Magazine Covers That Push the Conversation

From an Inside the Times column by Libby Peterson headlined “Covers That Push the Conversation”:

The creative director of The New York Times Magazine explains her team’s approach to visualizing each issue and shares how they decide to take risks.

Asked how far in advance she works on a cover of The New York Times Magazine, Gail Bichler paused to let herself be amused by the question, laughed and said: “Like, what do I want it to be?”

Ms. Bichler, the magazine’s creative director, oversees all of the design related to the magazine, though the cover of the Sunday print edition is perhaps the greatest weekly challenge — particularly when the cover is meant to represent a story that is about an idea.

Sometimes Ms. Bichler and her team only have a few days to visualize and execute a cover that captures the essence of a timely topic, such as climate change or sex and power in the workplace. In a recent conversation, Ms. Bichler gave us an inside look at what goes into making the magazine’s conceptual covers.

How do you know when to pull back a cover and make it really simple and when to push the design?

Simpler is usually better on covers. Over the years, we’ve stripped the cover down more and more. We used to run more lines of text on a cover. Now almost all of our covers only have one line. Those covers tend to be the most arresting. I am always trying to get our editors to tell me what the story is about in one sentence because you have to have a really good understanding of the most important point of the story to be able to illustrate it. You also need an understanding of what kind of tone the editors want it to have. Maybe it needs to be funny or more serious or literary. That often becomes apparent through language.

How far in advance are you working on covers?

Sometimes it’s two weeks beforehand. Sometimes it’s only a few days. Lately, there has been a lot of quick turnaround. We have a schedule of stories, and sometimes we want to run something quicker than what we previously thought. Sometimes the condensed time frame means we need to come up with a more conceptual or illustrated idea for a cover.

What kinds of risks have you taken with covers so far?

Any time you make a bold statement on the cover you are taking a risk, but as a magazine we always want to push the conversation. We did a “future of work” cover that was a blank cover with two Post-its on it. One of them said, “The future of work when no one wants to work,” and the other said, “Photograph of exploding desk.” We deliberately made something “underdesigned” to comment on the burnout many people were feeling at their jobs. We did get some pushback on that on social media. People were commenting on how that’s actually not what’s happening; people want to work, they just want to work under fairer conditions.

Do you take into account potential pushback from the public when you’re thinking about covers?

We don’t shy away from saying things that we think will be unpopular. We just try to make sure that we are being accurate and saying something that’s in tune with the material. We’re often trying to make sure that we understand what the reaction might be. It won’t necessarily change what we make, as long as it’s accurate to the story. Leading up to the 2020 election, we published a cover that featured Trump’s tweets about voter fraud. That’s not something that we thought would necessarily be popular, but we thought that seeing all those tweets, which paved the way for baseless claims that the election had been stolen, was powerful and would help people understand exactly how far he’d gone.

What kinds of covers resonate with you?

I tend to love covers that feel like physical objects. Recently, we did a cover about moving to New York, and it appropriated the language from moving boxes — the part where you check off that its contents are from the living room or the dining room. We took that part of the box and changed the language to, “I moved to New York for …” and then categories like revenge, love, art. It very much looked like a moving box. We spent all of this time bending the cardboard in different ways and putting tape on with different wrinkles in it. It’s a simple concept, but you have to really focus on the details to make it feel real. This cover could have been generated using Photoshop, but actually making the object gives it authenticity.

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