One could argue that the cover of a magazine is its most important feature—even more important than the editorial and interior design—because in a brief moment it has to entice a reader to pick it up and read it. For years, editors and art directors have explored ways to create memorable covers. This fall, one of our clients, editor David Brittan from Tufts Magazine, kicked off the upcoming issue with a presentation called “Taxonomy of Cover Images” in an “attempt to categorize the relationships between image and topic,” he said, and ultimately create a startling cover.
We have worked with the team at Tufts’ Office of Publications since the publication redesign under Brittan’s editorial direction in 2006. In the past we would leave our art meeting with a firm direction in mind—conceptual illustration, photography, single image. (View the gallery of back issues.) But for this latest issue, we left the meeting with a different challenge in mind—to explore the many different ways to tell a story.
Tufts’ Office of Publications Creative Director Margot Grisar assigned us one story to devise cover concepts for, while she explored alternate feature articles to put on the cover. Our collective goal was to not only present more than one viable cover story but multiple ways for each to be represented visually (in the end we showed 30 covers). The story we were assigned was titled “Riding the Dragon,” which was the story of Dragon Systems founders Jim and Janet Baker, who spent 25 years on a quest to invent voice-recognition technology. It was a successful quest that was ruined in a bad deal with Goldman Sachs, and the couple lost everything, including the rights to the technology they created.
Brittan’s categories for the cover ideas included literal, synecdoche, metaphor, parody, and word play. We did further research at 2communiqué, including referring to Bo Bergström’s book Essentials of Visual Communication, to define categorization of imagery, and we began the task of exploring this article by applying the tools of image rhetoric.
Along with trying new ideas for this cover, we decided to try a new way to generate ideas. I had recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine (before it was pulled off the shelves due to fact-check concerns—a very unfortunate ending to a thoughtful book) and was particularly inspired by his theory of why traditional brainstorming doesn’t work (“If people are afraid of saying the wrong things, they’ll end up saying nothing at all”). In chapter 6, Lehrer discusses models for successful idea generation, including what makes Pixar work: They have creative discussions after they have had time to develop ideas. The reasoning is that critical feedback is imperative for a successful result. We decided to implement this thinking for our own cover project.
After we all read the article, we got together as a team to discuss the visual directions that stood out to us—the rise and fall of Dragon—and checked back in with Brittan and Grisar to make sure we were all on the same page. Initial visual directions included dragons (including “rise and fall” or death), speech, and Siri, which runs from the speech technology the Bakers invented. We went our separate ways with a goal to develop concepts that included all of the forms of visual rhetoric. We were already scheduled to photograph Janet Baker, so we had “literal” covered, but what visual metaphors could be explored? Or synecdoche? What about parody, something done so well by The New Yorker?
When we regrouped to share sketches and discuss concepts, we could see there were some common visual concepts that arose from our individual brainstorming: a slayed dragon, a muzzled dragon, swords, a decayed building (Dragon Systems headquarters resembled an old castle), roller coasters, speech bubbles, lack of speech, and speech graphs. We collectively edited our ideas down, developed roughs of the strongest ones, and shared these with Grisar. With her input, we edited further and defined the strongest ideas with a final presentation to Brittan of the top 10.
When it came time to present the covers to the editorial team, Grisar and I decided we needed a different approach. In previous cover presentations, we would reveal one design at a time and talk through each concept. Considering the goal for this assignment was to create a “startling” cover, we decided the most successful cover would stand out among the rest, as it would have to if it were a consumer magazine on a newsstand. So the covers were put up on a wall in a conference room at Tufts, and the editorial team was invited to view all of the covers simultaneously. This method resulted in clear eliminations and a selection of favorites (for example, dark covers were nixed in favor of brighter covers). The toughest idea to comp—a parody caricature of the Bakers on a dragon roller coaster—was selected based on a stock image for tone and samples of illustrators we felt could achieve parody with depth (including New Yorker cover illustrator Barry Blitt, who unfortunately was too busy to take the project on).
What was most interesting was that I would not have considered doing a parody cover of such a serious story if we had not explored visual rhetoric. I was more drawn to the serious, provocative covers. But when I look at the cover displayed in my office, I think it is fresh, and it definitely piques my interest.
The issue recently mailed, and initial feedback is coming in. The subjects of the article loved it, and Brittan shared it with a discerning reader who laughed out loud. Brittan himself said, “It’s certainly an effective cover—bright and eye-catching, perhaps more fun than startling. But I’ll take fun.”
Final cover: Amanda Duffy
Janet Baker: John Soares
Red Dragon: gedsrl.org
Duo Portrait: Portrait: istock, Smoke
Smoke Dragon: Smoke
Building: Library of Congress
Red Balloon Animal: istock
Dragon Roller Coaster: Kissimmee Guest Services
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