Magazine masthead design is one of the most critical elements creators must consider when bringing their publication to life. The term “masthead” is used in newspaper and magazine design and various other forms of print and online publication.
However, the phrase can sometimes be met with significant confusion.
In newspaper design, the term “masthead” often refers almost exclusively to the collection of information given about the publication on the first page.
This information may include details about the date when the piece was published, those responsible for creating the paper, and even the address where the newspaper was made.
In rare cases, a masthead in newspaper design can also refer to the “nameplate” of a piece. A nameplate is where the name of the publication is displayed in a larger font alongside basic details like the date and issue number.
However, in magazine design, there’s a much more significant overlap between “masthead” and “nameplate.”
Because magazines are often much smaller and more compact than newspapers, it’s common for designers to simply use the term “masthead” to refer to the publication’s nameplate. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re wondering, “what makes a good masthead?”
What is a magazine masthead? Defining the masthead
Before you can get started with an effective magazine masthead design, you first need to understand what “masthead” actually means. This can be complex in magazine design, where it’s more common to see the term “masthead” used as an alternative phrase for the publication nameplate.
Traditionally, the term “masthead” comes from nautical dictionaries. The masthead on a ship is the highest part of the mast. When the phrase was adopted into the publishing world, it was also generally used to refer to the very top of a page of a newspaper.
However, these days, the “masthead” in a newspaper or magazine doesn’t necessarily have to appear at the top of a publication or even on the first page. In the magazine industry, the masthead can refer to two very different parts of a piece:
A traditional masthead
A traditional masthead used in newspaper publications and adopted by the magazine landscape provides a one-page overview of crucial information about the piece.
This may include subscription details, lists of editorial staff members, contact information, and important dates or issue numbers. Some mastheads will also include legal and copyright information for the publication, or a brief explanation of the group’s mission statement, to help identify the brand.
Another way to use the term “masthead” in magazine design is as a reference to the nameplate at the top of the cover for the piece. In this instance, magazine masthead design refers to creating the ideal wordmark for branding and marketing your piece.
Technically, a masthead is a separate component of the nameplate in most publications, but the term has come to mean the same thing for many editors.
Understanding how to design a magazine masthead means determining how your publication identifies a piece’s “masthead” portion.
If the group uses the traditional definition for selecting information about the publication, then your focus will generally be on ensuring clarity when conveying critical data.
If the publication uses masthead and nameplate as two interchangeable terms, the designer’s job becomes more akin to creating a logo or wordmark. The focus is on making the company’s name stand out and capturing the right audience’s attention on newsstands.
What makes a good masthead?
Understanding what makes a good masthead can be complex because of the variable definition of the term. For any designer working for a print publication, the first step will always be defining the masthead and understanding the business’s goals in creating this asset.
Let’s look at some of the points you’ll need to consider with both types of masthead design.
Magazine masthead design: Informational elements
As mentioned above, if your organization defines a masthead in the traditional sense as a combination of critical information about the business, your goal will be to showcase this critical data most effectively and legibly as possible.
Some of the points you’ll need to consider include:
The information to include
Informational mastheads need to combine a lot of helpful content about the publication into a relatively small space.
It’s essential to define what elements need to be included for your audience. A masthead’s common components may include the publication’s date and volume number, subscription information, legal notices, and the names of any publishers, editors, or writers.
The font choices
The typography used for an informational masthead is usually relatively straightforward and simple, as it needs to be easy to read.
Poynter, Franklin Gothic, Times, and Helvetica are often quite common. Designers must be experts in tracking, kerning and organizing fonts to ensure they appear as cleanly as possible.
Above all else, informational mastheads must be clear, easy to read, and convenient for the consumer. This means designers need to think carefully about making the asset more accessible.
Using a high level of contrast, such as the black font on a white background, is usually essential. It’s also important to ensure plenty of white space around the font to make it easier to consume.
Magazine masthead design: Nameplate elements
If your publication defines the masthead and nameplate as the same, you’ll have a little more freedom as a designer.
Creating a nameplate for a magazine is similar to designing an effective wordmark for any brand or business. The image should be eye-catching, emotionally captivating, and capable of conveying the brand’s unique personality.
Some of the points to consider here include the following:
A company can say much about its values, mission, and personality with a good nameplate. If a company wants to be seen as sophisticated and elegant, like “Vogue,” they might use a simple, serif-style font for their masthead/nameplate.
An organization trying to come across as edgy and modern might use more contemporary typography, such as the gritty all-lowercase font of the “allure” magazine.
Many magazines experiment with different color palettes throughout different seasons and events. For example, the nameplate of “Marie Claire” magazine consistently changes to match the overall aesthetics of the front page.
Designers will need to consider how they can use color to showcase the brand’s personality and the publication’s theme each time a new issue is produced.
While elements of a magazine’s nameplate can change from one issue to the next, certain elements must remain consistent. For example, “Elle” magazine always uses the same size and positioning for its “masthead” in every issue.
The font choices and layout must also remain consistent throughout each new issue to ensure consumers can easily recognize the magazine they’re looking for.
How do you design a magazine masthead?
Masthead design has become more straightforward for many graphic artists over the years. Today’s leading publications often rely heavily on using design tools like Adobe Illustrator and InDesign to assist with creating the right image.
These digital design tools allow for the use of specific grids and layouts to ensure consistency in the aesthetic of each piece.
While the steps involved in masthead design can vary depending on how your publication views the asset, there are a few steps most designers will need to follow.
Step 1: Identify the information to include
The first and most crucial step in successful masthead design is understanding which elements must be included within the piece.
A traditional masthead, which lays out the information about the publication and its publishers, will have much more content to consider. This means designers will need to assign a larger space within the magazine’s layout.
If your masthead design is simply a nameplate for the publication’s front cover, it’s still important to think about any additional data that may need to be added.
Most publications will show certain pieces of information, such as the price of the piece, the date, and the issue number alongside the nameplate. Making sure all of these elements blend effectively is crucial.
Step 2: Choose a layout hierarchy
Hierarchy in magazine design refers to the structure or layout of the page or cover where you’ll display your masthead. If your masthead is the nameplate for the front cover of your piece, you’ll need to think about where precisely it will be positioned.
Do you want to place your company’s name towards one corner of the publication or spread it across the top?
It’s also worth considering how the other information included on the page will be organized around the masthead.
What information do you need your customers to see first? Do you want to include the price of the publication towards the top of the page or place it at the bottom? Are you concerned about making the date particularly visible?
Step 3: Select font and typography
However, if you define the “masthead” of a magazine, font, and typography will be crucial elements. If your masthead is an informational component, the font choices you select will be focused heavily on legibility and simplicity.
It’s best to stay away from decorative fonts, as you’re likely to include a lot of information customers need to be able to scan quickly. Simple sans-serif and serif fonts which appear similar in all sizes will be crucial.
If you’re using your masthead as a nameplate, you’ll need to think about combining different types of typefaces together. The nameplate of a magazine is often a lot larger, bolder, and more decorative than the rest of the text.
Choosing the right combination of fonts for the key information on your magazine, the nameplate, and the body text is crucial.
Step 4: Create a mock-up design
Most magazine designers create a variety of different versions of any given issue before it goes to print. This is possible through the use of online tools where digital graphics can be easily reorganized and positioned into different spaces.
When creating your mock-up design for either kind of masthead mentioned in this article, it’s important to look holistically at the piece.
Design principles like balance, white space, and alignment are considered in magazine design. It’s essential to determine how the pieces of text on the page work with all the other components of the magazine design.
After all, magazines are often brimming with photos, imagery, and a multitude of different color choices, all of which need to be considered carefully.
Step 5: Optimize and print
Based on your mock-ups, you should be able to see how your masthead design influences the overall aesthetic appeal and legibility of your cover or first page.
Printing and sharing the piece with other team members should make pinpointing issues easier. It’s important to see a version of the design printed on the same size of paper you will be using for your magazine to ensure everything looks well-connected and harmonious.
In some cases, to help ensure the consistency of a masthead and magazine design, companies will create specific layouts and templates they’ll share with the rest of their team.
This provides some guidance into how large a masthead should be and what elements should be positioned around it.
What to avoid in masthead design
The general confusion around masthead design and what it should mean for each print publication means there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for creating the perfect masthead. Over time, each publication will find its own system for producing the perfect magazine cover or informational page.
However, in the meantime, there are a few steps designers can take to improve their chances of success:
Learn the principles of design
Learning the key principles of design is essential to masthead creation and magazine design in general. Brush up on topics like alignment, harmony, contrast, and balance. Remember to look not just at the design of the masthead or nameplate but at the full page.
This is particularly important for magazine designers responsible for creating informational mastheads. When there’s a lot of data to share about a publication, it’s easy for a page to become cluttered and overwhelming.
Designers will need to think carefully about which pieces of data can be omitted and which need to be included.
Don’t be inconsistent
Consistency is critical with a good magazine or masthead design. It’s an important part of demonstrating the credibility and stability of the business and ensuring you continue to capture the attention of the right audience.
Ensure you have a set template for creating your masthead, even if certain elements, like color, might change from one issue to the next.
Don’t obscure text
While magazines are well-known for often being covered in photos and imagery, it’s essential to keep the visuals from overwhelming the text. This is particularly important for the nameplate of your magazine.
Customers still need to quickly identify what they’re buying when searching for your piece on newsstands.
Edit and optimize
Carefully tweaking your masthead or nameplate design elements before each issue is published is essential. Try to get feedback from multiple staff members in your team to see how other people might perceive the content.
Legibility is crucial, but the magazine should also be eye-catching and appealing.
Magazine masthead inspiration: Magazine masthead examples
When exploring Magazine masthead design, it’s often helpful to look a little more closely at some of the existing examples on the market.
If you’re focusing on the traditional definition of the “masthead”, often used by newspaper publications, you’ll need to concentrate on the informative section of the magazine responsible for highlighting crucial data about the piece.
Alternatively, if you define a masthead as an alternative term for a “nameplate,” you can take a broader look at the magazine’s cover page. Here, it’s crucial to think about how the heading for the page works in collaboration with the rest of the piece.
Here are some magazine masthead examples to help inspire you:
Perhaps one of the most popular magazines in the world today, Vogue is well-known for capturing attention with its cover pages. In this example of a magazine masthead, we’re considering the definition of the term as another phrase for “nameplate”.
The Vogue nameplate is consistently presented in a large serif font to demonstrate sophistication and luxury.
Notably, while the model’s image on the front page slightly obstructs the Vogue “G,” the nameplate is still recognizable enough to ensure customers know what they’re looking at. Vogue uses bright colors, plenty of white space, and a high contrast level to draw the eye immediately.
Cosmopolitan uses a similar style to Vogue in its cover page creation. The nameplate or “masthead,” as we’re referring to it in this instance, appears at the top of the page in large, block writing.
Here, the font choice is sans-serif and bold, demonstrating a commitment to a younger audience and a sense of modernity. The color of the heading is often changed to suit the rest of the cover.
Like Vogue, Cosmopolitan isn’t afraid to obscure its nameplate slightly with the image of a model or celebrity. This ensures the focus of the magazine’s front page is on a person – something the audience can resonate with.
3. Time Magazine
Another trendy magazine throughout the world today, Time Magazine is best known for its award-winning articles and hard-hitting pieces. The publication concentrates heavily on demonstrating a professional and educated appearance.
The masthead or nameplate of this magazine often takes precedence over any other image on the cover. This serif font may be highlighted in a different color to the rest of the page or appear imposed over the top of any “hero” images of celebrities or people referenced by the publication.
Understanding magazine masthead design
Magazine masthead design can often be more complex than most people realize. First, creators need to determine how they will define the masthead of a publication. Some will use the traditional definition created and leveraged mainly by newspapers.
Others may prefer to see the masthead as just another term for the magazine nameplate.
Either way, designers should always see the masthead of a magazine as part of a holistic branding strategy for the publication. A masthead should work perfectly with the visual and text-based elements around it to convey a crucial message.
If you need help with masthead design for magazines, it may be worth seeking the support of a professional graphic design team. An expert, like Fabrik, can often assist with designing templates magazine publishers can use whenever they want to create a consistent visual experience.
Fabrik: A branding agency for our times.