texasmonthly.com: In general, how do you decide what will be the cover?
SD: The cover is a difficult proposition for us. Basically, the cover is an advertisement for our magazine. We have to communicate very quickly the essence of an important story as well as the additional content of the magazine with a single page of type and an image. Typically, a potential reader makes a decision about whether he wants to pick up the magazine within one to two seconds. If he does, he is more likely to buy it, which is the whole point of the cover. So our main goal in thinking about the cover is what sort of image and cover line will intrigue, interest, or provoke a reader into taking a closer look at Texas Monthly.
The process is fairly involved and not always easy. Evan Smith, the editor, and I sit down about once a week and talk about covers. Deciding what it will be is a fluid thing. We have a rough game plan for the upcoming six to twelve months. We brainstorm, and all of our editors and members of the art department contribute ideas and thoughts into this mix. Evan and I determine what ideas are the strongest, both substantively and visually. Some stories have the potential of rising to the level of a cover through the strength of the article alone, yet visually, are too abstruse to quickly communicate as a singular image. Other stories center on a specific person or place, in which case I have to formulate a visual solution—photographically, or illustratively—that fits the conceit of the story. Who I assign to photograph or illustrate a cover is an aesthetic decision, one that will reinforce or contrast the intended content of the piece.
texasmonthly.com: For this month’s cover, what was involved to make it happen?
SD: Some covers evolve, grow, and change continually, while others present themselves immediately as strong solutions. The Lance Armstrong July issue was an example of the latter. Evan came to me almost six months ago with the idea that Mike Hall might profile Lance for the July issue. Lance shared our 1999 Texas Twenty cover—but had never been on one by himself. We agreed, almost immediately, that if Mike’s story panned out as planned, Lance would make an excellent cover. I contacted Lance’s agent, Bill Stapleton, and his publicist, Colleen Capasso, and began to make arrangements. We stayed in weekly communication for the next two months, talking about concepts and trying to find the hole in Lance’s amazingly busy schedule. Lance was traveling back and forth between Austin and Europe, but we found a weekend in March when he would be in town and set up a time. He ended up getting caught out of state longer than he anticipated and our plans had to be tabled. Lance had one last trip to Austin before he left for Spain for the remainder of the spring and summer, so we rescheduled for April 5. I asked Martin Schoeller to photograph. Martin is one of the hottest photographers in the country, having recently shot former president Bill Clinton for The New Yorker, A-Rod for Esquire, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for Rolling Stone. Martin’s forte is photographing an edgy, high profile subject and capturing and translating to paper attitude, ambition, and talent—a perfect fit for this subject and the tone of Mike’s story. So I coordinated concept with Martin. We met at Lance’s property in West Austin and set up. Lance arrived at three in the afternoon, and we had exactly one hour to shoot the photos for the cover and the story. Almost six months of planning—executed smoothly in a single hour.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything in particular about the shoot that stood out as peculiar or extraordinary? If so, what?
SD: The shoot was fairly standard. Lance was a bit tense and stressed when he arrived, but after kidding around with us and talking to Mike during set breaks, he loosened up considerably. We had set up a hammock in some trees near the house, and toward the end of the shoot, we asked if he would lie down and relax in the hammock with his wife, Kristin. They agreed. Almost immediately you could see that they had completely let down their guard and lost themselves in the brief moment of peace and quiet together. We didn’t even exist. The photo on page 74 is the result.
texasmonthly.com: Once the photos arrive, how do you determine what should be on the cover?
SD: Martin shoots on medium-format color negative film. His lab in New York produces contact sheets with all of the frames exposed on sheets of photo paper. By the time I received the contact sheets, Martin had already indicated his favorite shots. I have an obligation to the artist to seriously consider his favorites. At the same time, I have to keep in mind what will be best for the magazine—what will ultimately reinforce the communication. So it’s somewhat of a balancing act. Sometimes some of the best shots have fatal flaws in them that prevent us from using them. Basically I go through and determine my favorite ten or so shots. In this case I whittled these down to three options and called Martin to discuss the pros and cons of each. We agreed on these three, and he made large color prints of each. Once I had these finals in my possession, I started mocking up covers, combining each with different typographic and copy solutions. From there, Evan and I discussed the different looks and consulted other folks on staff to gauge the overall reactions.
texasmonthly.com: How many times did you have to redo the design before it was finalized by the edit and art team?
SD: It’s not unusual to go through fifty or more iterations of a single cover. We worked on this particular cover for the better part of two weeks.
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, do you think readers prefer people or places on a cover? Why?
SD: I don’t think it is possible to generalize what people like on covers. Texas Monthly is unusual in that we can depict nearly any subject on our cover, so odds are we will do covers that strike particular chords in different people. Personally, I prefer people.
texasmonthly.com: How do you come up with your ideas for art for a story?
SD: Evan and I talk about an upcoming story several months in advance. We discuss who’s writing, who’s editing, what our expectations are, and what our time and budgetary constraints are. Then I go back to the art department and start brainstorming with Kathy Marcus, the associate art director. We sit down and go over the same sort of broad points and go back and forth about various ways to solve the design and visual problems. I then make some final decisions on more specific matters: who will photograph, who will illustrate. I begin to make some rough layout sketches for the article. Then I call a photographer or illustrator and start discussing concept for the piece. Most of the best artists offer their own view—and typically strengthen whatever ideas we’ve had—and take the concept to the next level. The artist then sends me some sketches, and we go over them, finalizing plans and setting firm constraints and conditions for the final art or photos. Typically, I go to the photo shoot and art direct, working closely with the photographer to ensure the finished product will work with the architecture of the article and even the structure of that particular issue.
texasmonthly.com: How many times do you come up with a design before you are satisfied and ready to turn it over to edit?
SD: Once I get the finished photos or illustration in from my freelance artists, I start plugging them into my designs and layouts. Some sections of our magazine are very rigid in form, structured pages that do not vary from month to month. But our feature well is entirely open visually. For the most part, there are few constraints as far as type or imagery. I usually start out with some loose sketches, then move over to the computer to tighten. By this point, my concept and general look is pretty much set. I might do an additional ten to fifteen revisions, each being subsequently more minor.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think art overshadows text? Why or why not?
SD: I think there is a synergy between the two—really, it would be irresponsible for me to say that one is more important than the other. Neither could exist in a magazine without the other. Besides, text is an art in and of itself.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite cover image? (And no, it doesn’t have to be from this magazine.)
SD: One of my favorites is the April 1999 cover of Wired. The cover story is “Lights Out: Learning to Love Y2K.” The cover is solid black and the only delineation of type or masthead is done in a spot UV coating contrasted against a matte varnish. The effect that it creates is both visual and tactile, since the UV coat is very slick and glossy and the matte finish is rougher and not as saturated. From the newsstand, it created the appearance of a solid black cover (that really stood out though it’s minimalist). Only upon picking up the issue did you see the type as it reflected and shimmered in the light. Simply brilliant.