Expert notes on how great design communicates in mere seconds
BY: Dustin McNeal, Senior Art Director
The magazine front cover is one of the hardest-working pieces of paper in publishing. The best covers leap from the rack, captivate the mind and compel readers to look inside. All within the span of a few seconds.
Dustin McNeal knows exactly how this works. As a decorated magazine art director, he sees the subtle, yet dynamic workings behind a great cover. When we asked him for his favorite magazine covers of the year, he did more than name five issues—he explained why they work, with takeaways for any content creator.
National Geographic: Planet or Plastic?
“This cover has received a lot of press and praise, with many describing it as ‘one for the ages.’ The concept’s simple but expert execution has a lot to do with artist Jorge Gamboa’s creative restraint.
“I love the depth of meaning. Not only is the allusion to icebergs clear, but it’s also a visual metaphor, because the mass of the plastic problem is unseen. I prefer the subscriber edition (shown here) over its newsstand brother, which is laden with large type, callouts and teases. The subscriber edition cover is more profound and executes a subtle message that honors the reader with trust. The result not only impacted thousands, but also inspired National Geographic to use paper packaging instead of plastic wrappers for their subscriber copies.”
Takeaway: If your message is big, say less. Allow design to speak for itself and deliver. Doing so not only sharpens your message, it displays trust in your audience and provides them space for their own internal dialogue.
Time: The Drone Age
(June 11, 2018)
“Time put out a special report on drones—and how their use is transforming our world. Taking the concept to the cover, Time—partnering with Intel’s Drone Light Show team, Astraeus Aerial Cinema Systems and L.A. Drones—used a fleet of 958 drones to recreate a 100 m (328 feet) tall version of its iconic red border and logo. Yet another drone photographed their arrangement, which was the first time an image from a drone was used for the cover of the 95-year-old publication.
“I’m envious of those who participated in the ideation session for this one. Collaborative conceptualization can generate ideas that span from low-hanging fruit to high concepts, but it’s common for the final idea to be one that’s somewhere in the middle, due to cost, personnel, timelines—what have you. Time’s concept was high-concept and high-budget—so I can only imagine the thrill of the team when senior leadership said, ‘Screw it—let’s do it.’ ”
Takeaway: Production value is more visible than you think. Thinking big elevates audience perception of your brand.
The New York Times Magazine: Last Man Standing (Apr. 1, 2018)
“The New York Times Magazine was in a tough spot. They were writing a story on Defense Secretary Mattis, a man aware of the magazine’s parent organization and its perceived opposition to the Trump administration. And because Mattis is a notoriously ‘all-work, no-play’ official, it seemed unlikely that he would sit for a portrait with The New York Times Magazine.
"Photographer Mark Peterson was forced into a difficult situation, but he produced an image with as much narrative as the 7,500-word feature it illustrates. It’s easy to take for granted the design choices—but don’t. From running the image as a high-contrast black and white to that masterful crop (if didn’t come out of the camera like that), both are crucial in capturing Mattis’ isolated essence.”
Takeaway: If you’re telling a true story, work with your limitations to convey reality and perspective. Doing so displays authenticity and transports the viewer directly into the right context.
Virtuoso Life: The Hotel Issue (May/June 2018)
“Virtuoso Life hired New York-based designer Nick Misani to create one of his ‘fauxsaics’ for their recent Hotel Issue. Misani did a similar cover for The Village Voice last year but one-upped himself with this cover, even designing the masthead into the artwork for a more immersive experience. Whether it was Misani’s choice or guidance from the magazine’s design director, Melanie Fowler, the color palette is near perfect. The cream tile base with metallic gold filigree exudes bright feelings of summer and nods to the luxury the title showcases for its affluent readership. The dark blue strikes a commanding contrast and accentuates the publication’s title and theme keyword. Paired with zero subheads, teases or other competing elements, it creates an uninterrupted experience with an incredible concept.”
Takeaway: Intricate design captivates on center stage. Front covers—and their digital equivalents—are prime real estate, so make sure your signature design includes only what matters.
Entertainment Weekly: Avengers Infinity War
(Mar. 16, 2018)
“This is my ‘empty calories’ pick. What it lacks in sophistication, it makes up with sheer volume—fifteen variations of volume to be exact, deployed by a weekly publication. What really pulls the concept together for me are the segments of the Avengers logo in the background of each cover design, giving diehard fans an easy reason to not only pick up one copy of the double issue, but perhaps an additional fourteen to complete the collectors set.”
Takeaway: Embrace unique opportunities. If you have a universe of content, expand your vision to meet audience demands. Doing so not only increases product exposure, it demonstrates that your brand’s priorities align with your audience. And that’s something they’ll remember.
… and one last word.
All of these covers share something—they tell an entire story in a single executed movement. Whether it’s with metaphor, production value, candor or ingenuity, good design succinctly conveys the essence of an entire publication in mere seconds—turning the passerby into a subscriber. Your content should do the same.
Love the idea of capturing an audience with expert design? Take the easy route—contact us to take your brand and content to a whole new level.
Dustin has been using his creative talents to visually build brands for the past decade—combining a passion for new industry trends with a proven ability to marry content with contemporary design. Dustin has racked up more than 30 industry awards for graphic design, advertising and layouts. He is a constant student of the editorial design and publishing industries. His active membership in the Society of Publication Designers helps keep the iostudio team abreast of current trends, styles and technologies. Dustin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from the University of North Alabama.