A magazine cover has many purposes — one of them being to concisely encapsulate what stories will be found inside its pages — but the supreme goal is to grab the reader and bring them in. Not only that, but the cover must also capture, in once glance, the very essence, goal and spirit of the publication. That is no easy feat, but our talented team at Good Company really knocked it out of the park with our cover for Issue 3.
Starting with the phenomenal photography work of Joyce Kim who beautifully captured our cover subject, comedian/writer/actress Aparna Nancherla, we approached the cover for Issue 3 in a rather unique way. Grace, our Art Director George McCalman, and I were torn between two very different cover images. In order to make our most confident decision on the final version, George had talented lettering artist and illustrator Erin Ellis draw up both images as if they’d be the cover. It’s clear now which photo we selected, but today we’re taking you behind the scenes on the process George and Erin went through in making this cover, and the challenges and surprises they encountered along the way. With Joyce’s stunning photo of Aparna and Erin’s lively hand-lettered Good Company masthead/logo as our guide, the pressure was on to create a truly magnetic cover. Please scroll down and join me in the fun and fascinating roundtable discussion I had with George and Erin about how this magic was all created! —Kelli
Stay tuned next week for a deeper look at the all-women team who conducted/styled Aparna’s cover photo shoot!
Image above by Erin Ellis
Kelli: This issue that we all worked so hard on many months ago is finally coming out into the world, and that’s the magical thing about a print project like this, isn’t it? That it’s not something you just crank out and make snap decisions on and then it’s done. It’s more of a living, breathing thing that we tend to and nurture that evolves as we shape it. So it can be hard to imagine — if you don’t work in this particular field — that something as distinct as the cover of a magazine will go through several iterations before landing on the final version. Let’s walk people through that process — what’s essentially the first step to crafting a magazine cover like this?
George: For me it always starts with a few conversations — conversations I have with Kelli, conversations I have with the photographer, conversations I have with Grace. That allows all of us to start having the same conversations about tone, atmosphere, what we want the cover to feel like, how fun or not fun we want it to be, what sorts of cover lines we want to have on the cover. And at that point, once we make our selects and start laying out the cover images, I give Erin a call to start talking about what the personality and the typography is going to be.
Erin: I think when you got in touch with me [for issue 3], we were working with the two images at first.
George: We knew that this cover, unlike the last cover, was going to be environmental — which meant there were going to be more considerations for making sure that the type was as legible as possible and that the image would support having handwritten type. So there were two images that Kelli, Grace and I absolutely loved and I suggested that we push both sets forward; that we try both of them with type on top of them so we could really see and make our decision feeling good that we had explored both options.
Image above: On the wall of George’s studio, a glimpse on the lefthand side shows the two cover options in progress. Photo by Alora King Villa LeMalu.
Kelli: And Erin, what was that like for you — how did it impact your work having to lay the mockup lettering down on two different types of images? Did the two different images feel like different personalities to you?
Erin: Yes, they were really different. They had a pretty different tone between them. The one that we ended up going with was more playful and kind of geometric shaped, and in the other one Aparna was in front of a wall of bougainvillea flowers so that was more organic and kind of romantic. In terms of concept I went more fun on the one we ultimately went with, and then for the image with the flowers I did this concept where I tried to make Aparna look saintly, with the typography arranged around her, radiating out of the area where she was standing. It didn’t really work, but I do really like working with more than one concept, anyway. I think better work comes out when you have two contrasting options to explore, so I enjoyed that.
Image above: A side-by-side comparison of the in-progress version of cover option 2, and the final cover we ultimately published.
George: One of the things that I love about Erin — actually, I should start by saying that Erin and I have worked together a few times before —
Erin: We’ve known each other for a while.
George: We’ve known each other for a while, and when I was conceptualizing who the typographer was going to be for the cover I really wanted someone who would think emotionally about the type — not just aesthetically. And Erin really feels the work that she is doing, so I wanted the typography obviously to be strong, but for it to feel like a human being. Like she was really going to think long and hard about what style of handwriting she was going to use and I wanted to give her the room to really explore it outside of my own expectations.
Erin: I love working with George, I feel like he really trusts my sensibilities. I think that brings better work out of me.
Image above: Art Director George McCalman in his San Francisco, CA studio. Photo by Alora King Villa LeMalu.
George: And I just love being surprised by what Erin comes up with, and her thoughtfulness allows me to be thoughtful as an observer, not just as the art director. I can give her feedback but it allows me to really be surprised as an artist also by what she comes up with, and it allows me to think about it from a different perspective — there’s another person viewing the cover. So she doesn’t necessarily have the same considerations that I do, but she does at the same time because she’s thinking compositionally, she’s thinking color, so we get to fuse our two sensibilities together. And I love that aspect of collaboration.
Erin: Yes, same!
Image above: Lettering artist and illustrator Erin Ellis. Her studio is based in Central New Jersey. Portrait by Jay Dugan.
Kelli: And speaking of your collaboration, how many times would you say the two of you went back and forth on the cover as far as placing certain type, or the feeling, the layout, etc.?
George: The truth is, this cover took a little more work than issue number 2 for a few very technical reasons. The last cover had a close-up and had a very flat studio background. The typography that I laid on top of it was really straight-forward and just popped. It was a relatively simple area to create a composition with. The one for number 3 was way more complicated because it was an exterior shot. So the background wasn’t completely flat in terms of color, and the color was a little bit between light and dark. And it was almost a full figure [shot], and so the spatial relationship where negative space fell where type was going to fall on top of it was just kind of wonky. So we really had to go back and forth a few times way more than we did for the previous cover.
Erin: Yes, there was way more back and forth. And on the cover of issue 2 the type had already been laid out when I came in, so I kind of played off of what you had. Starting with my lettering from the beginning [on issue 3] I think was a little bit more of a challenge because you have more experience designing magazine covers [than I do]. I love working with negative space and thinking about how my typography will fit in the space and how the space will move around it. So it was fun to work with the image of Aparna that we went with, but it was also really challenging because the negative space shapes are a little bit odd to put blocks of text in. We also had to really pay mind to how the blocks of lettering were interacting with her body — the challenge of creating hierarchy but trying to avoid putting type directly on top of her.
George: Right, and in the first round we had too many cover words, and we ended up editing down. So it went through a couple of revisions just trying to pull out words so that some of the cover lines would get a little bigger and some would get smaller — the balance between the hierarchy of how the viewer was reading the cover lines could get a little more polished. Just in general, this cover took a few more conversations around it, really fine-tuning it much more. And I used what Erin wrote out initially as a starting point this time, as opposed to the last time which she said I had already laid out some of the cover lines which she then used as a model. So in a way, we designed it — in terms of process — completely the opposite way than we did the second issue cover.
Kelli: That’s really interesting, and I would say for all the challenges — I remember, when we were having the conversation, George, you, me and Grace about which photo we wanted to go with and we felt like this one that ended up on the cover was more of a risk, just in terms of picking a photo that would appeal to more people — the way the lettering is on the cover, and you’re talking about the feeling that Erin lends with her work, and the way you two laid this out, I feel like there is so much energy on this cover. It’s magnetic.
George: Erin, I remember when I sent Grace and Kelli the two versions, I was totally of two minds about it. I didn’t have a decision in my mind, I was too close to both [of the photos], and I needed someone else’s feedback. And I was so surprised, honestly, Kelli, that you and Grace went with that one. I thought that you would go with the more — I don’t want to say conventional, in desultory way — I thought we were going to go with the flowers. And [the fact that] you went with the one with a little more personality that was a little bit more of a risk — it was such a breath of fresh air. I was like “Oh my God, this cover is going to be so special.”
Image above: Erin’s lettering process. Photo by Erin Ellis.
Kelli: And it totally is, I’m looking at it right now. And I was wondering when I was looking at it — and I’ll start with you first, Erin — if I had to ask you to pick your favorite piece on the cover, your favorite little nugget, what would it be?
Erin: Oh, that’s a good question! My favorite little bit is probably the part that says “Where Creativity Meets Business” —
George: Oh my God, I love that you said that!
Erin: I love how it turned out and how playful and wonky it is, but George totally had a vision for this. And I just was not getting it. I did it so many times and just was not getting what he had in mind. And so finally he showed me a rough sketch that he had done and [it clicked], an “ah-ha!” moment. George wanted to make [that part] look like it was a part of the logo, conceptually. Obviously the logo is hard to attach something to, so it had to interact with it in a dynamic kind of way.
Kelli: And George, what’s your favorite part?
George: That’s my favorite part.
Kelli: Me too!
George: And even just the behind-the-scenes of that, when I am working with artists (being one myself), I don’t have a bandwidth around art-directing people. I’ve been an art director for 20- years, and I’ve reached a point in my career where I actually don’t think that heavily art-directing someone produces great work. So I love to step back and see what their interpretation is, and I remember that Erin was struggling with it. And I really thought about, “should I actually sketch this out? I don’t want to get in her flow, I really want her perspective on it.” And I ended up sketching it out, and when I sent it to her I remember feeling like, “Oh she totally understands it now, I just wasn’t explaining it well enough, and that was the problem.” And what she sent [back] to me I could never have done.
Image above: George at work in his studio laying out Good Company Issue #3. Photo by Alora King Villa LeMalu.
Kelli: And I think this is a good point to remind everyone reading that we made this whole magazine together remotely. None of us work together in the same office, which is why something like this is such an amazing connection to have with a collaborator when you get on the same page and you’re not in the same room with them, and you can’t just write something down and show them and say, “This is what I meant.”
Erin: This was definitely the most specific way you’ve ever asked me to do anything. But it really was worth it.
George: And one thing about this cover and this magazine in general is that I spent a lot more time on the phone with every artist that contributed. And I was able to translate a lot of what I was envisioning for the various stories in a much more organic way than typing up an outline and sending it out. When you’re working with artists and collaborators remotely, being organized and communicating is super important. And for me, being able to get on the phone and for people to hear my voice and what I had in mind, I thought, was a really transformative way of doing this magazine as opposed to the previous one which was much more of an email exchange.
Kelli: Final thoughts about your process or anything involving the cover of issue 3?
Erin: I’m just thinking back on this cover and issue 2, actually, [and] the challenge for me of working with the hand-lettered masthead as well, I really think it’s great of George to trust that this could work. To use handwritten typography on the cover in a way that doesn’t compete with the masthead or become overkill was really something that required some thought.
George: There’s no one I could see doing this with other than Erin. She was always the person that I thought of doing this with and having done two issues with her now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing this. She’s just amazing.
Erin: Thank you George. I think you can see why it’s always lovely to work with George.