Getting the Reader’s Attention: How Magazine Covers Do It

By Jack Limpert

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October 1976: The most controversial Washingtonian cover.

In the 1970s, Dick Stolley, founding editor of People magazine, came up with his laws of magazine covers. The laws included:
1. Young is better than old.
2. Pretty is better than ugly.
3. Rich is better than poor.
4. Movies are better than television.
5. Movies and television are better than music.
6. Movies, TV, and music are better than sports.
7. Anything is better than politics.
8. Nothing is better than a dead celebrity.

At the Washingtonian, we came up with almost 500 monthly covers in my time there and they were important to the magazine’s success. A good cover meant good newsstand sales, and the “Special Offer—Subscribe Now” cards in those newsstand copies brought in a lot of new subscribers.

Here are the suggestions I came up with in the 1980s to do the Washingtonian covers that sold well on the newsstand:

Keep it simple. Don’t get too clever. Don’t make the reader think too much. Don’t get too complicated. Don’t get too subtle.

The safest cover is a photograph of one person. The picture should have some impact. The type should have some energy. If you put more than one person on the cover, the faces may get too small.

Keep the background very light or very dark. If the background is a middle tone, the type won’t jump off the page. Make the cover head easily readable from 10 feet away.

Try to make the reader feel this issue is something special. Readers expect a little hype but don’t overdo it.

Photos sell better than illustrations. Women sell better than men. Service sells. Self-improvement sells. Sex sells but don’t overdo it. Politics hardly ever sells. Serious issues are hard to sell but are good for the long-term health of the magazine.

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January 2009: The best-selling Washingtonian cover.

Break all the rules if you have a great idea.
The most controversial cover we published was in October 1976—it showed an ice cream cone with a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with four scoops of chocolate ice cream. The cover type:

See page 134 for a special report. CAN WHITES SURVIVE IN DC? A “Chocolate City” mentality is taking hold in the District. A new kind of racism is emerging. And there is a growing frustration and bitterness between blacks and whites.

Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry attacked the cover story. We did follow-up pieces on race relations in Washington  and once the controversy subsided Bill and I talked often about journalism and race relations.

The 1976 cover was designed by Terry Dale, the magazine’s design director. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, liked the cover so much he almost immediately hired Terry as the Post’s design director.
The best-selling cover we ever published—more than 110,000 newsstand copies, compared to an average newsstand sale of 40,000—was in January 2009. It was a “Special Inauguration Issue” and featured a photograph of Michelle and Barack Obama.



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