An (Incomplete) Survey of Current Genre Magazine Covers

Paul Raven made a com­ment today on his blog com­par­ing the art­work on a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent mag­a­zine cov­ers. Warren Ellis has recently been on about cover design as well. So I thought today, I’d look at the lat­est batch of cov­ers for every mag­a­zine I could remem­ber, and write some gen­er­al­ized thoughts on the design. I’m a self-​​taught designer, so take my com­ments and crit­i­cisms with a grain of salt.

Uploaded in no par­tic­u­lar order:

I’ve read often that space scenes sell mag­a­zines. What do you think? If you saw this on a news­stand, would it com­pel you to buy it? The typog­ra­phy here is so ridicu­lously con­ser­v­a­tive, staid. San ser­ifs for the win, I think not. The sharp points to the title face are high tech-​​ish, in direct con­trast to the title itself, which is about the fun­ni­est title for a sci­ence fic­tion mag­a­zine ever. Those harsh cor­ners seem to con­vey the harder nature of the con­tent, a harder SF, maybe.

This reminds me of the cov­ers of lit­er­ary jour­nals. What does it tell me, graph­i­cally, about this mag­a­zine? The images con­vey death, creep­ing unease, but the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the bright, red text hints at a vio­lence too. The Dark -> in the upper right hand cor­ner seems a bit odd to me. Also, do you think the num­ber of the issue is really the most impor­tant infor­ma­tion to con­vey on the cover? Does this design sell a mag­a­zine? What do you think?

The art here is very mod­ern, very cool by my eye. It reminds me of some­thing Dave McKean might do. It says more fan­tasy than sci­ence fic­tion to me, but I could con­ceive of a SF expla­na­tion. The bright reds and oranges really make it pop, although the yel­low side­bar tends to blend a bit with the palette. I would have con­sid­ered chang­ing up that color, maybe, but it’s at least a thought­ful color scheme. I think this cover con­veys what the mag­a­zine is, but the side­bar doesn’t con­vey any impor­tance of the arti­cles to me. All con­tent is weighted equally.

Authors, but no titles. And we know from expe­ri­ence that the cover art does not sig­nify any­thing about the story con­tent. I really like the type­faces used here. I’m not sure if Clarkesworld sells on the news­stand, but I might pick this up think­ing it was a comic book. Dunno if that is a good or bad thing.

Combines Lovecraftian images with steam­punk images. Masthead is dom­i­nant, and color scheme fits well with the art­work. Pretty mod­ern feel­ing in its choice of art­work style. There’s often a lot of tex­ture in the art­work on these newer zine cov­ers, have you noticed? I’m intrigued by this art. Does it scream hor­ror to me? No, but the ten­ta­cles are a pretty good hint at the con­tent. The main type­face strikes me as a bit goofy, not very ele­gant. I haven’t read it, so that might be a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of its content–less gloomy hor­ror, more fun horror?

I had to really dig around to find this one. It seems that the Realms web­site has not updated their Current Issue page since August 2006. As some­one else said, it makes it look as if the mag­a­zine went out of print in 2006. Which I assume isn’t the case… Anyway, this cover sur­prised me because I really expected to see a media tie-​​in. My beef with this cover is that it’s cov­ered in text. The art is pretty nice, even if it reminds me of the kind of art you would see in Dragon mag­a­zine in the mid-​​90s. Not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, but I find it inter­est­ing that this art here is miss­ing the tex­ture you are see­ing in the newer mag­a­zine cover art. How many type­faces are going on here? 3? more? The cross in the mast­head makes me think this has some­thing to do with Christianity. I really do not like the green­ish cir­cle with the “Plus” text.

Very dynamic, very hip. Again, a lot of tex­ture in this art. The break­ing out of a stan­dard blocky lay­out really makes this cover stand out from the rest. I really like the effect of the art inter­fac­ing with the text, mak­ing it seem almost like speech bub­bles. The hier­ar­chy of infor­ma­tion here seems solid, and well orga­nized. This cover is designed to sell mag­a­zines to peo­ple who have never seen the mag­a­zine. It’s prob­a­bly not hard to tell that this is my favorite.

I think this cover design loses the title of the mag­a­zine a bit, which is not some­thing I would shoot for. The hier­ar­chy is clear, and the art once again invokes that lit­er­ary jour­nal feel, as well as the size. I like the typog­ra­phy too. Nice, clean lines.

The less said about this the bet­ter. Just about the only thing that doesn’t bother me is the bar code place­ment. The font for the authors is not read­able at a distance–it’s too tight. So catch­ing a name on the news­stand isn’t too easy. The color palette says “I am gloomy.”

Robot design circa 1970s? Check. Kind of an odd color scheme and very con­ser­v­a­tive typog­ra­phy? Also check. This cover could have graced Asimov’s in the early 1980s and it would fit right in. That’s not even a dig at the authors, all of whom I respect and enjoy. This cover says “still the same mag­a­zine you bought on your way to see­ing Empire Strikes Back!” Not a good thing, in my opinion.

So what do you think? Which of these mag­a­zines would you have bought purely based on the cov­ers? What trends do you observe?

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7 Responses

  1. Neil Clarke says:

    I’m not sure if Clarkesworld sells on the news­stand, but I might pick this up think­ing it was a comic book. Dunno if that is a good or bad thing.”

    Clarkesworld is an online mag­a­zine, so you won’t find us on the news­stand. The cover art will see print as part of a 100 copy signed chap­book con­tain­ing the two pieces of fic­tion from that issue. It never occurred to me that some­one would get a comic book vibe from the art, but I guess I can see where you’re com­ing from. I don’t think you’ll get that impres­sion next month. :)

  2. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    Thanks, Neil. I knew about the chap­books (but didn’t remem­ber the size of the print run) so that is why I included you in the sur­vey. I’ve never got­ten a comic book vibe from any of your other cov­ers, though. Just this one. I didn’t mean it as a major crit­i­cism or any­thing, and the point is moot because you don’t mean the cov­ers to sell the chap­books or anything :)

  3. Nick Mamatas says:

    The CW cov­ers are cer­tainly rem­i­nis­cent of the Fables series of comics.

  4. Our back­grounds are pretty sim­i­lar, so it prob­a­bly won’t sur­prise you much that I agree with you lots. I gripe about this sub­ject at con­ven­tions, mainly because the mag­a­zines rarely ping my radar at other times. (That tells you a lot right there.)

    The digests’ design col­lec­tively strikes me as amat­uer­ish, which might have more to do with the fact that it hasn’t changed in twenty years than with any lack of skill on the design­ers’ part. I tend to like the space scenes because the other cov­ers are so fre­quently awful. (See Analog and F&SF.) Is the turn­around time too short, or the pay too low…? I see great stuff on deviantART and I won­der, “Why not this?”

    You’re quite right about the read­abil­ity on F&SF — what is that, Impact? Not good for dis­tances, and I always won­der about the cre­ativ­ity of design­ers who use the stan­dard type­faces you get with Windows and/​or Office. Analog gets points for read­abil­ity. Asimov’s… just… *facepalm* If I didn’t know bet­ter, the bright!happy!colors! would make me think it’s aimed at children.

    Clarkesworld always looks fan­tas­tic. The clas­sic type­face reminds me of a museum cat­a­log. I get the impres­sion that the pub­lish­ers respect both the cover art and the con­tent… that, to put it another way, they don’t feel they need to tart things up. I wish this were on news­stands; it’d put the oth­ers to shame.

    Shimmer usu­ally looks great, too. The title does get a lit­tle lost on this issue. However, the eyes are arrest­ing. Very classy.

    The Black Static cover absolutely screams, “Literary jour­nal!” — and makes me want to skip it for that rea­son. The art is a big yawn. The red-​​orange color does hint at con­flict, but men­tally I’ve already moved on.

    That side­bar on Interzone looks like it belongs inside the mag­a­zine as a TOC. Here it detracts from the art, which is lovely. The SFnal title doesn’t play well on this par­tic­u­lar cover; I think if they go with more fantasy-​​themed art, they’d do bet­ter to use a clas­sic typeface.

    The Murky Depths title looks… well, murky. It suits the art, though.

    Realms needs a refresher course in read­abil­ity. They seri­ously need to choose one type­face — one that can be read from six feet away — and stick with it. I don’t think the green cir­cle would bother me that much if it weren’t for that damned Celtic let­ter­ing. However, it blends so well with the art that I didn’t even notice it until you men­tioned it, so it’s not doing its job.

    I saw this cover of Weird Tales a while ago and went, “Oooh!” Somebody knows what s/he’s doing. Memo to Realms: this is how you get my atten­tion. It’s called con­trast. Look into it.

    Of the mag­a­zines you didn’t men­tion, I think Subterranean is the only one that has grabbed my atten­tion with a strik­ing lay­out. Black Gate started out well with its first three or four issues despite an awful title design, but every issue I’ve seen since has made me want to weep.

  5. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    Subterranean is killing the print mag­a­zine, isn’t it? I agree on Black Gate. Reminds me, I sold a story to them a cou­ple of years ago. I won­der when that’s ever com­ing out?

  6. They took two years on mine, and barely got it in before the con­tract expired.

  7. Terry Martin says:

    Does it scream hor­ror to me? No.

    Good. We’re sci-​​fi too.

    Glad you haven’t crit’d Issue #3!