there’s not a serious item in sight. And in the American style, deploy the hyped up tone of capping up every word in a headline: ‘A Naked Woman Has Made The Alphabet Out Of Human Hair’

Vox use a more measured upper and lower-case European approach: ‘How conspiracy theories explain political parties’. This typographic technique has less urgency, but a lot more conversational intimacy. And would certainly be preferred by Buzzfeed’s UK editors.

Overall, the Vox design direction is somewhat dull. But it’s undeniably modern, with yellow keeping the site just inside the pop culture canon. From a business point of view, they have set out to claim the journalistic high ground, and go viral from there. Buzzfeed are attempting world domination the other way round, by taking the lowland masses first, and then attempting to scale the higher peaks.


Like Buzzfeed, Vox’s business model is based on ‘native advertising’ or any other term used to describe ads that look like a bit like editorial. However, unlike Buzzfeed, it’s really hard to see which posts are ‘sponsored’, and which are not.

Political authority and influence may be the motivation behind the site, but aside from the click-bait headlines it’s hard to detect any real sense of tone in the content.

Unlike established news sites, I don’t yet know what Vox believe in, other than an enthusiasm for Obama Care. We may be conditioned to it, but when it comes to politics, readers need to know what the brand believes in order to work out the true colour behind the journalism.

This is a problem Buzzfeed just don’t have. What you see really is what you get. It’s not pretending to be cool, there’s no attempt to seduce with the presentation. Which makes me trust them all the more.

Brand or content, what should be seen first?

people-logosThe UK newspaper People closed their website a little while ago. Launched with the idea that it would be ‘Buzzfeed for grown ups’, pretty much everything went wrong, according to this excellent reporting from of all places, Buzzfeed. Patrick Smith reports that there was a lack of identity, a lack of focus, and a complete failure to grasp how the native advertising business model works.

people-multiThis lack of brand benefit is perfectly expressed in the website logo. The way it worked (or rather, didn’t), was that the People logo was preceeded by a rotating series of words; ‘Sporty’, ‘Famous’, ‘Glam’, ‘Funny’ and so on. The story underneath didn’t change, but the context did.

What this did was remove any trace of brand from the content beneath. The stories became entirely generic, no tone, no point of view, no recall.

buzzfeedBy way of contrast, this is Buzzfeed’s home screen from the very same day. Which, when you compare the lead stories of ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Wanker’, pretty well sums up why Buzzfeed’s tone is so sharp.

Print has similar issues, but the context is very different. On a newsstand, when is right to put a coverline above the logo, and when should you never do it? Find out more after the jump.

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The colour of money: why does Hearst’s hot new launch look so bland?

dr-oz-the-good-lifeDr. Oz is a controversial figure. Billed as ‘America’s Most Trusted Doctor‘ he’s a top-notch heart surgeon, has a huge TV show and a massive social following. Oz has been named one of Esquires 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, as “the most important and most accomplished celebrity doctor in history.” But he often attracts establishment criticism, not just for advocating alternative therapies, but for his style. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, he employs words that serious scientists shun, like “startling,” “breakthrough,” “radical,” “revolutionary,” and “miracle.”

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Why The Independent redesign does not go far enough

This is the fifth redesign in as many years, which suggests Last Chance Saloon is not too far away. But here at coverthink we live in The Now, so let’s not worry about that, and just look at the work. The website has been redesigned alongside the paper, and there are interesting plans to introduce a new tablet app, but overall there appears to be no big change to the marketing of the brand. So I’m guessing the four redesign KPI’s are as follows:

1. Differentiate the paper against ‘i’, the Independent’s cheaper tabloid cousin.

This picture shows the previous confusion between the two, with both carrying red in the masthead. The new design has undoubtably separated the two products, primarily through making the logo a black serif and putting it on its side. Magazine logos have been seen like this (The Face circa 1990) and I’m sure there will be European papers pulling this stroke too, but it’s not been seen on a British paper before.

Under normal circumstances, I hate type on it’s side. But in this instance I have real sympathy to the approach. Independent is a very long word, so this way the logo remains BIG and the remaining space is cut into a different sort of shape.

But with no logo at the top, the key is to put stuff in its place that genuinely expresses the brand essence. It can be content or marketing, but it has to really rock.

The top of the paper starts with a band of white space (including barcode and red eagle), signalling its ‘magaziney’ intentions. But this illumination means nothing if the content beneath doesn’t repay the investment.

On this cover the opportunity has been missed. The words are underwhelming, the type is small and there is no hierarchy within this critical part of the page. Which is frustrating, as some of the content is strong and highly ‘ownable’.

The second difficulty the new logo creates is how to divide the page. On a normal width, this can be done vertically, like the Daily Mail and Express; splash on the left, picture story on the right.

But with the new Indy, the narrow page means the picture story is presented over the splash. This profoundly diminishes the headlines’ importance, as well as suggesting the picture story is somehow part of it. All in all, it makes the paper feel more like a monthy review rather than a crusading, urgent and compulsive daily purchase.

2. Sell more ads.

This might work, as the paper looks more sophisticated. There’s a nice use of white space, elegant typography, and a sense of restraint all round. Regular advertising is going to stand out better. But as far as I can see, the increasing shift of clients money into content marketing has not been addressed.

3. Improve reader satisfaction

I loved the Independent when it launched in 1986, and so did many others. As the current editor Amol Rajan said this week, “It was radically different, politically neutral, with huge pictures and real gusto.” This is the top of the first issue, taken from the Indy’s own cover gallery. But in recent years it has struggled to maintain a clear editorial direction compared to the clarity of the Guardian, Telegraph and Times. Whether due to failure of editorial or creative direction is neither here nor there, a redesign is always an opportunity to have a fresh start.

The new look has been led by Matt Wiley, a well respected magazine designer, responsible for the upmarket men’s magazine Port, along with plenty of other good work.

A full set of original fonts have been cut especially for the paper. They’re really good new typefaces, and give a great opportunity for the Indy to deliver content in its own voice. There’s an excellent overview in Creative Review, taking us through the design in fine detail, along with many images of the type in action.

But for all the beauty of the type, some of it is just too small to be easily legible. Readers have complained, obliging Amol Rajan to say that he has taken these comments on board and ‘asked the designers to address them urgently’.

Roy Greenslade, writing in the Guardian, applauds the team for the redesign, appreciating the “commitment to essay-writing as distinct from news busy-ness”. But he also points to the weakness of placing the editorial on page two, as well as other flatplan adjustments. Overall, he suggests readers will more baffled more than anything else.

For me, I have mixed feelings. I’ve bought the paper three times in three days, having not picked up a copy for years. I’ve read it, and I’ve enjoyed it.

But for all the boldness of the new logo, they just haven’t gone far enough. If the Independent’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev, can describe his paper as having “a proud record of innovation”, he should have put his money where his mouth is and done this:

a) Make the splash headline really tell the story. A few more words would deliver real newsstand cut-through, as well as allowing the line to be replicated and owned across all the digital platforms.

b) Properly visualise the splash. Use an infographic, a powerful picture or a typographic solution. Make the whole cover an image that people will want to share, to establish the idea of the front page as an event, as opposed to a template.

c) Put less copy in the paper, make the type bigger, and let stories run longer online. That way, browsing the paper will be a more pleasurable experience, as well as letting the print serve to market the digital platform.

d) Move the horizontal ad position off page three onto page two. As it stands, the paper comes to a grinding halt before it’s even begun.

4. Stabilise newsstand circulation

As always, this is the only KPI editors and owners really care about. Here’s the petrol station in Hackney where I bought my issue last Thursday. Given the current landscape, you’d be a brave man to think that a redesign alone will shift more copies. The fact of the matter, is that paid-for media brands now have to work incredibly hard to stimulate demand. This requires great content, a powerful brand filter and a sophisticated marketing operation. Daily newspapers must set the agenda, and get talked about across every platform.

There’s an interview with Editor Amol Rajan in Media Week, where he talks a good talk about his hopes for the redesign. Media week says: “By recalling the spirit of its founders, Rajan hopes to reinforce the paper’s Enlightenment values and strike a chord in what he considers to be an increasingly ‘sceptical but engaged’ age”

But the line that caught my eye was: “There are maybe a dozen areas we can do absolutely better than everybody else”.

Like all the other serious broadsheets, The Independent covers just about everything. so communicating this brand’s point of difference is absolutely essential in letting the reader know why they are buying it. The primary task of a redesign like this is to focus the readers attention on the things that really matter, but for me this is where it falls down. The design is too polite, and the editorial direction not ruthless enough.

Add that to the lack of newsstand cut through, and I can’t see this redesign making any significant difference to copy sales any time soon. I really hope I’m wrong.

Miley Cyrus gets naked for Rolling Stone. But look who’s taken the picture…

Here’s the annual Rolling Stone Hot List issue, which with almost perfect timing, gives us Miley Cyrus, naked in a swimming pool. Given that these special issues are planned well in advance, this suggests that the Rolling Stone editors really can see into the future, or else the whole twerking farago has been part of a much bigger, carefully thought out media campaign.

But conspiracy theories aside, this is one cracking cover. The type is old school, but well handled, the red logo pops off the green trees, and the blue of the pool recedes perfectly, allowing the young ‘star’ to project on the newsstand.

How much of this is due to the skill of Creative Director Jodi Peckman is not clear, but what is a matter of fact is that the cover photographer is Theo Wenner, the 26-year-old son of Jann Wenner, owner, publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Rolling Stone.

And it’s by no means his first cover. This story from three years back details the shoots he’s done, an appreciation from Jodi: “Theo gives us a fresh, new perspective”, and the news that he’s also worked for Vanity Fair.

This may well look to the world like nepotism, but if you’re Jann’s son and you really want to be a photographer, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. So fair play to the bloke, this is a fantastic cover picture and he deserves the credit for it.

In other news, earlier this year Jann appointed his youngest son Gus to run 22 year old Gus will be taking the report of ‘about 15 to 20 people’.

What the hell is going on with Oprah Magazine?

I saw this issue of Oprah in the airport last week. A huge stack of what was once a newsstand powerhouse absolutely nailed to the shelves. A very ordinary picture of Oprah, horrible typography, cheap colours and a splash line that insults it’s readers by suggesting that they are already dead.

It’s nearly as bad as this other car crash of a cover from a few months ago.  Again, awful typography, nasty colours, and a tired splash line.

This really does break my heart. For a good while Oprah was one of the greatest magazines in the world, due in no small part to the great Design Director Carla Frank. Witness the confidence of this, the first anniversary issue. Much more of Carla’s amazing work on Oprah can be found here on her site.

It wasn’t that bad even a year ago, here’s an earlier coverthink post that highlights some smart type, great colour control and a compelling proposition. All sadly lacking today.

I know that Oprah is not on the telly like she was, and that will absolutely impact sales. Along with general newsstand decline this has made for some pretty horrible numbers for Oprah recently. The idea of trying and connect with a slighter more mainstream audience is a good one, but this is so not the way to do it.

Time magazine makes Church & State finally collapse!

Here’s a great cover of Time, fresh out this week. I don’t know if the bull really does have such a drunken smile, whether it’s a model or all done in post. But either way it’s bright, fast and funny.

I like the white ground too, it makes the red border pop, much like their infamous breastfeeding cover we all wrote about not so long ago.

Time’s not exactly a newsstand powerhouse, but it still looks good in the rack.

But check this out, the BACK cover! Given how queasy Americans can be about issues of Church and State, I was surprised to see this, but I think it works really well.

It’s a great ad, but there’s no way any reader could mistake it for editorial, because it’s the bleeding of the red border that makes a Time cover just that. Here, the white frame around the red makes clear that this is not the Real Thing.

But bleed is an effect only found in print. It’s a powerful gesture, as it suggests the colour (or the image) goes on forever, that it’s merely the limitation of the production process that has determined where the edge is. This is one of the reasons that reportage images work much better when bled.

But what happens in digital? There’s no limit to the canvas there, so there’s no physical indication to the edge of the picture. Which suggests that online, that S.H.I.E.L.D. ad is going to look an awful lot more authentic.

Glamour. But at what price?

September issues are a big deal for any fashion magazine, none more so than for US Glamour, Condé Nast’s most profitable newsstand title. But new figures released this week show the title to be 28% down year-on-year, so the stakes couldn’t be higher, particularly since Anna Wintour was named Artistic Director for all Condé Nast titles earlier this year.

Let’s be clear, the reason why sales are so rubbish is all to do with change in audience behaviour, not because the work is no good. It doesn’t matter how hot your cover is if no-one is standing in front of it. This means it’s critical to find new ways to market the benefits of print, along with maximising other revenue streams.

With Glamour, one big way of balancing the books is through ad revenue. So how is the design of the title changing to that agenda, and where does it leave their relationship with both the industry and the readers?

Access is everything. It’s the biggest issue of the year, so you have to have Jen, still the biggest newsstand star. The picture is incredible. Beautifully composed, amazing light, great styling, smart props, enviable location. When seen on Facebook or any other digital platform where potential readers will first encounter the work, it’s perfect.

Print is demanding. When you actually see the magazine, there’s a considerable amount of grain in the cover photo creating a very noticable effect. For some Twitter users this caused genuine disappointment when they saw the real thing. More critical is whether the grain has any impact at newsstand, I certainly saw it before I bought my copy.

Eye contact really means something. However ace the cover is, eye contact is where the relationship with the reader begins. And this takes place in a tiny area of the image. If excessive grain makes this contact diffused, all sorts of questions occur. Has the picture been retouched? Is the picture original? Was the image ever intended to be a cover? In short, are the readers being shown the truth?

Don’t piss off the talent. The whole set has the same grain, yet the photographer Alexei Hay is hardly a beginner. In fact he’s built up an exceptional list of celebrity clients. So I must assume this grain is a deliberate choice. It’s a super flattering technique, but possibly of greater benefit to the star than the reader. Jen’s an amazing looking woman, as a recent selfie proves. But she’s also pushing on a bit, so the risks of being seen to be less than perfect are perhaps still too high for the brand to carry.

Craft still matters. Creative Director Geraldine Hessler is a true master of this kind of work, so there’s much to admire. She manages the newsstand paradox perfectly. Great type, yet loads of lines, lots of color yet a cool black logo. My only quibble is that as this is a special Hollywood issue, centering that line alone does not communicate this ‘specialness’ at all.

Make all the ads look good. I haven’t seen the US version for quite a while, so I’ve missed the change to Helvetica throughout the book, all the way up to and including the cover. This is easily my favourite font of all time, witness the Coverthink logo.

In Glamour, all the pages look terrific. But more than that, the ruthless typographic discipline creates outstanding relationships between editorial and ads, as the content looks well branded, yet neutral. Which is of course, Helvetica’s dark secret. If there is a problem, it’s that many of the sections look very similar, the whole mag can feel one paced. But hey, if it flatters the client…

Make it look like Vogue. What Editor-In-Chief Cindi Leive thinks of Anna Wintour now being on her masthead is anyone’s guess. And I don’t know if the recent design changes pre-date her arrival or are  pre-emptive moves. But the fact remains that the mag is now red and black throughout. This is a HUGE move. It’s much more fashion, a lot older, and a lot more premium. Again, it helps with the ads, as many of the editorial pages are now entirely monochrome.

The upshot is, Glamour now looks an awful lot like Vogue.

Make it look even more like Vogue. Helevtica’s great, but it needs a foil. So just to make sure, Glamour now sports a smart new serif. It’s not Vogue‘s Didot, but it sure is a pretty close cousin.

Understanding brand values is everything. Like all general interest women’s magazine brands, Glamour has an overarching dilemma. When you cover a bit of everything (fashion, features, sex, real life, etc), how can you truly define yourself when content won’t do the job for you. This is where tone, both visual and written, is absolutely key.

Tone is the fastest and deepest way of establishing who the reader really is. And this is where Glamour is running the greatest risks. If she were your best friend (and many women’s mags like to make this claim) is she still the clever, sassy and friendly girl you used to know?

Or, has she dropped two dress sizes, become really hip and a little less approachable?

I have always held the view that Condé Nast has only ever been about one brand, Vogue. And that every other title they publish has a substantial amount of Vogue in their DNA. This is no bad thing of course, but given the bun fight we’re all involved with now, it’ll be interesting to see how Cindi Leive keeps hold of her hat.

(Full disclosure: I was Creative Director of Mademoiselle, US Glamour’s now closed sister title, back in 2001)

Why did Time Out win this year’s PPA Cover Of The Year award?

A few weeks ago here on this blog, I served up a form guide to the PPA Cover Of The Year Awards that suggested the Time Out cover was a 100/1 outsider. Whilst I proclaimed it to be ‘Highly successful’ and an example of ‘unalloyed utility’, I clearly got the price well wrong!

The decision, as in all of the PPA cover award polls, is not made by ‘experts’, but by the public, who can vote online as many times as they like. I support this process, as it replicates the often random, superfast responses that anyone can go through when they choose a cover. Moreover, the cover is seen in the digital space first, which is a better reflection of the real world.

I recognise that it can produce distortions; for all I know every member of Time Out’s substantial staff might have been under strict orders to vote every single day. But even if they did (which I very much doubt), the cover was shortlisted on merit, so it had as much right to win as any other.

But the interesting thing here, is that judging a small digital image means that the things that make a cover work in the newssagents are all turned on their head. Conventionally sized coverlines cannot be read, but conversely, the whole cover is visible, as opposed to a small fraction. Multiple images to denote ‘value’ will have the opposite effect, whilst bold pictures will deliver even more impact. I wrote about this phenomena last year, when Sport won the same competition with their excellent Gascoigne cover.

But the success of Time Out shows that it’s not just a clear image that can do well, but a powerful use of colour and words. This has been attempted many times on the newsstand of course, but with variable results. Some ideas work, others fail badly. As an illustration, here are a couple of covers that I did when I was the Art Director of Rolling Stone back in the day.

I sometimes use these in my training work, as one was the absolute best selling issue of the entire year, the other was the absolute worst, selling half the number of copies. It’s not too hard to pick the winner, but for those who remain curious, I’ll give the answer on this blog later on this week.

So why did Time Out do so well?

Again, I wrote a little about this cover when it was published, as part of a bigger story about The Big Issue’s response to another free magazine on the streets.

It is a ruthlessly simple piece of work. A clear statement of their new publishing model, delivered with real brevity and total clarity. Red is good of course, but all the heavy lifting lies in the words ‘Take Me, I’m Yours’. The link to the old Squeeze lyric is handy, but Time Out were smart enough to pinch a little of Difford and Tilbrook’s genius. To be able to describe an entirely new relationship between ‘Me’ and ‘You’, with the promise of sex, ownership, and no coverprice is a tough task. But to do it in four really short words is something else.

Welcome to the weekly drama that is the cover of the NME

Here is the latest cover of the NME, the third to be designed by Mark Neil, their new Art Director, ex of the Big Issue.

I think it’s great work;  the colour-way is bright without feeling cheap, the pop-art bubble is a a gesture rarely used with such confidence, and the picture management is a masterclass in what to do with four unrecognisable blokes wearing sunglasses sitting several yards apart.

Best of all, it doesn’t just rely on a great big headline shouting the name of the band. The words suggests insight, access and a point of view. Unfortunately, it hits a speed bump here, as unless I’m a die hard fan of the band, the words don’t actually mean anything. But that aside, the whole thing still feels really fresh and different.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of the fine work Mark did at the Big issue, this NME cover shows him continuing to work a similarly successful aesthetic.

But this is where the eternal dilemma of the NME cover reveals itself. Mark’s Big Issue covers were for the most part, breezy, feelgood posters, designed to stop the traffic and make a sale on a very broad editorial proposition. This NME cover maybe cut from the same cloth, but the NME brand is a very different sell.

At this point in time, the print version of the NME, like most other music papers, is tribal. It’s about Indie music, end of.

This means the cover inevitably attempts to reflect that content, which is not so very different from Mojo and Uncut’s retro pastiche, Mixmag’s ‘clubby’ feel or Classic Rock looking just that.

But unlike these titles, NME is weekly. Given how shallow the Indie pool is right now, this is way too frequent to create any sense of event from just sticking an interview with a band on the cover. Vaccines today, Foals tomorrow, does it really make any difference? I don’t think so.

The true challenge is to channel the audience, to understand who they are, what their hopes, fears and dreams are, and then talk to that, as opposed to a band’s press schedule.

Easy to say, of course, but there are choices here. Should the NME be more political, reflecting independent thought, as opposed to just Indie music? Or, should it become a lot more ‘fashion’, choosing the best looking band members for the covers, and trying to make Indie music feel truly sexy.

Or, should it capitalise on the one thing a weekly frequency does deliver, which is the ability to react to live events. Given that this is the only part of the music space that is really growing, along with the NME’s massive digital and social footprint, this seems to have a lot of potential.

All of these options require change, which is tricky enough, but to reflect any new positioning within the confines of the newsstand is another thing entirely. Should it be breathless and urgent? Is it cool and classic (check an earlier coverthink post which addresses the tension between timeless and timeliness), or, is it something different again. Underpinning everything, is that for a brand like the NME to succeed today, the cover has to work on social media. That means delivering either an incredible story, an amazing image or a dramatic piece of opinion.

Either way, they’re going to piss people off, which is of course exactly what the NME has to do to survive. Good luck to them.