I was Founding Editor of Flex Magazine and have contributed to many other magazines over the years.  I’ve spent a lot of time researching the most effective way to design and market magazines, an increasingly important consideration nowadays when they are  under such pressure from the competition from the Internet.

Playboy used to shoot a dozen  covers before deciding which to use.

One important factor in selling magazines is cover design. Years ago I installed a magazine rack in my studio where I displayed the titles I subscribed to as well as the magazines for which I had done covers.  I would stand some ten feet away and look at the magazines side by side on the rack.  Some of them clearly stood out from the others.  It seemed to be that magazines able to attract the attention of potential readers as they approached the rack or looked over the available selection had a distinct advantage when it came to selling copies.

I’m told that in the glory days of Playboy the magazine used to shoot a dozen covers or more, do mock ups of each, line them up along the wall and then Hugh Hefner and his art directors would walk up and down eliminating one after another.  This was expensive and time consuming but the final magazine cover would be a great one.  Fans used to be able to look at a Playboy cover and say, “Right – March of 1989” or whatever.  Playboy covers were distinct, identifiable and became collector items.

A bright colorful cover featuring a sexy subject – obeys all the rules.

Playboy never made the mistake of having this month’s cover look too much like the last one.  When readers glance at a magazine on a newsstand they should be able to know immediately if they are looking at a new issue or an old one.  If not they are likely to not check out the issue and look at some other magazine instead.  Plus, if covers look too much alike readers are liable to assume the rest of the contents are also like the last and be less interested in buying that issue.

Marilyn Monroe on LIFE Magazine Covers, 1952-1962 (1)
A BW photo works with an iconic subject like Marilyn Monroe.

Another factor is simply the impact  of the cover photo itself – both the quality of the photo and the subject matter.  One question to ask is whether the cover would make a great poster, something you could hang on the wall and look at every day.  The cover actually is a poster of sort – a poster promoting that issue of the magazine.  So the better the image the better your chance of selling a lot of copies.

But there is content as well as execution.  An art director from People once did an interview explaining how surprising it could be which celebrities on the cover would sell the most copies.  I had the same kind of conversation with somebody from a poster company who told me the company would published ten posters and find only two or three were really best sellers.  And a few hardly sold at all despite being images of celebrities. So a lot of success is based on experience, judgement and a certain amount of luck.

Angelina Joie is on so many covers because she always sells copies of magazines.

Cover content should be based on selling to the widest range of potential readers.  A car magazine might contain a great article on a Toyota but they are most likely going to put a Ferrari or other sexy auto on the cover.  There may be a market for a variety of subjects a magazine is dealing with but creating a cover the is too specific can fail to attract the widest range of buyers.

So what can be conclude about the best kind of magazine cover design?

  1.  Covers should be bright and stand out from a distance.
  2. Covers should feature the best possible quality photo.
  3. Covers should look very different one issue to another.
  4. Cover subjects should appeal to a wide variety of readers.
  5. Covers featuring celebrities have an advantage.
arnold rolling
Sports celebrities have a lot of fans and always help to sell magazines.

The quality and impact of covers is just one factor in the success of magazine sales.  But it is an important one and something fully under the control of publishers, editors and art directors.

Bill Dobbins



 This post is intended to educate and inform on photography and the history of photography and to lend critical insight into the nature and cultural impact of photographs.  Images are published pursuant to the Fair Use except to the copyright act.  If any copyright holder objects to this use the images in question will be promptly removed.

This photo of a young Afghan refugee created one of the most successful covers of all time.