The Five Most Egregious Magazine Covers of 2016 (S0 Far)

There are now so many ways for a magazine to brand itself. There is, of course, the print edition. Even for the most digitally savvy publication, everything usually starts there. But there’s also the web edition, the mobile edition, the digital replica. Then there are the social media feeds, events, videos and newsletters. So which comes first?

I don’t think I know anymore. But one thing that has not changed is the magazine cover. Think of it as the front door to a magazine brand. Sure, it means very little for the reader who drops into the website (In fact, on many magazine websites, you have to work hard to even find a mention of the magazine). Subscribers, be they print or digital, have already ponied up money for the magazine so they’re going to get that issue no matter what.

So why, even in this day and age, is the cover so important?

Because it is the front door of the magazine. It says to potential readers who you are, what you are about. What’s in between the covers.  Most importantly, if your reader picked up the magazine at the newsstand, they paid full cover for that one issue.

Sure, you could have subscribed to Entertainment Weekly  for one year for $5.00. But if you went to the newsstand and picked up the June 17 issue with the TV show Mr. Robot on the cover you paid full price, $4.99, for that one issue. So that means you must have really liked Mr. Robot and Entertainment Weekly. Right?

As far as I am concerned, there is little more unsettling in the world of cover design when a well known magazine blows a flat note and puts out an unattractive cover. What were you thinking? Why did you do that? Sometimes it’s groupthink. Sometimes it’s an experiment that just went wrong. Sometimes it’s just that there was nothing else to work with.

Last year, the Foredeck introduced the “Most Egregious Cover of The Year” of the year. The response from readers was pretty interesting. Now that we’re halfway through this year I thought I’d share with you what I think (You’re entitled to your own opinion of course) are the covers that that have made me wrinkle up my nose and wonder what went wrong.

For your consideration:

5. Outside Magazine, May 2016

The only real issue here is the simple fact that you have to stop and squint to read part of the cover line. What they were trying to tie together was the National Parks 100th anniversary and their list of 100 things to do in the national parks. Most likely this looked way better on a computer screen than it did printed on paper and placed on a newsstand.

Fortunately for Outside, they publish twelve times a year and from my perspective they usually hit triples and home runs.

Swing and a miss.


4. DuJour Magazine, Summer 2016

Let’s leave aside the potential political debates about this issue. They are immaterial for the purposes of this particular post. Sometimes black and white covers can work well. Heck, the Foredeck has listed some in times past. But there’s just something creepy and foreboding about this particular one. Even if Donald Trump weren’t running for president, the image of him lurking in the background is just….off.

Don’t look over your shoulder Melania….


3. W Magazine, June 2016

File under “An Unlikely Mess.” Who doesn’t love English model-actress Cara Delevingne? But why dress her up as an emoji? Let’s hope her new movie does better.

W Magazine June 16
Not so sure I ❤ this…


2. Vogue Magazine, May 2016

Taylor Swift and Vogue have a long history together. I made their February 2012 cover featuring Taylor Swift as my #1 cover from the Foredeck that year. Usually Swift on the cover is instant attraction on the newsstand. It’s not that one of the most popular and powerful singers in the world can’t go out and change up her look. But in this photo, otherworldly looks unrecognizable. I’m not opposed to red backgrounds. In fact I love primary colors in the background. But this one….

Vogue May 16
…not so much.

1. Chicago Magazine, January 2016

To me Chicago Magazine is the epitome of a successful city book. I look for the latest edition of Chicago Magazine every month when I’m out at retail. Usually their covers are reliably good. It’s as if they take to heart every single CRMA presentation ever given and then make it better. “Top Doctors” editorial is generally a top newsstand seller for most city publications. Most “Top Doc” covers feature some sort of generic doctor on the cover so it’s understandable that Chicago tried to do something creative. But this?  Should we call Spiderman and let him know that Doc Ock has invaded the Second City?


Chicago Mag Jan 16
Paging Dr. Octavius!

The good news is that for every flop of a cover, there is usually a redeemer or two. Chicago Magazine has published several very good covers since January 2016 and for the record, may I show you what I think is one of the very best covers of 2016, Chicago Magazine’s July 2016 cover. Featuring a puppy.

ChiMag Jul 16
Who doesn’t love a puppy?

Just remember. The cover is the front door. You want curb appeal. You want people to spend full freight on that copy. You want them to love it so much that they’ll turn around and subscribe. And subscribe to the newsletter. And pay for a ticket to your event. And buy your “Buyer’s Guide.” And subscribe to your YouTube feed.

More puppies. Less octopuses.



The Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2011: The Completely Biased, Highly Subjective and Unscientific List

Every year around this time, newspapers, magazines, blogs and digitally based publications swamp us with their “Top Ten” lists. They cover everything from ‘The Year in Review’ to what not to wear to a holiday party to the ‘Hottest Songs of the Year”. Inevitably, we come across the “Top Magazine Covers” of the year.

The presentations are interesting and offer up very attractive covers. But they’re rarely from the perspective of people who have to work with the results of the art and editorial departments. You know, the circulation folks. You know, those guys and gals at the back of the office? The ones that flinch every time the CFO walks by?

Halfway through this year, the Foredeck posted what we thought were the best covers so far.

So what’s changed? Who stayed on top from that list? Who’s dropped off and who’s been added? You’ll see below. And because there were so many really great covers put on the newsstands this year, I decided to add a new category: “Honorable Mentions”.

1. Vogue Magazine – January 2011 Featuring Natalie Portman: When I first saw this cover a year ago, I swore it was one of the best covers I had ever seen. Only two other covers have ever affected me like that: A neon colored Vanity Fair cover of rock stars, and a Chicago Magazine whimsical creation that offered up the “Secrets of the City”. The coloring, the positioning of the actress, the class and elegance that exude from this cover are the elements that do it for me. Heck, I actually bought a copy! And no, it wasn’t the best selling cover of the year. But it did well.

Vogue's Natalie Portman cover gets first position in the life boat.

2. Interview Magazine – September 2011 Featuring Anne Hathaway: This fascinating cover made it on my October “Two More Contenders For Best Cover of the Year post from October. I hadn’t paid any attention to Interview Magazine on the racks for a number of years, but this cover was front and center and jumped off the rack at me. Generally I warn clients to stay away from arty black and white covers. But the editors at Interview have clearly figured it out. Guess what? This does appear to be one of the best selling issues of the year.

Looks like Anne get's a seat next to Natalie!

3. Outside Magazine – May 2011 Featuring Steven Colbert: I pointed out in my June “So Far” review that aside from the great cover image, one of the selling points for me on this cover was Outside’s use of the skyline above their logo. They use it well. Moreover, while this longstanding newsstand favorite uses a lot of cover lines, their lines for the Colbert story are clever and funny without being too cute. That’s rule #1 in my book for cover lines. You can always be too cute. Was this one of their best selling covers of the year? No, it was not. Didn’t I say this was subjective and unscientific?

We'll let the Comedy Central funny man steer the lifeboat, but he loses points for a low sale. It happens sometimes.

4. Bullett Magazine – Vol. #4 Featuring Saoirse Ronan: This  magazine lives in a well traveled niche covering the world of fashion, art, music, film and entertainment. They compete directly with the likes of Interview Magazine in a category that is so crowded, you have to ask what makes you so different? Your editorial will certainly differentiate you but how do you grab readers from a crowded bookstore newsstand? If you’re Bullet, produce cover after elegant cover with the newest stars. Volume 3 features a close up of the striking Irish actress Saoirse Ronan of Hannah.

Yes, it does appear to be on of their better selling issues this year.

Bullet Magazine Vol. #3

5. Esquire Magazine – May 2011 Featuring Jeff Bridges: I’ve liked just about every single cover that Esquire has produced this year. Even the much hyped but underperforming Brooklyn Decker feature from February actually sold better than this cover. But I chose it to illustrate how even a middling performing cover from Esquire has all of the elements that make a good cover. A great image, cover lines that inspire and ask you to pay attention, good use of color, and a kick you in the seat of your pants use of the skyline. And this year I officially became an old guy so Jeff’s my guy.

We could give Esquire their own lifeboat.

6. Entertainment Weekly – March 17 Featuring Nathan Fillion: There is absolutely nothing wrong with this cover featuring Castle start Nathan Fillion. The colors are right. The cover lines scream exactly the right measure of “OMG” and “FTW”. The skyline has everything an entertainment junkie could like. Have I mentioned that Entertainment Weekly is my favorite magazine?

Keep flying. He will always be Captain Mal Reynolds to me. Maybe he should have taken the helm of the Titanic.

7. The Knot – Spring 2011 Issue: The Gown Guide enters it’s second year of higher frequency publication with a cover that I was sure would be a hard sell (Editor’s Note: XOXO Group is a client.). But look at that dress! And look at those blues! And look at those cover lines! Not only is this cover the best selling of the year, the sales volume in many of the largest retailers was through the roof. In this case, the ice berg warning from the Foredeck was pretty far off. Thank goodness!

The Knot scores with another killer cover.

8. Rolling Stone – May 12 Featuring Steven Tyler: Shouldn’t this magazine for aging Baby Boomers be as cringeworthy as a critique from the American Idol Judge and Aerosmith frontman? Well, no. I picked up this issue of the magazine because the image drew me in. What is Tyler looking at? What about “Game of Thrones”? Many publishers now do what RS does with their skyline, put three different stories up on top. They lose points for simply dropping names, but get them back for solid cover lines in the body and great images.

Steven Tyler on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

9. Kiteboarding Magazine – Feb/Mar 2011: This bi-monthly action magazine from Bonnier shows how to mix action, color  and the right way to to put multiple lines up on the skyline. Rather than simply list names (We’re talking to you, RS!), they let the action picture speak for itself and promise more action with cover lines like “24 Hot Kites” and “World Speed Record Broken”.

Kiteboarders don't need lifeboats.

10. Arizona Highways – September 2011 – Photography Issue:  I’m a huge fan of regional magazines and this venerable state publication shows another way to do a black and white cover that draws you in and says “Pick Me Up!”

You have to take a highway to get here.

But wait, there’s more!

Today’s social commentators have enormous fun pointing out that we live in the age of the participation trophy. Everyone’s special, therefore no one is special and all our standards have been lowered. Nonsense. There’s just a lot more of us now.

And there are more magazines than ever and more selections than ever. So this year, we made room on the Foredeck for some “Honorable Mentions” in the world of newsstand worthy cover images.

1st Honorable Mention. Newsweek -Feb 7, 2011 – Featuring the Egyptian Revolution: Hi Time Magazine! Yes, we’re talking to you.

Feeling a little anxious, are we?

2nd Honorable Mention. Portland (ME) Magazine – Sep 2011 – Featuring Patrick Dempsy: McDreamy goes to Maine? This small city regional manages to get it all right on one cover. A memorable image, great color; sharp, short, snappy cover lines. Oh yes, great skyline.

McDreamy has dinner in the 1st Class Dining Room.

3rd Honorable Mention. Juxtapoz Magazine -Apr 2011 -Featuring Art in The Streets. This one is counterintuitive. When the magazine first arrived in the office (Editor’s Note: I work for High Speed Productions, the parent company of Juxtapoz) my reaction was unenthusiastic. But every store that I visited that carried this issue had it out on the front lip of the front shelf. It was one of the best selling issues this year. Why? A memorable topic (Street Art), simple design, an online ad campaign to back the issue and an image that grows on you.

Art in the Streets sells off the racks.

4th Honorable Mention. Hour Detroit – Jun 2011 – Featuring The Best of Detroit. What I like best about this cover is how different it is from most typical “Best Of” covers. The illustration, the embracement of what makes Detroit a great city.

Hour Detroit's "Best Of" is a winner.

5th Honorable Mention. Lake Superior – Sep 2011: Well, why can’t the greatest of the Great Lakes have it’s own magazine? And why not a really colorful illustration that shows off the fun to be had?

The greatest of the Great Lakes shows off it's best stuff.

So there you have it. The best for this year and five “Honorable Mentions”. While beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, you should always keep in mind that you have many audiences for your cover. Newsstand cover design is a mixture of art, science, algebra, voodoo and strong opinions. For my short hand on how to develope a good newsstand cover, click here.

Are these your favorites? What are your selections for the best covers this year?

Want your own copy of this years’ list? Click here: 2011 Best Covers

The Completely Unscientific List of The Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2011: So Far

At the end of every year, magazines, newspapers, online news sites and blogs of every stripe list their “Top 10”, “Top 20”, “Top 100” lists on nearly every single topic that you can imagine. For the purposes of this blog, we’re mostly interested in magazines and magazine covers. Last year, we published a Completely Unscientific List of The Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2010 and the list garnered much traffic, email and comments.

So now that I’ve sent in my quarterly tax estimates, filed my June expenses, taken a look back at the first half of the year in a businessy kind of way, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the magazines that inspired me in the first half of 2011. What, in my opinion are the top covers?

Keep in mind that when I look at magazine covers I’m looking at them from the perspective of someone who relies on the ability of that magazine to be sold from the newsstand. It’s not all sex and cheesecake, people (although that sounds really good). It’s also about the ability of that cover to:

  • Speak to the audience the editors intend.
  • Clearly state what that issue is all about.
  • Show a clear, decisive, identifiable image.
  • Invite the browser to become a reader.

Because if the browser won’t buy what you’re selling, you’ve got nothing. Free’s wonderful. On the web. But at some point, you need revenue.

So here they are in all of their glory. My unscientific, totally biased and highly opinionated “Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2011: So Far”

January 2011 Vogue Magazine

1) Vogue’s January 2011 cover featuring Natalie Portman: For me, this is quite possibly one of the best covers ever. In some ways, the coloring seems all wrong and the cover lines violate my rule of “Too Much”. But from the moment I saw this magazine on the rack, I knew it was just simply an amazing cover. It is everything that makes Natalie Portman a movie star and Vogue the trusted and much loved fashion nameplate that it is. And while not the best selling issue of the year so far, it’s one of the best selling.

May 2011 Outside Magazine

2) Outside Magazine’s May 2011 cover featuring Stephen Colbert: What can you say about the Comedy Central funny man and his fantastically flexible face? Outside gets props for getting a celebrity on the cover and then featuring an article that is both funny and informative. And from me, they get props for the wonderful use of their skyline. Was this their best selling issue of the year?Ummm, near as I can tell, no. Did I say this was scientific?

May 2011 Esquire Magazine

3) Once again, Esquire Magazine’s May 2011 issue  shows why they get it when “getting it” means producing interesting, amusing, creative covers. Check out Jeff Bridges awesome pose, the great cover lines (“Are you a good husband?”), the use of the skyline.

March 25, 2011 Entertainment Weekly

4) My favorite magazine (Columns by Ken Tucker, anyone?), Entertainment Weekly, usually has forgettable covers. But this one had me geeking out with their March 25th issue. While I’m not a huge fan of the “Castle” TV show, Nathan Fillion’s pose, any mention of “Firefly”, is enough to get me to grab it off the rack. The colors are right, the pose is amusing, the coverlines read perfectly for the audience they are aimed at.

March 2011 Boy's Life

5) This offering from the Boy Scouts of America has changed dramatically from my days with Troop 32. I wasn’t even aware that they were on the newsstand until this March 2011 issue poked it’s cover at me one day. And by looking at it, you can see why. This is one great way to emphasize your “Top Tips” list and the fact that it’s a “Special Collector’s Edition”. Hopefully the increased sales this venerable magazine generated also brought them some more potential Eagle Scouts.

June 2011 Hour Detroit

6) The June issue of Hour Detroit exemplifies for me the best way for a regional magazine to promote their “Best of” issue. In a later post, I’ll cover my favorite “Best of” covers, but for now, just look at how Hour Detroit used color, what makes their city a great place, and how they try to generate excitement.

March 2011 National Geographic

7) In my mind, the continued success that National Geographic has on the newsstand with both their monthly magazine, the spin off titles, and their Book A Zines, shows how much vitality there still is on the newsstand and why we have to fight to make sure we merchandise and market our publications properly. This issue works simply because of the image on the cover. How can you not walk by this cover on a mainline rack and not be drawn into the penetrating eyes of this computer designed pet? And, there’s a free poster inside. See, in this case, Free=Revenue. Get it?

May 11, 2011 Rolling Stone

8) Leaving aside Steve Tyler’s cringeworthy comments in the latter episodes of “American Idol”, this long time frontman for Aerosmith is the perfect image for Rolling Stone and where it now exists as the longstanding magazine of record for both the Baby Boom generation, and the current chronicler of popular music and culture. This was issue #30 for May 11.

The Knot Magazine Spring 2011

9) Editor’s Note: I currently work with The Knot. When I first saw this cover, I was concerned because I hated the dress. In fact, my concerns were confirmed by an in-house focus group that consists of my high school aged daughter and her friends. On the other hand, everyone loved the colors and then grabbed the book off my rack and started flipping through it. Blue is a very effective background color. The coverlines are spot on for a bridal magazine: “800 Gorgeous Wedding Gowns” Yes, they are.  And the model, how can you not look at her smiling face and not smile back? Did I mention that so far, this is the best selling issue of the year? How about the fact that it may be the best selling Spring issue in several years? So yes, I was wrong and the art department at The Knot was right. And that is a very good thing. Wait until you see the Fall cover!

Bullett Magazine, Volume 3

10) Bullet Magazine describes it’s mission this way: “…inform, provoke, influence and enlighten through the medium of fashion, beauty, music, film, art, entertainment, lifestyle and travel…” In one way, art and fashion magazines in this category often trend towards the obscure in their cover images. But I’ve been watching Bullett this year and I am really impressed with how penetrating and creative their cover images are.

So what have we learned so far this year? The world of magazines is alive and perhaps better than advertised. Our industry is still struggling to recover from the downturn of 2008-2009. We lost ground while many of our premiere companies downsized as a result of a loss of advertising and circulation revenue. We lost experienced and talented marketers while these companies shed workers so they could pay off the oversized notes that were used to finance the mega mergers of the last few decades.

But a simple perusal of the racks shows that there’s never been a real lessening of interesting and compelling editorial writing and art. The presence of interesting and unique magazines like Bullett and the newly launched Carson Magazine indicates that there are audiences out there that still can be reached in this medium. That fact that long lived publications like Vogue, Esquire and National Geographic can still strum the strings of contemporary culture without appearing to try too hard shows that even these representatives of the larger publishing houses haven’t forgotten what they are about. Smaller publishing houses like The Knot have rolled the dice on increased frequency and expanded presence at the mainline and been rewarded with increased circulation.

So the next time someone tells you that print is dead and gone, that there is no future, that you’d better get on board and give it all away for free, pat him on the back, give him a lollipop, and while I don’t advocate this, you could unplug his router. But that would be cruel.

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