Q. Jason, when I discovered that your job was to focus exclusively on creating covers for Maclean’s and Canadian Business, I got very excited. As far as I know, you are the only art director in Canada with such a focus. It seems to me to speak volumes about the importance Ken Whyte places on creating covers that sell. Do you have the best job in Canada?
YES I DO. But it’s actually a surprisingly complicated job if you read on..
Q. Working as you do on a weekly (Maclean’s) and a bi-monthly (Canadian Business) you need to crank out roughly 80 covers a year, plus SIP’s. How many variations do you mock up, on average, for each issue before getting down to putting the polish on the final product?
On average 35 distinct versions. On top of this the “polish” involves a lot of variations. It’s not uncommon to have a wall full of printouts of the cover even after the main image and headline have been decided upon.
Q. Congratulations on winning the Gold Award for best SIP for your amazing Micheal Jackson cover at the Canadian Newsstand Awards. It was great to see you mingling with all the circulation and newsstand folks that night. How do you think we can get more art directors to party with us circulation nerds?
Thanks. If you just want to party with Art Director types you could come over to the Communist Daughter on a non-weekend night. If you want to get a dialogue going I think your site is a great starting point. Art directors too often look at circulation, newsstand and publishers as being all about the numbers without realizing that their own work is underpinned by numbers. I think you can go too far trying to second-guess audience but “numbers” can be an amazing one way mirror for more artistic types.
Q. SIPs are all the rage these days, which I love, because they prove that vertical content has value, and that if packaged beautifully, they will pay a premium to get more, and to get a high quality magazine. Talk to us about the value proposition of magazines relative to a greeting card?
. I have a feeling that people are going to the internet for pure information and going to paper products when they want something to put on their coffee table, give as gifts, remember, hold on too etc. S.I.P.s have spines, metallic ink, a thought-out design, attention to typography, singular iconic images. They have a look that lasts and I imagine the good ones will just keep growing in the market. Various digital media are putting pressure on Art Directors and Editors to make magazines that you really want to get in your hands physically. I think that pressure is a good thing. I hand-make all my cards so I can’t speak to the greeting card market, but I really wish Gary Larson would come out of retirement.
Q. What are your 3 favourite covers you’ve done for Maclean’s, and why?
March 09, 2009 “Is democracy dying” It’s somehow dignified and shocking at the same time. March 15, 2010 Olympic SIP, looks utterly simple and obvious but it really captured something. Sept 13, 2010, “The Donut War” Iconic and funny…it’s got a punchy simplicity that worked. Right now, I ‘m most excited by Maclean’s
first ever large-format year in pictures. We’re going Hello!
sized format, kind of classic like those 1950s/60s Life magazine focusing on the images that shaped 2010, from Olympics to volcanoes to Obama to Haiti some really big events with extraordinary photography this year writ large.
Q. What are your 3 favourite covers you’ve done for Canadian Business, and why?
February 15 2010, “Is Apple Really a Threat to Blackberry “my own drawing, design and idea, and it sold well , August 16, 2010, “Retire Happy” A simple clean solution to provide an alternative to happy couple on a sunset beach. September 27, 2010, “Sex isn’t selling
” a good clean (yet sexy) solution to a cover story that’s not easy to sell.
Q. Who are some of the great magazine art directors whose work you’ve admired, and why?
. Leanne Shapton (gave me my start and shared her unparalleled intuition and purpose) , Antonio De Luca (How to really drive), Christine Dewairy (The voice of elegance), Una Janicijevic (undersung brilliance through details), Ken Whyte (a decisive eye in a grey world—and yes he is sort of an art director)
Q. Many of the top-selling covers (See my Hall of Fame section) of all time have been covers that have been controversial in some way…how important is that, not only to sales, but to keeping magazines vibrant, newsworthy, and essential?
I think that controversy is the by-product of vibrancy, newsworthiness and relevance. Humour is another by-product. Real discussion and debate is another. I don’t think that controversy in and of itself is much of a lasting goal for an Art Director or Editor.
Q. I’ve just completed a study of the past 11 years of Vanity Fair covers. When they get it right, they have sold over 700,000 copies, when they have gotten it wrong, as few as 260,000. At a $5.95 cover price, the stakes are very high, as millions of dollars can be made or lost simply based on the cover choice. Can you share with us a little bit about who gets invited to participate in the process at your shop?
Developing a cover always starts with the stories themselves. I then start looking at images, sketching out ideas to represent the stories with some help from our photo department. Then I print out a bunch of ideas, sometimes 50 or 60 possibilities. There are ten or twelve people in our cover meetings, mostly editors, occasionally writers and interns looking at cover possibilities and images on a wall as you would on the newsstands. I sort of take in all the voices and if I’m lucky, distill it down to just a few options. We also use some testing and polling to get a sense of our larger audience. At Maclean’s
especially it’s important to get a sense of what stories from the news are most interesting to people all over the country. I also look to our amazing art department for advice on making things work design-wise. Later in the process I spend a lot of time with Richard Reddit, our godfather of Photoshop. When our cover is looking pretty close we have a consumer marketing group that looks closely at all the covers from a newsstand perspective. I also work with incredible photographers, type designers, illustrators, and other experts depending of what the cover calls for. Ken Whyte is generally the final eye on all the work that I do at Rogers. And a keen one at that.
Q. Describe the three most important ingredients that need to be present to create a monster newsstand sale.
CLARITY and TIMING. But Clarity is a complicated ingredient which may contain mixtures of voice, humour, beauty, surprise, personal connection, tension, colour theory, sense of movement, narrative, etc.