Few magazine cover designs are better than those of The New York Times Magazine. Excelling at a range of styles — photography, illustration, conceptual, minimalist — they continually stand out for their inventiveness and powerful visuals. With the new year upon us, we decided to look back at some of our favorite covers of 2014, and find out what goes into those beautiful images that greet you in the middle of the New York Times Sunday edition.
To do so, we spoke with Gail Bichler, the magazine’s talented Design Director. During our conversation, she revealed how to turn a complex argument into a succinct image, how to make the most of minimalism, and what every great cover should achieve.
Shutterstock: How far in advance do you know which article you need to design the cover for?
Gail Bichler: It all happens pretty quickly. We get maybe between two and three weeks notice, at the most. Sometimes we figure out the week that an issue ships that a certain story is going to be a cover.
What’s your process like once you find out?
We have an initial meeting where we talk about the subject and the most important angle. I find that you can read a story and get one thing out of it, but that may not be the main point you need to convey. So we have conversations about that. We usually do a brainstorming session about what the cover can be, then walk away and come back with other ideas. I really enjoy that process of having something in the back of my mind for a while to chew on. Sometimes we come back with something completely different from a concept we agreed upon in the initial meeting.
Your covers take really complicated ideas and arguments and visualize them in succinct, symbolic ways. How do you go about tackling that challenge?
You need to boil it down to: “What exactly are we trying to say with this?” Ideally a reader would look at a cover image and get a sense of what the main idea is. What really helps is having specific language to play off of. The editors are incredibly helpful in narrowing down that mark we’re trying to hit. Often, they’ll give us a sample working headline. That tends to be really helpful when you’re trying to come up with a cover concept, because there can often be multiple ways to approach something. By that same token, sometimes we end up coming up with a visual that approaches a story from a different angle.
The New York Times Magazine is somewhat unconventional — because it’s slipped inside the newspaper on Sundays, it doesn’t need to worry about things other magazines do, like a lot of text to explain what’s inside. Does that give you a lot of creative freedom?
We have a huge amount of creative freedom — not only in terms of what we pursue, but in terms of treatments. Lately, for example, I’ve been playing around a lot with obscuring the logo. That’s something you can’t do on a newsstand magazine as much. Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein has really embraced the idea that we are a non-newsstand magazine. It often means not asking for secondary text lines on the cover, but just going with the most compelling image that we have, which I think is a pretty bold move. That actually helps online when you see the cover. It’s very graphic and simple. I think that’s something that is working in our favor in terms of being a non-newsstand magazine.
I’d like to ask about a few specific covers from the past year, starting with the SAT cover. On The New York Times’ blog The 6th Floor, you mentioned that with this cover “all of the details became very important, from the style of the handwriting to the bite marks in the pencil.” Why are details like that so important?
When you’re doing a cover that’s really minimal, each element can have a large effect on the overall message. When you’re working with something so stark, those details make or break it. These things convey a mood or emotion. For this cover, we tried a lot of different styles of handwriting. Some of them looked too angry; some of them looked too sweet or stylized. With the bite marks, we also were trying to get just the right amount of angst. You want the right attitude.
I think the “Abortion by Mail” cover is the best magazine cover I’ve seen this year, especially because it tackles a difficult subject with just the right tone. How much do you think about tone when designing for a serious subject like this?
We think a lot about whether or not the tone is right. That starts off with the imagery, but it’s also something that we think about as we’re designing. We’re often really responding to the tone of a story or topic and trying to make something that feels appropriate. One of the things that I was trying to avoid in making this cover was something that felt like a gag. The story — the idea that you are being sent this envelope in the mail — was really serious. We had some iterations where the New York Times Magazine logo looked like it was printed on the envelope, or there were stickers on the envelope. When I first started marking up this cover, those things didn’t work. It felt like this needed to feel like a package and a serious magazine cover, not something that has the wrong tone or feels like a gimmick.
Switching to the opposite side of the tone spectrum: the Lena Dunham “Culture Issue” and the cover with the chimpanzee wearing a suit in a courtroom are really great out-of-the-box covers. When you come up with ideas like this with your team, do you ever have moments where you think, “Can we even do this?”
I do often find in this job that I’m doing things that I didn’t ever think I would be doing to make an image. So, we definitely have moments where we have to try and figure out how we can do something. The chimp, for example, is actually an animatronic chimp, and there was a lot of discussion on how to make that happen.
The “Culture” cover was also a bit scary for me and our photo department, because we had an artist that was melding two photos. Usually, you walk away from a shoot knowing whether or not you’ve got the shot. In this instance, it was so much about what the artist — Victoria Diehl — was going to do with it. I think it turned out great. What she did was very elegant and artful. In the wrong hands, that idea could have looked very, very different, and had the wrong tone.
Ultimately, what’s the goal you’re hoping to achieve with each cover?
We want to really engage someone and cause them to have a reaction. We approach these things as simple graphic posters. You want to draw a reader in and make them want to open the magazine.