Cover Story: Sactown Magazine dishes on ‘Beer Lovers’ cover

SactownSND regularly features a Q&A on how magazine covers were developed. This week, Andrew J. Nilsen tells us about the process of guest art-directing “The Beer Lover’s Guide to Sacramento” cover for Sactown Magazine’s February/March issue.

Courtney Kan: Can you share a little about the process of working as a guest art director. Were you approached with the cover story in hand? How much freedom were you afforded to brainstorm ideas for a cover direction?

Andrew Nilsen: Yes, I was approached with the cover story in hand. The beer issue was already in the works and they knew it would be the feature package. I was given a fair amount of freedom to brainstorm ideas for the cover but ultimately the solution came down to a compromise between newsstand power and concept.

CK: What was your inspiration for this concept? Were any other cover concepts in the running?

AN: The inspiration for this concept came from the chalk boards that the breweries and bars use to list their current selections. The other half of the inspiration is my love for typography and of course, beer is inspiring in itself!

Yes, there were a few other concepts in the running as I had done over 30 comps with variations on many other ideas. Photo-illustration, graphic illustration, some more conceptual photo ideas and the like. With a topic this broad and with so many pre-existing beer related covers out there, it was tough to narrow it down.

CK: At first glance, I think it was the bright pops of color that caught my eye with this cover. But the longer I look at it, the more details I discover in the iconography and typography. Can you share some details of how you executed this cover? Were all the illustrations in the teases digitally produced or were any hand-drawn? How did you achieve the effect on the masthead?

AN: I had mocked this idea up with a stock photo that could have worked but it didn’t feel right. We decided to go the extra distance and shoot a locally brewed beer at a local bar. My good friend and photographer Kimberly Sandie shot the beer at a bar in mid-town and I dropped in the type.

All of the typography was done digitally. There’s about 7 different typefaces used in various combinations – not something I usually do (two is about my limit). I had wanted to do some of it by hand, but with the time crunch and the editors’ desire to make last-minute changes it just wasn’t reasonable. Doing all the type in Illustrator made it easy to compose and re-compose the elements and get the right balance rather quickly. The edge effect on the logo and all the type was done in Photoshop using a process I use when doing illustration. I overlaid a few different chalkboard textures over everything to add a little more depth and called it done.

CK: During your talk at SND LOU, you advised that best way to make a design great is to keep it simple. With this cover, you managed to fit quite a few teases and icons without it feeling too busy. How much do you self-edit your designs, and how do you approach that process?

AN: Well, yes, this was very tricky for me as I would have much rather had way less typography on the cover. The editors pushed to get as much of it on as I could and I took up the challenge and stepped out of my comfort zone to make it work.

I do a fair amount of self editing as I tend to produce tons of variations to see what works and what doesn’t. I never know until I see it so I just have to keep iterating until I find a balance that feels right to me.

With this cover, the process for getting all the type to not clutter the page was color. It wasn’t until one of the editors mentioned using various colored chalk that it was clear to me. I added the cyan and then, boom, I knew it could work. Adding just one level of contrast between the black and white gave me another way to control eye movement around the page without the type taking over the beer. Whenever you are struggling with a solution, it’s always best to show it to someone who hasn’t seen it and see if they see what you see (this is what design friends are for!). If they don’t “get it,” then your message most likely isn’t clear enough for the public.

CK: Did you encounter any obstacles in the production of this cover?

AN: There were lots of obstacles but nothing too major. I was working with editors that I had never worked with before, so getting to know how everyone works was the first step.

The photo shoot was the next major thing. Food is always tricky and getting a frothy, cold glass of beer to look great without being in a studio scared the pants off me. Luckily, Kimberly Sandie had tons of experience in on-locations shoots and food styling so she was confident in our success. We had to deal with the light in the bar changing every ten minutes so there was just tons and tons of shooting to get it right.

Other than a tricky photo shoot, doing the type and finishing touches were standard obstacles I’m used to dealing with. Oh, and making sure the all the cyan was pure and light enough to not fade too far back into the page was my final tweak before sending it to press. Luckily, they use the same printer that SF Weekly used to be printed on so I felt confident enough about reproduction accuracy.

CK: How does the experience of guest art-directing differ from your years as a staff Art Director for SF Weekly, the Sacramento News & Review and Reno News & Review?  

AN: It’s much different as I came into an an unfamiliar eco-system and had to adapt while still finding a way to remain to true to myself. I had to earn the trust of the editors in a few weeks, where when I was a staff art director, I built trust over time that allowed me to take bigger and bigger risks over the years. I had much more freedom and control while at SF Weekly because of that trust and it was a huge part of my success. Being at a publication where the editors have final say over the design was a big change for me, but I realize that that is what most all publication art directors out there are dealing with these days.

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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