Magazine thirds

When building the magazine, a few things to keep in mind, kind of umbrella things.

Magazine is typically divided into thirds.

Front, middle, back. Pretty simple. Each has a different function.

We’ll get to that.

A magazine is also designed, typically, for three levels of engagement.

First is to catch your eye. It’s that quick look, headlines, pictures, captions, the big things. You look at these. They make an impression. You decide if you want to go further.

Next, I’ll call the light reading level. This is where deck heads and leads, and sidebars carry you further. A deck head is the longer description beneath a headline. A sidebar is a story within a story. Related to it, but different, and often in small, light reading bites.

Finally, is the deep reading, which is primarily text. By this time, the reader is fully engaged, and you’re design goal is just to help them move through the story. So, three sections, front, middle, back. Three levels, quick look, light reading, deep reading. Let’s check ’em out.

Front of the book: Introduction

– The three parts of a magazine, front, middle, back, correspond loosely to dining.

A small appetizer is first, then the main course or courses, then dessert and unwinding at the end. The front of the book, and magazines have historically been called books, at least by insiders, are a number of short features, often just a page or two, sometimes less. There will almost always be a contents page and a masthead, which a list of those who work for the magazine or who worked on the issue. You may find a letter from the publisher, perhaps a list of contributors, letters to the editor, columnist, opinion pages, listings, any short topic, news, reviews, product pages, all that. If your magazine carries advertising, one page ads and your fractional ads will also be up front. So the front of the book is a key section. It’s a tone and style setter. You’ll often invest 2/3 of your energy in the front because it’s packed with lots of short essentials starting with the contents page.


– The next three often go together, although they don’t have to. The masthead is a list of those who work for the magazine. It’s a design issue only if you have a long list. A small magazine, two or three names, a half dozen maybe can be worked in really anywhere. A few approaches are typical. one is like Popular Science magazine. A simple column next to the editor’s letter. Seveur is done in two columns next to an ad. Inc. magazine uses a whole page. The magazine staff centered on top, business, marketing, and other operations, in two columns beneath. Oprah’s O magazine uses two full pages. And, for everyone with a small staff, Lagom magazine puts its staff of six, plus 20 contributors together on a full page with lots of white as is its spacious style. And, of course, with all of these there’s a wide range of typographic possibilities

Publisher’s letter

– The publisher’s or editor’s letter. Magazines typically, not always, have these usually after the contents page, although I have seen them before. They usually serve as an introduction to the issue, maybe a special theme, some context for a key article, a personal experience, an editorial opinion, wide range, usually brief, typically two columns, sometimes a full page, but there really are no restrictions on style. If your look calls for it, you can occupy a full page with a short letter. We see this in Lagom. Lots of air, very relaxed. Similar approach in Surf Girl, but with a difference. Very short letter on a full page photo. I call this inspirational poster style. The hand lettering, the open sky, it’s feminine, it’s pretty, very light. In contrast, Monocle Magazine is dense. The editor’s letter is a full page and a half and includes call outs and illustrations like a regular feature article. Most typical, though, is the style of Popular Science, which is a short letter sharing space with a mass tag. In this case, separated by a band of white, which makes both very clear.


– Some magazines list special contributors. Fewer do than don’t, depends on the nature of the magazine. Harvard Business Review does. In this case, each of the five is pictured along with some context or history of the story. ESPN magazine in the neatest possible grid, shows the photographers of its special body issue. Each with copy that fits exactly. Which you need to make this layout work, that’s the kind of give and take you want between editorial and design. And the kind every good magazine will have. This issue of Wallpaper magazine is using images illustrated by two of its contributors. The faces are pretty much obscured, obviously a special effect. Monocle magazine is similar with its cut paper illustrations. So a contributors page, if you have one, can and should be customized to the look, and certainly to the voice of your magazine.


– A magazine may have columnists. These are writers with a familiar voice or a regular topic who appear in every issue. When you have more than one columnist, like Ink magazine does, you want to use identical layouts for all of them. Columnists are not necessarily front of the book and they’re not necessarily together. One can be front, another back, in which case, having the same look is even more important. A variation of the columnist will be a regular column to which you invite a different guest writer each issue, as Time magazine does with its essay page. Another variation, also in Time magazine, is the recurring interview feature. I assume that a regular ghost writer handles these. Both variants can appear in the front or the back of the magazine.

Small features

– The front of the book is excellent for small and even tiny features. Bits of news, trivia, numbers, quotes, things like that. Forbes’ leaderboard section is a good example. Dozens of interesting bits on a variety of topics. Beautifully designed, lots of visual detail and nuance that makes this section engaging to read and crystal clear. Small features can be simpler. Typical will be a one or two page photo accompanied by a very short story, and sometimes just a caption. National Geographic is famous for these. Its visions section is page after page of beautiful photos that are simply captioned. You could have one page like this, or many. Sea Nat’s point of view section is a little different. The black and white photo is noosier. The caption is longer and includes a headline, text, a web link, and a photo byline. And back in Nat Geo, its further feature is literally an entire section on a single page. The name of the section, its descriptive deck head, the article headline, the byline, the story in text, an illustrated diagram, a web link, and the photo byline, all in the typographic styles of the magazine. More informal would be a page of tidbits. A good example is Civil War Monitor Magazine’s voices page, which features pertinent quotations about a single topic that changes issue to issue.

Product pages

– Product pages are another popular front of the book feature. They, too, can appear in the back. Product pages are just that, products of interest to your audience. They can be ads in disguise, although they certainly don’t have to be. CNET Magazine’s products are presented as a straight-up buying guide. The design is images in silhouette, meaning no backgrounds. Each is referenced by a description on the right. Here’s the thing, to look best, you want to do all the photography yourself so the products have common lighting and a common look, as they do here. You can use publicity shots from the manufacturers, but you won’t fool anyone. It will look commercial. In this case, CNET is also using the magazine’s own type styles. It’s coherent with the rest of the magazine and also projects the message that this is an editorial product and not a commercial one, even though commercial it may be. This design is also easy to lay out because type and images are separate. Type is here. Images are there. Somewhat different is the dossier section in C Home Magazine. These products are referenced by locale, that is, where in the state they come from. The design is a blend of silhouette and rectangular images. It looks nice, it fits the style of the magazine, but it is harder to lay out because images and text are interwoven, so you basically get a jigsaw puzzle to do every issue. A third approach is Sunset Magazine’s. This is themed. These are all products for your travel bag. They’ve been arranged into a single photo and captioned beneath. The layout is easy because the words are separate from the picture. The two challenges here are to, A, make a beautiful photo, and, B, write the caption so the references are obvious. You can make that job easier by applying tiny numbers or letters to the images in the picture.

Front of the book: Wrap up

– What we’ve just seen are probably the most common front of the book sections. There are certainly others. Calendars, listings, society pages, things like that. Lots of possibilities, lots of ways to do them. Think about all of them as they can work in and around ads, if your magazine carries ads. Certainly full pages, but also fractional pages. So they’re versatile, they’re flexible, and they’re practical.

Middle of the book

– The middle of the book is commonly called the editorial well, and it’s almost always where your big feature articles will appear. If it’s dinner, this is the main course. It’s called the well because this is where a magazine that carries advertising normally has none, or it’ll have just the occasional ad page or spread to separate one article from the next. There are of course exceptions. This open space allows you almost unrestricted liberty to design in the style that best suits the material or makes the most dramatic impact. You’ll have a few restrictors, one will be space. Unlike the web, print is limited, so there’s usually a compromise between text and graphics and how much space is allotted to each. Another may be your magazine’s type styles, or graphical identifiers. Lines, borders, pointers, things like that, sometimes you’ll want to retain a house style, other times not. For all practical purposes, there are infinite ways to design feature articles, just no limit, but you will find recurring techniques that have proven useful over time. Let’s look at a few. The BBC’s Science Focus Magazine, Cassini’s Last Hurrah. This is classic. A dramatic, full spread, full bleed photo, atop which you put your headline and deck head. You could also start the story right here, but of course you don’t have to. Because the type is reversed, this look will always be best if you photo has a smooth open space like we have here. The following spread, where the story actually starts, is very detailed. Photos, drop cap, subheads, captions, callouts, a sidebar, each with a different function. After that busy spread comes a break. Another full spread, full bleed photo. This one with only a caption. And the story ends with another detailed spread. So you can see a rhythm here. Simple, detailed, simple, detailed. This lead in the New York Times magazine has a similarly big photo, but this one doesn’t bleed. It’s framed with white on every side, similar to an art piece on a wall, and just as quiet. The headline, Quiet Places, runs vertically on the left. Vertically running is unusual. And the deck head, by lines, and text are on the right. The distance across the photo, headline on one side, text on the other, creates a long dramatic pause over the image. It’s like it opens a window through which we can enter the silence of this private room. The Steward from Saveur Magazine is an article that leads off like the Times we just saw, except that the type is all on the right. The type face, extremely condensed, is a house style, very distinctive. The image, to my eye, has the feel of a sanctuary. Quiet, sacred to some, yet there’s activity. The quiet of the image is expressed on the page in the space around the headline. The horizontal bars, top and bottom, are also a house style. Both the type face and the bars continue on the next spread. Lots of text here. Roughly a 50 50 mix, but very pretty. Note that all the photos touch, they’re clustered toward the middle and have a common caption. In my experience, this is almost always more attractive than scattering pictures around a spread. You can see an asymmetry in it, but the photo on the right, which bleeds, did you notice that? Is offset by the opening type, and the result is an active and attractive balance. This illustration from Nautilus Magazine occupies the right page. It’s a full bleed, while the headline and text begin on the left. Simple presentation, easy to do. Harvard Business Review. The illustration crosses the gutter, but does not fill the spread. Note the headline is at the bottom. This is surprisingly common. Deck head and by lines follow. Then a drop cap, which in this case looks just like a bar, then the story. In Wallpaper Magazine, the headline crosses from the photo into the text column. Note the photo bleeds three sides, which leaves a column of white on the right. The caption is atop the photo on the page margin. One more for now, 1843 Magazine, a cluster of photos atop the spread, none of them bleed. With the headline and text beneath. It’s pretty, it’s low-key, very much in keeping with the vibe of this magazine. In every case, a combination of factors will be acting on your layout. The image itself or images, what is it, does it have open space for text or not, what are its proportions, is your headline long or short and what does it say, how much text do you need in the space, and so on. It’s pretty rare that you’ll have total control over all those factors, so your facility in making different configurations while retaining a look and feel will be key to your design’s success.

Back of the book

– The back of the book, historically, is where a lot of your small ads go. And by small, I mean a sixth page or less. These can be small display ads, want ads, classified ads, and so small articles were designed to wrap in and around those ads. The thing that wraps easiest is text. That most commonly takes the form of story tales or endings, you know, continued on page 86. You can also have listings of things, calendars, events, goings on about town, stuff like that, anything that’s going to wrap. This example is from Civil War Monitor Magazine. The story tale is marked by a bold rule, a headline, where it jumps from, then text. It runs ’til it ends and the next one starts. In their case, they also include photos and call outs to keep the interest high. If you don’t carry ads, and more magazines don’t, none of this matters. You can run full features all the way to the last page. That said, even with no ads, Eight by Eight magazine uses the back to run story tales, too. Very similar to the magazine we just saw. If you have open space, even with ads, you can put in the back things like you have in the front, which we’ve already seen. Columnists, product pages, small features, a final page photo, or interview or such is also common.

Making a magazine: Introduction

– Get out your pencil and make some notes. If you’re making a new magazine, or reworking an existing one, and trying to work out a look, it may help to ask the following questions: I want to emphasize that you’re going for a unique voice. You’re working to a vision, so you want to avoid creating a facade. Just to look off the shelf; maybe something you’ve done before, or from a template, or something you just make up. If your collaborators, the publisher, the editors, the writers can’t articulate that vision for you, do everything you can to hang in until you have one. You as a designer can play an important role here. So, questions: Is your magazine mostly serious, or entertaining? If it’s serious, is it introvert, or extrovert? If it’s entertaining, is it quiet and dry, or loud and showy? Do you and your audience know each other? This would usually be the case with a small, closed group, a club, an organization, a school, a professional network. Similar would be an indie magazine. A small art, or special interest magazine, a single copy or direct subscription. You probably share insider language or jargon, or experience. The third kind is a general broadcast magazine going out to the newsstand, goes to the public, it’s a mainstream magazine, and you probably do not know that audience. Do you expect words to do the heavy lifting, or pictures? In other words, are you leading with words, or leading with pictures? Do you expect the pages to be dense, or light? A dense can come across as intense, and full, and having gravitas and authority. On the other hand, dense can feel forbidding, or somber, or dull. Light can be airy, and quiet, and pretty. It can also feel incomplete, or trivial, or even wasteful. Which way it goes will depend on the adroitness of your design. Lots of short articles and pictures, or just a few long ones? Or a mix? A variety of topics, or mainly just one, or a few? How will your magazine be printed? Offset, digital? Can images bleed? This will affect the design. And how will it be delivered? Will it be picked up, or sent through the mail? Periodicals rate as the lowest of all postal rates, but there are strict requirements, and weight will still matter, which may limit your pages. In addition, when you’re building a magazine, you have so many visual tools and techniques to work with. Tools of type. Some typefaces are neutral, and work with almost everything. Others are specific to subject or mood. You have high contract versus low. Heads, subheads, kickers, deckheads, callouts, text, bylines, captions, legends, sidebars, folios, footnotes, on and on. There is the grid. Two columns, three columns, four columns, 12 columns, asymmetrical columns, wide margins, narrow margins, asymmetrical margins, horizontal hang lines. There’s the page itself. There’s a tall page, a square page, a wide page, and what happens when they’re doubled; meaning opened? You have tools of layout. Mixed pages, single pages, double pages, super sized type, big pictures, small pictures, clustered pictures, rectangular pictures, pictures in silhouette, pictures that bleed, or don’t. There’s illustration. You have graphical devices, lines, borders, circles, boxes, arrows, flags, colors, flat panels. You have techniques for keeping things apart, and techniques for bringing things together. You can have pictures and text interacting, or separate It’s endless. So what I’m going to do for the remainder of our time to deal with some of this is go through one complete magazine. There are so many amazing magazines that I want you to see. I would love to show them to you. I left hundreds of pages back at my desk, but for this course we have to focus on the basics. So we’re going to look at a magazine that’s very simple.

DNA of the cover

– When I look at magazines for design, it almost doesn’t matter to me what the title and topic are. I’ll pick up almost anything. That’s how I wind up with business magazines, and motorcycle magazines, and cooking magazines, and political magazines, and fashion, and sports, and indie, and history, and music, and art, and foreign magazines, which can be tons of fun. If it moves me in some way, I’ll dive in, and look for what’s making that feel. I’m generally at this point, not reading closely. That may sound funny because editorial and graphics are so vitally linked. But it’s not really. Before you read a magazine, you feel it. You pick up a vibe from it. Or you should. That’s what I’m interested in first. Some designs are new and amazing, and I love that. Others are just really well executed renditions of things I’ve seen before. I like that too. There’s also a lot of roughage. Copycatting, commercialism, things like that. But even there, you can often pick out good stuff. In some magazines, you’ll find only a detail or two that’s interesting; maybe an ad, or the way a caption’s been handled. In that case, I’ll just use my camera. If there’s more though, I’ll buy the magazine. This is a special edition magazine from Time, called, The Science of Childhood. It’s a single topic magazine with no ads. Time is doing a lot of these on a range of topics. Time is known for good design. As long as I’ve been reading it, design really is in its DNA. Some magazines are like that. Others, not so much. So, what’s here? The cover is typical size and shape. Eight inches by 10 and seven eighths; slightly smaller than letter size. We see a five by five, or 25 frame grid. Normally on an even grid like this, three by three, four by four, each frame will have the same proportions as the page itself. That’s not true in this case, because the top and bottom rows have been cropped. However, all the kids are the same size. You’re not close up on some, and far away on others. That’s a design decision, and it’s a good one that’s often overlooked. When you have a group of like pictures, you generally want them cropped the same because it gives equal weight to everyone. The type is centered on the page. It’s stationary position, bold, very stable, there’s no asymmetrical tension here. The bold, science head is is set in ITC Franklyn Gothic Demi Compressed, and the deck head beneath it is a light serif, called, Duplicate Ionic. These two styles have a lot of contrast, and they will be used throughout the magazine for continuity.

DNA of lead spreads: Teens

– This section, like the others, differs only by color. Just a couple more comments and we’re done. First spread, note the same typefaces and devices, and note the connection to the yellow focal point in the pillow on the primary photo. This is probably on purpose. It’s a stock photo like most of the others, so when you can find a connector like this, it’s nice. The thing I want to point out here is that head is on the left page, on the margin, and the text is on the right. Head and text don’t need to be together. This is very effective. The square drop cap W plays a big part in that by drawing your eye to the right. Here’s a variation of the same thing. Head on the picture, text in the right column. Reads perfectly well. My guess, in this case, is that it was done for space. There’s not enough atop that column for the headline, and it’s not wide enough either. Here’s the thing, though. When you’re carrying your style with the typography, which in a magazine you should be, you can get away with this. You can move the type around and still retain your look. The other thing here is that this is essentially the same layout as this one. In the back of the book is this Best Book section set in a sidebar style. The wide gray border like the salmon one we just saw, head in Haffner bold, text again in Franklin Gothic Compressed. We’re on a six-column page. Three of the books, here, here, and here cross two columns, the text running horizontally. I really like this spread. It’s well-organized. It’s colorful. It’s inviting. It’s full of variety. It’s fun to read. The book titles are very slightly larger than the bylines in the descriptions. Nice texture. On the next page, the layout continues. In this case, one book crosses two columns, but it runs vertically. This is because of the cover’s tall shape. Again, when your type styles are consistent like they are here, you can flex them like this and they’ll work. And finally, the last page is simply a cute photo and a big quote in the same Duplicate Ionic typeface as the cover in the section heads. This is fun. This is a poster style that you can transfer anywhere you have a big photo with open space and something interesting to say. Like I said at the top, this is about as simple as a magazine gets. But let’s review some of what we’ve seen. Crop groups or grids of pictures the same way. Establish simple typographic styles and use them consistently. In magazines this is key. Type is your primary voice. Establish a few simple graphic devices and use them consistently. You can flip layouts and repeat them. Your readers won’t notice. You can separate headlines from body copy. Heads here, text there. You can carry the story at a light reading level with just callouts and photos. And set your sidebars in a style that’s different from the main body but coherent within themselves and that doesn’t compete. So that’s a light overview of magazine design. To reiterate, this is how I learned design. Thanks for watching. My assignment to you is go hit the newsstands and continue your education. Maybe I’ll see ya there.