Illustration by Avirup Basu.

When publications first went digital a couple of decades back, their designs more or less aped the print format, in both appearance and navigation, with little adaptation for the online sphere. Stories carried the same word length and structure. The potentiality of video and photo galleries had yet to be fully explored. And covers, just like their newsstand-bound counterparts, were largely static.

But over the past few years, as the publishing landscape has continued to shift, magazine covers have started to move. Animated covers have emerged as an effective tool for marketing physical magazines online, and cover design has a renewed importance in an endless scroll of “content” on social media. “Suddenly the cover has a new currency,” says Jeremy Leslie, founder of London-based magazine store magCulture, where he says customers regularly come in asking for magazines that haven’t gone to press yet, lured in by their eye-catching online assets.

Since animated magazine covers first started to emerge around 2016, they have vacillated in and out of favor, proving to have a curious (if wavering) staying power even amid new technologies like augmented reality. And while animation in magazine design is still employed mostly for engagement on social media, designers are starting to see its bigger potential in bridging the digital/physical divide. As Leslie puts it, the animated cover trend is no longer a one-off gimmick, but “almost as purposeful as the print magazine,” highlighting a fundamental aspect of any publication as a time-based piece of media.

So how are designers using animation and motion design to augment and enhance print storytelling in interesting ways? And where is this trend going?

Animated covers are more than “just a phase”

German weekly Zeit Magazin, designed by Bureau Borsche Studio, has given every issue a dual cover—one for print and another one for online—since 2007. “Instagram didn’t exist then; [social] was never something we thought about when we started,” says studio founder Mirko Borsche. The idea behind the two covers was simply to find a way to transcribe the magazine’s cover to an online context. Thirteen years later, many of Zeit’s digital covers are animated, and Borsche suggests that it’s more than just a temporary trend. “That’s the way that printed magazines are going—they’ll always try to become more digital,” he says.

Felix Pfäffli, founder of Studio Feixen agrees, but thinks that there’s room for improvement. In 2019, partially driven by a desire to change what it saw as a low standard in animated covers, Feixen created a year-long cover series for the architecture magazine Werk, Bauen + Wohnen. Instead of animation for animation’s sake, the cover’s ambitiously aimed to “compress the content” of each issue into a single design.

“We always try to make new rules for media,” says Pfäffli. “It’s like with posters—you see a lot of animated posters that often don’t work as well as the old format. That’s because as soon as people can animate, they want to make a movie. With the magazine, we want to show that you can make an animation that works just as beautifully as a printed still.”

What works and what doesn’t?

A cover—whether print, digital, or both—must communicate legibly and clearly, as well as pique readers’ interest in a swelling sea of titles. Ali Hanson, senior creative at It’s Nice That, says that while five or so years ago animated covers use to be thought of as faddish, designers have since started to more carefully consider the hows and whys of such processes, experimenting with what’s truly fitting for their brand and the stories each issue tells.

Hanson was part of the team behind one of the most celebrated and striking animated covers of the past few years, the one for Printed Pages AW17 by Venezuelan artist, animator, and director Igor Bastidas. The decision to use motion was specifically about celebrating the kinetic possibilities of Bastidas’ work within the limitations of the printed page. The central motif is a bold-outlined, strangely proportioned character, who breaks the mag’s fourth wall by stepping through the curtain of the cover and diving into the issue to continue his journey throughout its interior pages. Crucially, the images worked just as brilliantly whether in static or digital, animated form.

Bastidas’ images are direct and clear with heavy linework—a straightforward approach that has proven well-suitable for animated covers. But other designers buck that style, such Sandra Garcia in her former role as creative director for digital-only publication HuffPost Highline. Each online issue took a deep-dive into just one story, and so the cover designs had to bring these to life in dynamic new ways. Having come from a print editorial design background, Garcia says her biggest challenge was around technical constraints—taking into account responsive design and how an image works across varied screen and application sizes.

“I always had an underpinning concept for why I was choosing to do certain animations; it was never about just doing something for the sake of it looking cool,” she says. Some covers for Highline use highly technical animation and conceptual or humorous routes, while others pare things back and keep it simple. “As with print, it really depends on the content itself,” Garcia adds. “It’s the same in that you have to figure out the best way to illustrate a piece, whether it’s photography, illustration, or typography. I would just play with the form based on the emotional tone of the story.”

The problem with tech for tech’s sake  

In 2016, Christoph Niemann unveiled what was to be the first of a stream of pioneering designs for The New Yorker. Niemann’s two-tone drawings of a woman getting on and off the Subway featured on both the front and back covers of the magazine, and readers were encouraged to use the free AR app Uncovr by Nexus to set them into motion. Like many such editorial AR-based projects, this one was born of a commercial partnership: Within the magazine were full-page ads from tech brand Qualcomm, which could also be activated by the app. The idea was that people would access the cover, then continue to use AR throughout the pages.

Christoph Niemann’s AR covers for The New Yorker in 2016. Video via YouTube.

While Niemann’s cover certainly generated its share of design blog headlines, the excitement didn’t last. As the four years since have demonstrated, AR magazine covers haven’t exactly caught on, likely due to the extra step it takes to download an app—which is unlikely to be used again—all to look at a cover image.

If there’s one person you’d think would be willing to try such things in the name of understanding today’s editorial design climate, it would be Steve Watson, founder of indie magazine subscription service Stack. And yet Watson admits that when AR covers have launched in the past, he’s not downloaded the app to fully reveal the cover design. “You tend to see things like augmented reality covers popping up periodically, depending on what’s got some funding at the moment and are keen to get out into the world,” he says. “Given those circumstances, it’s likely that a designer has been told ‘we’re doing this thing with this new company, come up with something to animate.’” What’s less likely is that the cover will add anything to the issue or the publication’s storytelling.

The future of editorial design is bright—and moving

Another reason there hasn’t been widespread adoption of AR covers is likely because the drive for animation has always been tied to a need to stand out on social media. As such, Leslie of Magculture suggests that the ways in which social media platforms are changing could give a better indication of where animated covers will go. He points out that with the advent of Stories, we see far less animated content in our main social feeds on Instagram—perhaps hinting that designers relying on animation to get a cover in front of people might have to start thinking of new ways to create standout social assets soon.

Savvy designers will be the ones at the forefront of figuring out what such new approaches might be. “Everyone’s playing with digital forms and everyone is interested in it,” says Garcia, “But it’s going to take people both having the skills and an understanding of how best to approach it conceptually to move things on.”

Borsche, however, takes a more philosophical gaze: “I think the future of magazine design is like the past of magazine design,” he says. “It didn’t really change too much over the past 60 years, and I don’t think it’s going to change that much in the next 60 years—that’s what makes it so beautiful and so interesting…. It’s what’s under the cover that changes, and that’s enough.”