Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Dave Donald Talks Covers

Dave Donald is the current art director of This MagazinePoint of View Magazine and Education Canada. He has been in publication design for over 20 years, working on magazines such as Chatelaine and Masthead. He is now a freelance design consultant and lecturer specializing in publication design. He is a four-time winner of Canada’s National Newsstand Awards.

At the 2013 MagNet Conference, Dave gave an inspired lecture. For those of you who missed it, I asked Dave if he’d submit to a five-question Q & A, which he kindly agreed to do.

Q#1:   In your session you talked about “covers as commerce”…can you expand on that for my readers?

 A #1:  The quote about “covers as commerce” comes from the noted American art director, Robert Newman (of VIBE, Village Voice, Details, etc. fame). What he meant by that was that design needs to take a backseat to the first priority of a cover, which is to sell magazines. I’ve always said that the front cover of your magazine is the most important sales tool for your magazine. Never lose sight of that as you create it.

 Q #2:  What are your three favourite covers that you have designed, and why?

 A #2:  This was my second cover for This Magazine. The lineup of writers was so strong I knew immediately that I’d go with an all type cover. My instincts were right as it had a 62% sell-through and went on to be a winner at the National Newsstand Awards. The colours were selected to create something bright and fresh while still allowing me to establish a clear hierarchy within all those type elements.

For The New Quarterly I wanted to create something elegant in a very repeatable format. The nearly square shape announced a dramatic change from this literary magazine’s more traditional trade paperback size. It was also the first issue with a four-colour cover. Once they saw how much better it looked, they never when back to their old two-colour format. It also has provided an opportunity to showcase the work of Canadian photographic artists.

Another all-type cover for This Magazine proved to be an additional hit on the newsstand and another winner of a National Newsstand Award. This one took longer to develop. We knew we wanted it to be all type but it developed slowly until we’d stripped it down to the basics. The only thing that got more complicated was the cow. The spots came later but they helped to bring the colours together.

Q #3:  Talk a bit about covers as posters, and covers as charts…

A #3: I referenced book jackets in my discussion of the need to look beyond magazines for inspiration. I wasn’t suggesting that anyone try to design magazine covers to like book covers. They could be useful in terms of interesting type treatments and images but not so much for the organization of information.

The famous Madison Avenue ad man, George Lois, revolutionized American magazine covers through his work with Esquire in the 1960s. He treated each cover as a poster to create maximum impact on newsstands. His famous cover from December 1963 created a sensation by placing Sonny Liston, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and one mean guy, on the cover wearing a Santa hat. There are no cover lines but the incongruity of the image would have been so powerful to the audience of 1963 that words would have been unnecessary.

Today Richard Turley has taken up the “cover as poster” baton at Bloomberg Businessweek to great acclaim.

Not enough has been done with the possibilities for the cover as chart. We live in the age of Big Data and the infographic has become a staple of the magazine format. A few notable examples of charts on covers are these issues of Time and Bloomberg Businessweek.

The venn diagram of the Time cover shows the closeness of the race in the last American presidential election and the importance of the undecided voters.

The Bloomberg Businessweek cover shows the colossal number of Facebook users (one billion) compared to anything else (e.g. 111.3 million Super Bowl 1212 viewers).

There are few examples of this new form of cover but I suspect we’ll see many more soon.

Q#4:  Talk a bit about the “ideal cover team.”

 A#4:  If you want to consistently create great covers then you need to assemble a great cover team. This group should include the art director, the editor and the publisher/marketer. I’ve created the term “marketer” to cover the marketing aspect in a small magazine. This is usually the publisher’s role. In larger magazines there may be a separate newsstand marketing position. In that case, this individual should also be part of the team. At This Magazine we have been blessed with a cover guru, Steve Trumper. He’s not a staff member but brings decades of newsstand experience to the table every time we meet to discuss our cover strategy.

Q #5:  What are your three favourite covers of all time, and why?

A #5: The famous Demi Moore cover was an event when it first hit the newsstands. It was outrageous to put a pregnant movie star on the cover of a magazine but Vanity Fair pulled it off with beauty and grace. It has been done to death since and the results pale by comparison with this gem by the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

This early Martha Stewart Living cover defies all the rules of cover line writing: it’s simply a list of what’s inside. However, the sunflower is so riveting that it must have shone on the newsstand. It’s also the opener for one of the most beautifully designed features I’ve ever come across. I never knew there were so many different kinds of sunflowers. But Martha knew.

This National Lampoon cover gets a hearty laugh every time I show it.  It’s what creating great covers is all about: it sells you on the magazine because who would want anything to happen to such an obedient pup?


- Scott Bullock
About Me
Scott Bullock

Scott Bullock is the the creator of Bullock has worked as circulation director for both consumer and B2B magazines including Toronto Life and FASHION. If you have a great cover to share, please send all submissions to 

Note to readers: some of Bullock's posts may refer to his clients.
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Kelly says:
Any news on how it performed on newsstands?...
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