Finding the perfect cover: Exploring what makes magazines sell


What is the “perfect” magazine cover for maximizing sales? What engages with readers as far as news stand sales go? Does sex really sell? These are questions Professor Darren A. Sanefski addressed in his Saturday morning talk at SND.

Sanefski provided a break-down of his study, The Magazine Cover Project, which was conducted with his colleague Robert Magee, Ph.D.

This preliminary study obtained data obtained from MagNet, a database that provides sales information from retail locations in the United States and Canada. The study looked at the top 100 magazines titles by sales and included magazines from all categories (women’s, men’s, sports, etc.). The findings were sorted in three categories: 1. magazines less than $5, 2. magazines less than $5-10, and 3. magazines more than $10. The study examined 669 covers published in 2013 and statistically compared covers published in the same month of the following year in 2014.

Here are some highlights of his study:


Does color affect sales?
Findings: Color theory tells us that cool colors tend to be calming, relaxing, and are associated with nature. Contrastingly, warm colors evoke excitement. Sales for covers where cool colors were prevalent were lower than other color combinations for titles priced less than $5. On the other hand, sales for covers in which warm colors were prevalent were higher than other color combinations for titles priced less than $5.

Do shapes affect sales?
Findings: Geometric shapes such circles are used as sorting elements that help define areas which make elements easier to read. However, the study actually found that sales for covers that featured at least one circle actually fared worse than covers that had no circle. However, this relationship was only true for magazines priced below $5. For other price categories, there was no statistical significance.

Does negative space affect sales?
Findings: Negative space helps the reader focus on the content, which eases readers and give them “room to breathe”. However, the study found that covers that incorporated negative space actually fared worse in sales than covers that had less negative space. This was only true for titles priced $5-10. For other price categories, there was no statistical significance.


Do secondary images affect sales?
Findings: Images give readers a focus point to access different content. The study found that sales for covers that featured secondary images had lower sales for titles priced below $5. Comments from the audience suggested that people are stressed by complexity, and a cover that is too cluttered is undesirable.

Does script type affect sales?
Findings: Script type give designs an element of personal touch and emotion. The study found that covers in 2014 that featured script type performed better than those without script type for titles priced $5-10.

Does sex really sell?
Findings: Design professors teach students all the time “sex sells”. However, the study found that having the word “sex” on the cover made no difference increased or reduced number of sales in all magazines in the study, regardless of price point. However, sexually suggestive and implied words did lead to lower sales in 2014 for titles priced below $5. Additionally, sales for covers that featured sexual images had lower sales for titles priced below $5.

Conclusions for now:
Looking at Sanefski and colleagues’ study, you may be tempted to ask “so if I use warm colors, script type everywhere, and sexually suggestive words, will I have the perfect magazine cover to increase my sales?” Before you rush off to design your next cover, it’s important to keep in mind that this is still a preliminary study that look at correlation. It does not yet have the power to claim that including (or excluding) a design element has a cause and effect relationship on lowered or increased sales. Additionally, the psychology behind why people choose to purchase is complex. Beyond basic design elements, consumers may decide to buy a magazine based on personal aesthetic preference, brand loyalty, content, and more.

The goal of this study is to start a meaningful conversation where we can finally systematically look at design elements and trends. Sanefski and his colleagues plan on analyzing more than 4,000 covers by the end of the project. In the future, they hope to start looking at specialized categories including health, technology, and sports magazines.