Cover Story: Portland Monthly dishes on ‘Top Docs’ cover

PM_Cover_0114SND regularly features a Q&A on how magazine covers were developed. This week, Art Director Kate Madden shares the creative process behind Portland Monthly’s annual “Top Docs” issue.

Courtney Kan: Tell me about the cover story and surrounding content? Was there a new angle with this years’ “Top Docs” issue?  

Kate Madden: Often our Top Docs list is just that — a list. This year, however, we worked with a local hospital to get access to go along with a trauma nurse on her 12-hour shift and developed a photo essay around what goes on in the ER/OR/ICU in a single night, which made a great editorial companion to the service of the list.

CK: I like the illustrative approach versus the portraits I so often see for similar features. Tell me a little about how this concept was developed. Were any other cover concepts in the running?

KM: One of the difficulties with an annual issue like this is keeping things visually fresh while not mis-representing the actual editorial content.  We considered a standard, portrait cover featuring our trauma nurse, but realized that that choice would require something with the word “trauma” to be our main headline; doctors and health care and sickness and injury aren’t the kinds of approachable, friendly subjects that make for good general interest covers, although the information is great reader service. I felt like the band aid box represented the content without being overly grave and had the added benefit of allowing the head and dek to be incorporated into the imagery instead of competing with it. I went with a retro tin box because it reminded me of the kind of bandaids my mom used to patch up my skinned knees when I was a kid and that rosy haze of nostalgia also contributes to making the subject of doctors and sickness less negative.

I’d actually pushed pretty hard to make a physical bandaid box and shoot it, but after I created the illustration for a comp, the executive editors and the publisher liked it so much that they brought me around to sticking with an illustration.

This issue also marked the unveiling of our new logo and new look inside, so we wanted a clean yet vibrant cover that also allowed the logo to really shine. We’d had the same logo for 10 years, so we were a bit worried about market confusion when we made the switch; in a lot of ways, it was a good issue to launch the logo with, as it’s content readers have come to expect from us year after year.

CK: How hard is it to develop fresh ideas for your annual thematic issues? Do special issues influence any of your design choices?

KM: Some annual topics are easier than others; for example, my co-art director and I arm-wrestle every year about who gets to do the Best Restaurants issue. But the more dry topics, like Top Doctors or Real Estate, can definitely be a challenge. I think it’s a good challenge, though, because it forces you to push beyond tropes around a given topic (or at least reinvigorate the trope) while still communicating the subject matter and the service a reader can expect from the feature.

CK: Who was involved in the cover production?

KM: Well, the new logo was a team effort between myself, art director Mike Novak, and a typographer named Jeremy Mickel, who really helped us refine the subtleties of the letter forms and their relationships.

I produced the main cover illustration and the overall cover design digitally. It’s definitely not isometrically correct (which I’ve heard bothers some industrial designers around town), but I made some perspective compromises in the interest of legibility and homage to the vintage bandaid tins that were part of the inspiration.

CK: Were there any obstacles while producing this cover?

KM: Well, I’m not an illustrator, in fact I constantly claim around the office that I can’t draw, so it probably took more time than was absolutely necessary, but it was actually a pretty smooth process. Covers are always a drawn out conversation, since there are so many stakeholders (editorial, advertising, circulation) in a cover’s success.

CK: What can you tell me about your team’s cover brainstorming process from month to month?  

KM: Typically, the art director who is responsible for the identified main cover package is also responsible for the accompanying cover. We’ve got our cover topics determined pretty far in advance, so we have a chance to research what has worked well for other magazines (or hasn’t) and will bring that research, along with a few rough ideas, to a meeting between the executive editors, the cover package editor, and the art directors. Out of that meeting, we select 2-3 ideas to sketch up and present while the editors work on refining the language and then present it to a larger group of stakeholders.

As for the brainstorming process itself, it’s a lot of goofy conversations, walks around the block, staring at a blank screen panicking, and then flashes of in-the-shower/on-the-bus inspiration. We don’t really have a structured process that we use to drive brainstorming, which is both good and bad. Structures definitely give you something to react and respond to when you’ve hit a block, but they also restrict the influences and inspirations that can lead to really unexpected design solutions.

CK: Where do you look for inspiration?

KM: I’m definitely always looking at what national magazines are doing and trying to deconstruct the conceptual planning that went into the design choices. I poke around a lot on the web, of course, and I also try to take classes or online seminars in non-magazine methods or media, like calligraphy or paper quilling or screen printing, because I often get inspiration when my hands are busy and my mind is engaged in something non-work related. And one of the great things about working for a city magazine, especially one that focuses on a city I love, is that just walking around and really looking at the place can give you clues on how to visually express the stories of that place.

Have a magazine cover you’d like to share with SND, or want to send a tip on a cover you’d like to see profiled? Contact Courtney Kan at [email protected].

About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of

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