An Integrated Magazine Cover

Journal of Magazine and New Media Research, 2002

An Integrated Magazine Cover
from the 1990s

Gerald Grow
Florida A&M University

Sidebar to “Magazine Covers and Cover Lines: An Illustrated History,”
Journal of Magazine and New Media Research, 2002.

This Redbook of November 1996 can serve as an example of a magazine cover that is representative of a major trend at the end of the 20th century.

The cover is illustrated with a single large and striking photograph — a full-body shot, but one in which the model has arranged herself in an unusual posture that at once conveys great ease and intense energy.

The pictorial composition which produces this effect is based on an underlying spiral structure which begins at her head and descends, counterclockwise, around her right arm, around the back and across her right leg. The effect is of a coiled spring — yet a spring that is securely, comfortably held in place by the casual draping of the hand and foot, and controlled by the friendly intensity of the face.

It is, all in all, a remarkable photograph — but, by the standards of magazine covers of the 1990s, it is just another example of the flood of remarkable photographs one sees every month. Its purpose is to produce not only an image with appeal to the readers of this magazine, but to leave room for cover lines. Models pose, and photographers shoot, in an environment of imagined typography.

Characteristic of the covers of the 1990s, this one uses color in a deliberate, communicative manner. Here, color communicates a harmonious dynamism that extends the atmosphere created by the photograph. The designer has created a sense of harmony by blending the color of the model’s clothing into the color of the background: Near her right shoulder, she and the background are almost indistinguishable. The black of her eyes is picked up by the black of the type aligned with them. Colors harmonize; even the emphatic red has been chosen to blend with the lavender of her clothing and of the background. Nothing shouts; the blend of colors, like the pose of the model, projects a combination of vitality, confidence, and repose.

Note that many of the cover lines appear in the form of title and subtitle: “That Feels Great: The Sex Skill Every Woman Should Know,” “Too Busy to Breathe? How to Cut Your List in Half.” Widespread use of these kinds of cover lines is a late 20th century innovation. Note the subject matter of the cover lines:

  • relationship treated as a skill
  • working smart to improve yourself
  • help in handling the strains of being a woman, wife, and mother
  • beauty aids, but given with a care for frugality
  • parenting advice

When we look again at the combination of the photograph and the content of the cover lines, we can see that art and words combine to speak to the reader. Overall, the magazine promises readers specific, effective help with their lives. But it also speaks on a more personal, psychological level: The cover says, “We understand you. We appreciate what you are going through. We know who you are.” Even more specifically, the cover says, “We see you.” Taken as a whole, the cover communicates a warm understanding of its readers and clearly broadcasts its role in knowing, appreciating, and helping with their lives.

Now we turn to the topic that is guiding this analysis: The placement of cover lines.

Note first that the cover lines come in a variety of sizes, colors, and type treatments. In keeping with the harmonious sense of the cover, the type all comes from the same font or font family — something you can determine by examining key letters like “a” and “e.” But the typography appears in the variations of upper case, lower case, “title” capitalization, “sentence” capitalization (“How the former teen…”), no less than five distinct colors, and even a bulleted list (set horizontally).

Next, notice how type is used to create layers that produce planes of depth. The lavender field of the deep background provides the most distant layer. Second is “Redbook,” then the model’s head, which overlaps it. The fourth layer consists of the cover lines that overlAP Test, The model’s image to lie on top of it; within this layer, different colors and sizes of type produce considerable dynamic motion. The large size and bright type of “Beauty Bargains” pushes it forward still more into a fifth layer, and, amazingly, the word “Amazing” sits on top of that, for a sixth layer.

The model herself sits in a powerfully three-dimensional pose, with parts of her distinctly receding back (the right hand) or advancing forward (elbows, face, left foot). The spiral pattern of her posture is echoed in the placement of the type, which begins behind her head with the magazine’s title, moves across her right shoulder and arm into “How the former teen…” and sweeps down and forward into the line containing “Beauty Bargains,” which is pushed forward by her advancing leg. There is even potentially a little subliminal humor in placing the cover line “What to do when he won’t listen” directly in front of a leg that is in excellent kicking position.

For our purposes, the key to this cover (and the trend it represents), is the way it manages to place so many words around the picture. By my count, the cover contains 80 words in cover lines, not counting the logo and publication data. This is an amazing amount of text for a cover — and even more amazing is the way the cover and the words form a harmonious and effective whole. This paragraph, for comparison, also contains 80 words.

This cover practices a number of conventions that became widespread in commercial magazine cover design in the 1990s:

  • The model is turned, folded, or strongly cropped to make room for the cover lines.
  • Her head overlaps the logo. (Less often, the logo overlaps the head.)
  • A large cover line (I’ve called it the “subtitle”) cuts across the lower middle part of the cover, competing in size with the magazine’s title.
  • Cover lines appear in several fonts, sizes, colors, or styles.
  • The elements in the cover are carefully arranged to create the illusion of layers of depth — one element strongly suggesting that it is on top of, or behind, another. Often, this effect is accentuated by type that is overlapped (as in “Amazing” and “Beauty” on this cover).
  • There are often two columns of cover lines, plus another across the bottom or middle. Sometimes there is a small cover line above the logo.
  • Cover lines press in upon the cover model. They sit on top of parts of her body. The most expressive parts of her image are left uncovered, but we glimpse them through the screen of words, the labels and lists and contents that occupy the same air she breathes, so that the model’s charisma and the type’s vitality interpenetrate one another to create an aura of undefinable excitement around the topics inside the magazine.
  • Many covers, like this one, are color coordinated. All the colors, from background to logo to clothing to the colors of the typography, make up a harmonious whole.

Copyright 2002 by Gerald Grow






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