Chris Street and Shannon Cornman: Designing to Get Picked Up

Editor’s Note: This is the 30th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Designers at alt-weeklies have the freedom to come up with some off-the-wall cover ideas, but in the end, the simpler designs can have the greatest appeal, as the Oklahoma Gazette proved when it won an AltWeekly Award for Cover Design. 

One of the winning covers, “Becoming ‘Ungay’,” began with a picture that chief photographer Shannon Cornman shot of a Bible lying on her coffee table. On the resulting cover, the faded browns and blacks of the Bible clash with a bright rainbow-design bookmark. "Ungay" illustrates a story about the pressure some religions impose on their followers to change their sexuality.

On the cover “Forgotten,” a sheet covers most of a woman’s body; only her lower legs and feet protrude. A gold toe tag bears the headline and subhead of a story about the unsolved murders of Oklahoma City prostitutes.

An off-white computer keyboard key reading “DELLeted” pops from a background of red on the third cover, setting up a story about deleted e-mail records related to a multi-million-dollar Dell contract. Art director Christopher Street scrounged a keyboard from the office’s "computer morgue" before heading to the parking lot to shoot that cover.

Cornman, who is a former studio photographer and camera saleswoman, and Street, who used to work for an ad agency, discuss what goes into designing a cover at the Gazette.

Describe the process you go through to come up with a cover concept.

Street: We have cover meetings every Thursday, usually attended by a writer, the associate publisher, the editor and me. We’ll talk about covers several months down the road.  The editor presents stories, and we all help brainstorm concepts.  I’m not a person that has to have his mark on everything.  If someone comes up with a better idea, I’m all for it. 

In some cases, we can’t come up with anything.  It’s just awful, awful subject matter that is not illustratable.  In those instances, we’ll say, "Let’s just run something from news or film or music on the cover."  So the cover story is not actually the cover.

In what cases do illustrations work better than photos?

Street: Usually for stories that cover state or national politics.  Shooting older white men and putting their faces on the cover is kind of boring.  We like to change it up and add some humor. 

Another instance is when something hasn’t materialized yet. We have a cover story coming up about an upscale, dine-in movie theater that has not been built.  We can’t just take a picture of the empty field it’s supposed to be in. Even an architectural rendering is boring.  We have to get creative.  We try to bend the limits of the concept, and we’re doing this Toulouse-Lautrec-type poster showing these high-class, foppish people eating and enjoying a movie.

So, first, the choice is story dependent, and, secondarily, we look at how many photos we’ve had over the past few issues as opposed to an illustration.  Sometimes, just for pacing purposes, we will force an illustration on a cover that could have been photographed. I would say we use about one illustration for every five photo covers.

For the photo illustration you used on the cover "Forgotten," you portrayed a dead prostitute. How did you manage that?

Cornman: We grabbed a model, who happened to be our associate publisher, put her on a conference table and put a sheet over her.

Street:  The associate publisher doesn’t have an ankle tattoo, and we wanted to add some character to the dead hooker.  So we had to go shop around for a tattoo. We thought that would be the best way to show people that this was the body of a prostitute.

Cornman: Originally, I went down to the Oklahoma City coroner’s office looking for something original we could use for the photograph. Naturally, I wasn’t allowed to use a deceased person, but they gave me a toe tag they use in the field.

Street: I turned the image grayscale and then hand-tinted the entire image with color.

Where do you take these photos?

Cornman: Whatever works.  The "Ungay" Holy Bible picture I took on my coffee table at home with a mechanic’s spotlight.  I have studio lights, but I didn’t really need to grab all that out.  We needed a soft light on the book. The bookmark was originally a picture of a lion or something like that that we got at a bookstore. We couldn’t find a rainbow we liked. So Chris did some work in Photoshop to change out the bookmark and mute the colors on the Bible and table so the rainbow would stand out more.

How did you come up with the concept for that one?

Street: I was happy with that concept because it’s such a touchy subject: religion and gays, and using the Christian religion to force people to become "ungay."  I was panicked about how we were going to come up with something without making someone mad.  It worked out really well just showing the Bible with a rainbow bookmark, as if a gay person might be reading it.  It was elegant in how simple it was, and how it conveys the idea.  I like how there’s contrast.  You’ve got the bright-colored bookmark, which is standing out like a sore thumb against the dark browns and grays of the table and the Bible.

Do you try to play with color contrasts in all the covers?

Street: The key is not color choice. The publisher prefers primary colors; he says that’s what makes people pick up the paper. I think the paper can be gray sometimes as long as it has contrast and catches people’s eyes. The key is what catches people’s eye, and especially on newsprint, it’s the contrast.

One of the contest judges commended you for "understanding the meaning of simplicity." Do you strive for that?

Street: I totally believe the less complex the cover the better.  If you can pare down a concept to its basic elements, and it still works, that’s the best way to do a cover.  Establish a strong central image.  A lot of complex covers that have a lot going on don’t catch people’s eye.  A cover works really well if you can recognize it from 20 feet away, and the picture interests you and makes you walk over and pick it up.

How does the role of cover art differ from the role of art inside the paper?

Street: The cover image should bend the rules slightly, to the point where it almost misleads the potential viewer to pick up the paper.  It has to be very enticing, whether or not the cover story is enticing.

On your "Delleted" cover, the story’s title was on a key of a computer keyboard. On the "Forgotten" cover, the title was on a toe tag. Do you always try to place text in a creative way?

Street: Katherine Topaz, who redesigned the Gazette in 2002, dictated that we only use a certain font and treat it with a certain style for consistency.  Generally, I keep with that.  But when the cover story dictates I do something different, where just having a floating headline won’t work, there are instances where I can break the rules.

Were there other covers you would have liked to submit for the contest?

Street: Yes, one was the "Gay Dads" cover we did for a Fathers Day issue. We decided to play it up when one of our graphic artists recommended using Ken dolls.  I got two dolls, dressed them up, and put them in a living room setting with a Barbie baby sitting on their lap. I replaced the photo on the TV with one from the "Queer as Folk" TV show. A lot of time went into making the living room look just right to fit the cover dimensions. Needless to say, this cover generated a few phone calls to the editor.

How long does it generally take to put together these covers?

Street: I find that covers we have a lot of time to work on end up being not as good as ones we have to do over the weekend because the cover story got changed.  An example of that is "Delleted."  It wasn’t supposed to run the week it did, and it got scheduled at the last minute.  I panicked.  Shannon was off shooting something else, so I just picked up a keyboard from our computer morgue and went out to the parking lot.

Victoria Markovitz is in her junior year at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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