Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Art of Good and Bad Magazine Cover Lines

My mother, the editor (and art director and general manager) of a regional Wisconsin magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, came back from a magazine design seminar one day and was pleased to report that her magazine (NEWmonth) had been praised by the seminar leader for its design. One thing in particular earned praise: The magazine had only limited cover blurbs promoting articles within, and it met the seminar leader's dictum that a magazine should have no more than three such blurbs on its cover.

Having three or fewer cover blurbs does make for a less-cluttered cover, but I have to side with the thousands of magazine editors who decide they need more text on their covers to catch the reader's eye, whether the publication is sitting on a newsstand or pulled out of a subscriber's mailbox or picked up in a waiting room or accessed digitally.

Magazine cover lines have been attracting my attention again lately, thanks to the recent controversy of Men's Health magazine re-using entire cover lines in multiple issues. The editor reportedly claimed that the re-used cover lines were only on the newsstand copies; subscribers received different cover text. (In essence: We only despise our newsstand buyers, not our subscribers.) The nature of that editorial insult aside, it is a nice reminder about what cover blurbs are really about. They're there to sell the issue -- again, whether it's literally to help the customer make the decision to buy it, or more figuratively to help the reader make the decision to spend some time flipping through or reading the issue.

I am probably an odd magazine reader and magazine editor in that I don't mind cover blurbage. You can certainly have too many -- and too stupid -- cover blurbs. But when done well, the cover blurbs are just as much a part of the cover design as the image(s) and the logo. What's the point of showing Ellen Degeneres smiling from the cover of Time magazine without the now-famous, "Yep, I'm Gay" text?

I recently subscribed to British science fiction media magazine SFX. I received my first issue, which sports no cover blurbs. The magazine promotes this as a benefit of subscribing: "As a subscriber to SFX you get more than the standard high street copy, you will get the benefit of recieving your favourite magazine with uninterrupted cover images, free from any additional text. Perfect for any collection!" Ignoring the punctuation and spelling problems with that statement, I'm sure that's an attractive benefit for many subscribers, and therefore it's probably a smart thing to do.

But I think I'd prefer to get the copies with the blurbs. SFX has very good and strong covers, nicely designed with well-chosen images. They don't look bad without the blurbs; they just don't look like a magazine, so they're not as inviting, at least to this reader. Again: I know I'm in the minority, but that's my two cents.

SFX isn't the only one to do this. The British edition of Esquire does the same (see photo, left). Perhaps the practice will spread, as magazines seek ever more creative ways to cater to their subscribers (who are, after all, small and short-time investors in the publication).

Still, the only magazine I would actually encourage to adopt the practice is Men's Health.

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