Character Builder: Adam Moss Touts Tiny Type!

There’s something you can’t help but notice about New York’s cover lines these days.

Take last week’s issue. In a big, bold, screaming headline, you found the cover line: “THE FACEBOOK REVOLT” over a shot of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But then there’s all sorts of tiny type all over the place! Right above the headline, there’s a red starburst with a word that says “Fraud.” It’s readable, but small. The words surrounding it on either side—“Plus the Houdini of” and “By Robert Kolker”—are tinier still. How tiny? The letters weigh in somewhere between the size of a grain of sugar and a grain of kosher salt.

Same goes for a line in the roofline above the magazine’s banner that reads “FOR REAL ESTATE OBSESSIVES” in a font so small you’ll need trifocals to see it.

We know New York loves to package, and that appearance has long been an obsession for editor Adam Moss, so we decided to drop him a call to get him to talk about it.

He said the first thing you address is the cover line—then the rest is “garnish.”

“There’s a certain texturing,” he said. “Texturing? Is that a word? A texture object that has to do with the design of the cover. We have very large type and very small type. It’s impossible to describe graphic design, but you want to create a visual tension on the cover. We want you to see a big word that excites you. And then it’s like someone who speaks very softly and you lean in to hear them.”

Sometimes, you want to whisper to your reader.

“Everything needs texture,” he said. “A piece of music can’t all be big moments. It needs big moments and small moments. The same for a short story—or anything, really. The big and small moments are put in relief through their opposition to each other.”

Mr. Moss said that the vast majority of the New York covers are sold by subscription—newsstand sales count for only about 4 percent of the total of magazines that wind up in readers hands. It’s one of the reasons why New York covers can be conceptual—they don’t need to dump a celebrity on it every week. 

“And ours are a little more difficult to get across,” he said. “You have a main line and then you have to give the reader a little more information to tell them what’s going on and by necessity that information has to be in smaller type.”

Of course, New York has long been celebrated for its covers, going all the way back to the time Milton Glaser designed covers for Clay Felker. New York’s Barbara Kruger–designed cover featuring Eliot Spitzer last year—with the arrow, and the word “Brain” pointed right at his nether region—won cover of the year at the American Magazine Conference last fall.

And Mr. Moss said credit should be shared. “The covers are collaborations between Jody Quon, the photo director; Chris Dixon, the design director; and me,” he said. “For instance, it was Jody’s brilliant idea to do Bernie Madoff as the joker, and many of the great conceptual ideas are hers. Chris is a master of type.” Character Builder: Adam Moss Touts Tiny Type!