The premise of a magazine cover is to disclose a precise or sometimes vague message on what will be found on the inside.

The hope is you will pick up the magazine either from the newsstand, off your desk or from your mail and begin to enrich yourself with the promised content. Pretty straight forward, so it seems.

A cover is the place where design works the hardest and a great deal of time and patience is devoted to deciding what words, pictures or both can be used to get you to react. If your audience is B-to-B your objectives are going to be a little different than those on the consumer side. A member benefit vs. newsstand sales or written request vs. paid subscriptions.

All that aside, there are a few things that everyone should be aware of that, when put in use, can send you in the right direction to good covers and maybe that elusive great one.

1. Have a consistent design strategy

You will need a strategy that will allow you to be visually consistent from issue to issue. A cover is more than a name and a trim size; it’s your voice, it’s who you are, your brand—front and center.

O, The Oprah Magazine has featured its founder on every cover since it’s inception in 2000 and has shared it only recently with the likes of Michele Obama and Ellen DeGeneres. More importantly, though, is how she is presented, always with a smile and poised with optimism. Her message is constant: Live your life with drive and ambition.

Oprah magazine cover

2. Create your own style

Lady Gaga, John Williams and Frank Gehry, from pop culture and classical music to architecture, these artists have developed a style that defines them. Your magazine cover shouldn’t be any different. Find out what it is that sets your magazine apart from the rest, and then make it unique.

Esquire magazine covers, through clever use of typography and notable people, have more than satisfied the sales department’s request for additional cover lines. More importantly, from issue to issue these covers have provided a commonality between what readers have to come to expect and the excitement of what is new.


If your budget is small, stock photography is an option. This type of resource may not always provide you with a consistent look, but you can build your own custom style using stock.


3. Direct your readers with your cover composition

Layout is an important part of any cover design. It’s your opportunity through scale, contrast and hierarchy, to direct your readers where you want them to go. Both of the examples below are formatted in terms of the number and position of the cover elements.

The Food Network Magazine introduces a mix of three of the network’s celebrated chefs in prime newsstand real estate along the top of the magazine. People, with its combination of celebrity and human-interest stories, positions “people” up close and personal, along with a column of the supporting cast.



4. Take risks

It’s easy to be literal and take the safe route, but unfortunately a steady diet of mediocrity will only become stale and leave your readers looking elsewhere. So, when the opportunity to take a chance presents itself, be mindful of the potential of a downside, and plow ahead. “You can measure opportunity with the same yardstick that measures the risk involved. They go together.” —Earl Nightingale

Below are a few examples of magazine covers that have stuck their proverbial necks out in the name of risk.

risky covers

(The covers of Esquire through the 60s and into the early 70s were some of the most provocative of their time. Follow this link to read more about some of the issues behind these legendary covers.)

On a final note, the wonderful thing about magazine publishing is that if you don’t get it quite right in one issue you always have the next to try it again.

Read more: Five Tips for Successful Magazine Covers