Magazine covers are a great opportunity to flex your creative muscles, but it can be difficult to know how to get started.

In this article we walk through the steps of creating a cover template for an adventure travel magazine in Adobe InDesign. We’ll demonstrate key cover design skills, such as establishing a visual identity for your magazine and selecting and editing images.

Whether you’re creating a foodie zine or fashion bible, this magazine cover tutorial will set you up with the key skills and know-how for adapting your layouts to different styles and content. You’ll learn how to format typography to a professional standard, incorporate attention-grabbing color into your cover, and edit images to give them a 3D look that jumps off the shelf. You’ll also learn about techniques for making your cover extra noticeable, with special touches that attract and hold a reader’s attention. Let’s get started!

magazine covers indesign stylish

1. How to Set Up Your Cover Template in InDesign

For this tutorial you’ll need access to Adobe InDesign for setting up the cover layout, and Adobe Photoshop for editing your cover images.

magazine cover wave travel indesign

Step 1

Here we’ll set up a simple template for just the front cover. You can later expand the page to include a spine and a back cover; we’ll look at just how to do that a little later in the tutorial.

Open up Adobe InDesign and go to File > New > Document.

In the New Document window keep the Intent set to Print and from the drop-down Page Size menu choose US Magazine. Alternatively, type in 213 mm for the Width and 276.5 mm for the Height.

US magazine

Set the Margins to 12 mm on all sides, and type in 5 mm into the first Bleed text box. Click on the chain icon to the far right of the bleed text boxes to allow you to type in a different value for the Left (‘inside’) edge of the page. Set this to 0 mm. This will allow you to expand the page leftwards later, while retaining the accurate dimensions of your front cover.

new document

Click OK to create your cover template.

Step 2

The key to creating an easy-to-edit magazine cover is layers. Layers help you to organize the elements on the page and allow you to edit content without mistakenly disturbing features lying above or below. This suggested sequence of layers will work well for any cover style and makes a great foundation for moving forward with your design.

Expand the Layers panel (Window > Layers). Double-click on the Layer 1 title in the panel to rename it as Background.

Click on the Create New Layer button at the bottom of the panel to create a second new layer above the first. Double-click the default name, as before, to rename it, this time as Typography Behind. Create two new layers, first Image in Front, and finally Typography in Front at the top of the pile.

layer options

Lock all the layers, except Typography Behind, by clicking in the blank square space to the left of each layer’s name in the panel.

typography behind

2. How to Create a Brand Look for Your Cover

Magazines use all sorts of different typefaces on their covers, which are designed to attract attention from the right readership. Whether you opt for a traditional serif typeface to make a title appear aspirational or serious, or a modern sans serif for a more contemporary, easygoing vibe, it’s a good idea to test different typefaces on both the computer and in a market research setting to see if you’re on the right track.

magazines on shelf

Now you have a basic cover template set up, organised into a sequence of layers, you’re ready to start designing the look of your magazine cover. Once you’ve established a strong type style for your magazine, you’ll find that dropping in different images and color for different issues will be a breeze. Let’s take a look at where to begin, and how to select and format suitable typography for your magazine’s title.

Here I’ll use the example of a fictional new magazine called Wave, a travel magazine aimed at lovers of adventure travel and outdoor sports.

Step 1

First, we need to create the title of our magazine at the top of the cover.

With the Typography Behind layer unlocked, take the Type Tool (T) from the Tools panel and drag across the top of the page to create a generous text frame.

Type in the title of the magazine into the frame. You can adjust the formatting of the text from either the Character Formatting Controls panel at the top of your workspace, or from the Character panel (Window > Type & Tables > Character).

title of magazine

A good rule of thumb is for the title to be sized at about two thirds of the width of the page. You can place it centrally, or as is more traditional for magazine covers, flushed to the left side of the page.

Setting the title in uppercase, by clicking on the All Caps button in the Controls panel, is a failsafe way of giving your title more impact.

Step 2

There’s an art to refining the typography of your title, and you might find that very subtle tweaks will make a lasting impression. Experimenting with the tracking (the space between all characters) and kerning (space between two single characters) can really refine your type, and help the title to look more logo-like.

typograph pro font

Here I’ve opted for a geometric sans serif font, Typograph Pro SemiBold, to give the magazine a bit more of a fresh, youthful feel. I reduce the kerning between individual letters by placing my Type Tool cursor between the relevant letters, and then reducing the Kerning using the Character panel.

title on cover

Step 3

Your magazine title should also have a subtitle, summarizing the magazine content or providing a motto for the publication. You can either set this in the same font as the title or choose a second, ‘B’-font, which has contrasting qualities to the ‘A’-font you selected for the header.

If you chose a sans serif, as I did, for your header, you might want to go for a serif for other type on your cover. This is a failsafe combination which looks great across all genres of magazines. Here, I’ve created a new text frame using the Type Tool (T) and set the text in Freight, set at a much smaller size.

subtitle in freight

Step 4

With the rulers visible (View > Show Rulers) drag a guideline down from the top ruler to the baseline of your subtitle.

show rulers

Use this guideline to place another text frame to the right of the subtitle, stating the issue number and date. To the top right of the cover you can add a text frame stating the price. You can also place a barcode below this if you like.

price of issue
layout with text

3. Choosing and Placing Your Cover Images

With the title typography in place for your cover, you’ve now got a flexible base template for creating a variety of different covers, simply by switching up the font color and cover image. You may want to File > Save As this template as a separate file, ready for opening fresh whenever you want to create a new cover for the same magazine.

Cover images play a huge role in drawing in readers, and are a great way of giving an issue a particular vibe. Picking the perfect cover image needn’t be overwhelming—once you set down a few rules all cover images should meet, you’ll be able to find the right image every time.

Let’s set down some of the rules while we browse for an image to use on the Wave cover…

Step 1

What makes a memorable cover image? Aside from an intriguing subject (e.g. a model in a provocative pose or an actor with a million-dollar smile), composition is one of the most important elements in choosing a fantastic cover image. If you want to use a shot taken at long distance, such as a landscape or group shot, you need to assess whether the image will work within the space allocated by your cover.

This shot of a hiker in a desert is an example of an image with great cover potential.

hiker in the desert

Sure, it may be oriented landscape rather than portrait, but when cropped to include only the hiker and a slice of dune and sky, it provides a dramatic composition, rich colors and plenty of space for placing text around it to advertise features and articles inside the magazine.

In your InDesign document, unlock the Background layer. Then use the Rectangle Frame Tool (F) to drag across the whole page, up to the edges of the bleed, to create a full-page image frame. File > Place, select your chosen image, and Open.

Double-click inside the image frame to directly select the image and move it around. You can resize the image by holding Shift and scaling the corner up and down, until you’re happy with the positioning.

placed image

Here I’ve found that where I want the image to be on the cover leaves me a gap of about 2 cm at the bottom of the cover. There’s a simple trick to extend the size of an image like this, without resorting to Photoshop.

Edit > Copy, Edit > Paste the image frame.

transform image

Then Right-Click (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac) > Transform > Flip Vertical, and move this flipped image below the original, until you have a seamless result.

flip vertical
layout so far

Step 2

Now you have your cover image in place you need to adapt the color of the title text to work better with the photo. Here the black text is simply disappearing into the page, so let’s look at making it pop instead.

You have a couple of options for choosing and creating custom colors for your cover. One is to use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to click onto a part of the photo to pick up the color.

color picker tool

Once the color’s been picked up you can double-click on the colored Fill (X) box at the bottom of the Tools panel to open up the Color Picker window. Click into one of the C, M, Y or K text boxes at the bottom-right of the window, then click Add CMYK Swatch and OK to create a print-ready color swatch.

color picker

You can access this swatch in the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches). To apply the color, select the text frame, and then click on the appropriate swatch title in the Swatches panel.

swatches panel

By using the Eyedropper Tool, you’ll create a color swatch that is complementary to your cover image every time. But if you want to create your own custom color, perhaps to create some contrast in your layout, that’s simple to do too…

Step 3

To create a custom color, click to open the Swatches panel’s drop-down menu at the top-right of the panel and choose New Color Swatch.

new color swatch

Set the Color Type to Process and Mode to CMYK, and then move the sliders around to create your perfect color result. Once you’re happy, click Add and then OK.

orange swatch

Here I’ve created a custom orange swatch (C=0 M=52 Y=74 K=0) and applied it to the title and price of my cover.

orange text

For added contrast I set the subtitle and issue number in [Paper] (white).

white text

Step 4

It’s super easy to adapt the color of your magazine title to your chosen cover image. Let’s take a look at another quick example.

Here I’m using this image of a diver. This image, like the dune photo we used earlier, also has fantastic potential as a cover image. When you want to use a close-up shot for your cover, say a portrait of a person, you can look out for a couple of key features to help you choose a great image.

diver portrait

Look for plenty of space around the person—do you have enough background to fill the cover when you scale the image up and down? Look for plenty of space around the top of the person’s head as well. You’ll want to be able to place the magazine title over the top of or behind the head without obscuring too much of the title or the person’s face.

Finally, look for a portrait that will engage with the reader. Almost all portrait shots on magazine covers will use show the person looking directly into the camera. This creates an immediate connection with the viewer. In addition, an smiling, welcoming expression is a great technique for making the reader feel happier and more comfortable when they look at the cover.

background layer

Here I place the image on the Background layer as before, and create a New Swatch in the Swatches panel. Inspired by the cool blue tones of the image I’ve opted for a pale turquoise shade, C=59 M=9 Y=25 K=0, which I then apply to all the text frames at the top of the page.

blue swatch

4. How to Take Your Images One Step Further With a 3D Effect

What is it that makes some covers really jump out at you? The answer is a surprisingly simple design technique beloved by magazine designers—pulling part of the cover image into the foreground gives covers an instant 3D effect and makes them extra impactful. Let’s walk through the steps of how to replicate this effect on your own cover layouts…

Step 1

In your InDesign document make sure you’re happy with the placement of your cover image. Allow the top of the person’s head to just skim behind the bottom edge of the magazine title. This is the section of the image we want to bring in front of the title, so make sure most of the title will still be visible.

Then lock the Background layer in the Layers panel and unlock the Image in Front layer.

image in front layer

For now, File > Save your InDesign document and minimize the window.

Step 2

Open up the original cover image in Adobe Photoshop.

Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to trace around the edges of the subject in your image.

lasso tool
refine selection

Don’t worry about making the selection too perfect—you can make the edge fit more tightly to the subject by clicking on the Refine Edge button at the top of the workspace once you’ve looped all the way around to create a whole selection.

refine edge

Once you’ve tweaked the Refine Edge sliders and you’re happy with the selection, click OK to exit the window. Then Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V (Windows) or Cmd-C/Cmd-V (Mac) to copy and paste the selection onto a new layer above.

transparent background

Switch off the visibility of the background layer and then head up to File > Save As, saving the image as a Photoshop (.PSD) file. This will retain the transparent background of your image.

Step 3

Head back over to your InDesign document. Working on the Image in Front layer, create a new image frame using the Rectangle Frame Tool (F). File > Place your saved Photoshop file, and scale the image until it matches the size and position of the subject in the image below.

image in front

It’s as simple as that! This really is an awesome technique for making your cover appear more 3D, and it takes next to no time to do.

final cover

5. How to Format Typography on Your Cover

How can you seal the deal with a potential reader, and entice them to pick up the magazine from the shelf? A great cover image plays a part in attracting the reader initially, but it’s the article teasers that really convince the reader to buy. Let’s look at how you should format the typography on your cover, and discuss top tips for choosing typefaces and playing with type size…

Step 1

Let’s head back to my dune cover for Wave.

OK, so it’s looking good but it’s perhaps a bit too minimal at the moment. What we can do is position enticing subheadings around the main subject of the image, and give the cover a sense of hierarchy. What I mean by this is that you want a main article teaser which is large and loud, dominating over other subheadings. Then you want the eye to follow a natural order of teasers, from the next largest down to the smaller subheadings. This is going to ensure that the reader will always have something to look at, allowing you more time to convince them to buy the magazine.

Return to the Layers panel and unlock the top layer, Typography in Front.

typography in front

Take the Type Tool (T) and create a generous text frame in the largest area of ‘white space’ (space which is free from busy elements; here the plain expanse of the sand dune will work perfectly) on the page. Type in the first part of your article teaser.

Remember when we talked earlier about selecting a ‘B’-font for the title of your magazine? This is the place to put it into more use. Here I’ve used Freight as before, but opted for the more headline-friendly Freight Big Pro. I set the text in a contrasting swatch ([Paper]) and create a second text frame below to complete the second line of the teaser, blowing this up even bigger by changing the Font Size in the Character panel.

article teaser

Hmm, OK, how can we make this even more attention-grabbing? A novelty typeface, like a brush script, handwritten font or typewriter style can really help your article teasers to ‘pop’. Here, I highlight just the word ‘HOT’ and set it in Edo, a free-to-download brush font.

edo brush script

To add even more emphasis to words you can also adjust the color to create added contrast. Here I set ‘HOT’ in a bright red, C=3 M=88 Y=81 K=0.

red swatch

Complete the teaser with a text frame explaining the article and perhaps directing to a page number (a perfect call to action for the reader). Here I’ve set it in Garamond Italic to add legibility and elegance.

garamond pro italic

Step 2

With your boldest article teaser established you’re ready to create the second most eye-catching teaser in your hierarchy.

Find a suitable blank area of the page again (don’t worry about crossing text over the top of a subject; as long as the main part of the subject is visible this won’t effect the impact of your cover image).

Take your ‘B’-font again (here, Freight Big Pro) and create another series of text frames, setting each word or line of text in a new frame to give you flexibility with moving it around. As long as you use your more conventional ‘B’-font you can make this as large as the first teaser. Keeping the font conventional and color pared back will keep this as the second teaser that the reader will read.

swatches panel

Step 3

Fill up remaining white space with smaller teasers. With the text set to smaller size you can increase the amount of text, allowing you to write up a slightly longer summary of these articles.

character panel

Again setting these teasers in your ‘B’-font and in subtle colors will help to establish a strong hierarchy on the page.

magazine cover wave travel indesign

6. How to Expand Your Cover For Printing

Your front cover is looking awesome, great work! When you’re happy with your layout you can expand the design into a full cover, including a spine and back cover. You can send this straight off to the printers, who will print your cover as a separate sheet and bind the inside pages to it.

Step 1

Before you expand your cover, head up to File > Save and then expand the Pages panel (Window > Pages).

Drag your front cover page down onto the Create New Page button at the bottom of the panel to create a duplicate of the cover. We’ll expand this version of the cover, while keeping a copy of the front cover alone on Page 1.

copy page

We will need to calculate the total width of the cover which includes a reverse side, front side and spine. The width of your spine will depend on the number of pages in the magazine, as well as the weight of paper used for the inside pages. Your printer can advise you on these technical factors and provide you with a specific spine width.

Let’s say this issue of Wave magazine will be 125 pages in length, and therefore have an approximate spine width of 5 mm. Therefore the total width of the cover will be:

Front (213 mm) + Spine (5 mm) + Reverse (213 mm) = Total Width (431 mm)

Take the Page Tool (Shift+P) and click anywhere onto Page 2 to select it.

page tool

At the top of the workspace type in the new width (here, 431 mm) into the W text box. The page will expand to the new length. If you need to shift the front cover content back over to the right side, unlock all the layers, select all and drag over to the right side until it meets the right-hand bleed edge.

expanded page

Step 2

From the left-hand ruler pull out a guideline to X position 213 mm, to mark out the edge of the back cover and spine.

guideline for spine

Go to File > Document Setup. In the window that opens adjust the Left Bleed to 5 mm. Click OK.

document setup

Now you can place content on the reverse of your cover (often this is used to place a full-page advert), and on the spine of the cover.

reverse of cover
spine of cover

Step 3

Remember that you will also need to place content on the inside of your cover, which will form the first and last pages of your magazine.

To create the reverse side, drag Page 2 down onto the Create New Page button in the Pages panel to duplicate it. From there, you can edit the content as you desire.

inside of cover

Step 4

With your full cover finished you’re ready to send it off to the printer’s, fantastic work!

Go to File > Export, and choose Adobe PDF (Print) from the Format drop-down menu at the bottom of the Export window.

In the Export Adobe PDF window that opens, choose [Press Quality] from the Preset drop-down menu at the top. Make sure the Range (under Pages) is set to 2-3, to include both the front side and reverse side of your cover sheet.

export to pdf

Click on Marks and Bleeds in the window’s left-hand menu. Check the All Printer’s Marks and Use Document Bleed Settings boxes, before clicking Export.

marks and bleeds

Ta-dah! Your cover is exported and ready for sending straight off to the printers!

final magazine designs indesign

Moving Forward With Your Cover Designs

In this tutorial we’ve looked at the whole process of creating an engaging, saleable magazine cover in Adobe InDesign, from setting up a reusable template to exporting your layout for professional printing. We’ve looked at some pro techniques and tips for designing eye-catching covers, including:

  • Creating a ‘brand look’ for your magazine by establishing gorgeous typography for your magazine title
  • Switching up the look of your covers dramatically by adjusting color and images
  • Choosing cover images that work perfectly for the cover, whether it’s a landscape shot or an engaging portrait
  • Editing portrait images to give them a jumps-off-the-page, 3D look
  • Formatting enticing typography on the cover and creating a hierarchy of article teasers
  • Expanding your cover to a full-width wrap-around cover with a reverse cover and spine

With these skills under your belt, you should now feel confident in tackling more magazine design projects. And above all, remember to have fun with designing your layouts — magazine covers are an especially creative part of graphic design, and choosing great images and typefaces is all part of the fun!