What makes a cover?

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The process of creating a noteworthy cover for media in the 21st century

By Sanzana Syed

At first glance, the white September 2001 The New Yorker flag starkly contrasts the black, and each letter can be seen from a distance. It’s award-winning simplistic, moody design set it apart from the rest.

The moment someone picks up the cover. The front page is monochrome, and two jet black blocks are in the centre of the page. The block on the left has a skinny antenna that stretches across the ‘W’ in the title.

“9/11/2001,” by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, September 24,w2001 (Courtesy The New Yorker)

The image becomes clear. The New Yorker’s September issue in 2001 is a glaring statement about 9/11 and the Twin Towers. The magazine is known to break boundaries of design in order to captivate their readers and get their message across.    

Some adhere to tried and true rules of design. Others took advantage of new trends.

For example, holographic prints are rare to find on movie posters or novels. They’ve been around since the 1920s according to a Creative Market article, a platform for independent creators to sell their designs online. Now, the holographic design is mostly seen in fashion and beauty.

Covers are designed based on the contents inside a form of media, whether that’s a magazine, a novel or a movie poster. They reflect what an audience is going to expect prior to purchasing a copy.

According to Bianca DiPietro, the program coordinator of graphic design at Humber College, there are eight elements of design: colour, line, shape, texture, space, balance, form and harmony.

According to her, there are two key elements of a cover, photography and typography.

DiPietro was an editorial designer at Clean Eating magazine in Mississauga for two years before she began teaching at Humber. One of the first things she had to do while designing a cover was to plan ahead on the imagery that would bring all the stories together, without losing that graphically enticing element.

When photographer Steve McCurry took a young girl’s picture one morning in Pakistan, he created an image that would captivate millions around the world. The haunting green eyes that stared out from the June 1985 cover of National Geographic belonged to an unknown refugee who for 17 years was identified simply as the “Afghan girl.” She has since been located and was once again featured on the magazine’s cover in April 2002. (Courtesy National Geographic)

National’s Geographic’s cover photo of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl” in 1985, is an impactful photo according to DiPietro. She says the facial expression of Gula draws her in. It’s strong, almost shocking in a way at how intense her stare is. Gula is looking directly into the camera and although DiPietro says the photo quality isn’t great, the direct eye contact Gula has with the reader is powerful.

With regards to typography, it goes back to when DiPietro discusses the elements of design. Typography has to balance with the photo or it can stand on its own. An example DiPietro uses for her students are newspapers because they are crammed with content and use up every inch of space. Nothing is wasted.

“There is the odd time where you’re flipping through the newspaper where you get a full-page ad and it’s got like one word. You completely stop right there. It’s totally the opposite effect of what you expect.”

Before tackling a design, DiPietro browses the web to look for current trends to see how she can recreate them.

The design industry follows a schedule to revisit and revise original work in order to produce the best product.

“Design is an iterative process meaning the first thing you create is not going to be the best thing. The best work comes out of weeks of trial and error,” she says.

Covers have to stand out. Book covers, for example, have to make someone stop in a bookstore, where a plethora of novels rest. According to Doris Chung, the founder and consultant of Publisher Production Solutions, a print and publishing agency in Toronto, book covers must be able to do the following: stand out in a sea of books, convey what the content of the book is about, and convince the someone to buy it.

Chung is a third-generation book printer who prints books, self-publishing materials for entrepreneurs and authors and marking materials like large format print.

In 1954, her grandfather founded Everbest Printing Investment Ltd. in Hong Kong where she worked alongside him as a Canadian representative before she decided to open up her own business in Toronto.

Chung oversees the design process for non-fiction book covers such as Abby Lou Walker’s, Strap on a Pair. Non-fiction novels don’t always use photographs on the cover, apart from biographies, which typically feature a photograph of the subject. It’s more graphically designed with colour and typography.

Chung says colour on a book cover can either convey emotion or be designed to stand out. But with novels, fonts on the cover should be consistent with the formatting inside the pages.

Cost and prices vary for authors depending on different publishers. Editing, ghost writing, or writing coaches/consultants cost about $3,000, making it the most expensive investment when writing. Next comes the cover design and interior design of the book, where Doris recommend her clients should at least be spending $1,000 on. And finally, marketing, which may cost more than the above combined.

“If you don’t have a good book cover, you have nothing to market, nothing to sell,” she says.

With her company at PPS, the starting rate at $1,000 allows them to purchase a stock image to suit their client’s material and hire an illustrator(s) to help design the cover. If there is a particular vision and Chung’s company doesn’t have the necessary materials to make it happen, more money is invested to hire people who can.

Whether an author decides to spend $50 or $1,000 on the design of the cover, Chung says, it depends what materials and people are working behind the cover. Some authors are confident in their design skills, which is why only a small portion of money is spent on just a photo.

Others let publishers have full control of their cover where they say, “you’re hired, here’s the book, you design it,” Chung says.

Photo by Sanzana Syed

According to Stefanie Neves, a wedding photographer at Rosewood Wedding Photos, a lot of wedding magazine covers try to feature messages like, “this is what your wedding could look like,” but genuine emotion is what Neves is drawn to when looking at covers.

“Because everything else is just so staged,” Neves says. “Having something actually from a wedding is eye-catching because it’s so different.”

What Neve’s company looks for are moments that can be captured naturally.

When Neves and her team, her boyfriend Ethan and their close friend Hannah, graduated together in photography at Sheridan College in 2015, they knew they wanted to team up together. One of their favourite photoshoots when they started their career featured an older couple in their 80s. The photo is in black in white with the couple’s hands and their wedding bands in focus, resting on the bride’s knee.

The company aims to make couples’ photos look timeless. According to Rosewood Wedding Photos 2018 Wedding Guide, a guide they’ve been designing for clients, it explains that bright colours and logos are a no-no for wedding shots. A hot pink tee becomes the centre of focus, not the couple. However, Neves says that adding a pop of colour for magazine covers is very attractive and eye-catching.

Jeff Pestell, a creative director of Champ and Pepper, was a guest speaker for one of DiPietro’s classes to discuss film posters. Pestell works for a design and production agency that specializes in designing materials for a movie release such as movie posters and trailers.

According to DiPietro, Pestell has this theory that people are trained to know what a movie poster looks like. Movie poster designs are quite similar to each other when compared to alike genres.

“People are accustomed to seeing things a certain way. They’re more inclined to be like, ‘that really looks like that previous movie I saw, you know what? I’ll probably love this one because it looks similar to what I’ve seen before,” Pestell says.

DiPietro didn’t realize this at first, she says. This “comfy aspect” as she calls it, where people are trained to familiarize movie posters with other ones and trust that because it looks similar it will be just as enjoyable.

Photo by Sanzana Syed

Pheinixx Paul, the program director for graphic design and interactive media at the Toronto Film School (TFS) has been in the graphic industry for 25 years. Here in Canada, she has worked with GustoTV, Warner Bros. Music and Fashion’s Night Out. Paul has also has designed layouts and graphic materials for Vogue, ELLE, InStyle and GQ.

Paul uses The Ring as an example of how it’s an iconic movie poster. It’s a recognizable graphic, an imperfect glowing ring against a dark background. It’s simple and mysterious, she says, and that’s makes consumers intrigued by the poster to find out more about it.

Paul also says celebrities on movie posters are another thing people gravitate to fans who’ve seen their favourite actor or actress in a previous movie are more likely to watch another movie they’ve featured in. These are most commonly seen in superhero movies from the DC and Marvel movies. Chris Evans is usually associated as Captain America or Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk.

According to Paul, independent designers are recreating movie posters on social media. She mentions Peter Majarich, who took a creative challenge to redesign one movie poster a day for 365 days using the hashtag, #amovieposteraday. Majarich’s Instagram as well as his site features many recreations of film posters such as The Godfather, Battleship and Finding Nemo. Paul’s hope for poster designs in film in the future are less of an advertisement and more of something that tells a story.

Jeff Pestell, a creative director of Champ and Pepper, was a guest speaker for one of DiPietro’s classes to discuss film posters. Pestell started working at the company when it was launched back in 2015 and it’s a design and production agency that specializes in designing materials for a movie release such as movie posters and trailers. He’s worked for the biggest Canadian distributors in film and television for the past 16 years, such as Entertainment One and Alliance Films Inc.

According to Pestell, he has this theory that people are trained to know what a movie poster looks like. Movie poster designs are quite similar to each other when compared to like genres.

“This is why you would see comedy posters look very similar,” he says. There’s a couple of big heads with the big stars and a big red title on a white background. “It’s become a staple for that genre.”

Using that as an example, Pestell says that if someone was starting to release or promote a new film, they shouldn’t deviate from that look. People accustomed to seeing things a certain way are are more inclined to see a movie that looks similar to another.

“With such a crowded marketplace, so many films, whether you’re looking in theatres or iTunes for example, audiences don’t spend much time in the decision-making involved cruising through Netflix and just scanning title after title. And what you’re looking at the poster and that’s it. You need to have design there that suggests something to the viewer that, ‘ah, this reminds me, consciously or not of some other film and I enjoyed that, therefore, let me find out more.’”

Like Paul, Pestell agrees that there are more accessible ways to create content. He mentions Steven Soderbergh, a huge director who shot a film entirely on an iPhone.

“What this means is that content is something that is open to more creators,” Pestell says.

Pestell continues on to say in order to find people who can create this content, people need to be able to stand out and this is where design comes in.

He says a movie poster is essentially a book cover. People are taught as kids to not judge a book by its cover when it’s actually the opposite. People do judge films by their posters to determine whether or not they’ll be buying a ticket or not. Because of this, he says there will be no shortage of design in the entertainment industry going forward and cover design in general.

The New Yorker is known to break rules of design and by going outside the box, they have a number of bold, powerful covers that many are drawn to. It’s one of the magazines that uses illustrations instead of photographs on their covers.

Doing a quick search online about the elements of design, not everyone has the same opinion about it. There are no set rules. Trends change and people change their opinions.

“Design is subjective,” DiPietro says. Even if there are eight design elements she’s guided by, she believes having a difference in opinions is actually helpful for design.

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