Stefan Kiefer: Speed Learning to “Think Cover”

Usually Stefan Kiefer’s creative workshops take two days (plus one night shift). At TYPO Berlin he squeezes the content into two tiny hours. The dynamic of the extremely short-lived creative teams and their results are nevertheless remarkable.

Stefan Kiefer teaching how to "Think Cover" © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype) Stefan Kiefer teaching how to “Think Cover” © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)
For the first 30 minutes of the two hours Stefan Kiefer takes us on a fast-paced tour through the highlights of 60 years of Spiegel magazine covers. Kiefer was part of the cover team for 18 years during “the golden years under chief editor Stefan Aust” and for 13 years he was head of the team.

We get to see early Spiegel covers with an unusual use of space and layout, the first illustrated cover, the introduction of the red frame (inspired by the American TIME Magazine), the first cover photo made with a mobile phone … and lots and lots of commissioned covers, many of them extremely elaborated in the making, involving the manual craftsmanship of painters, puppet makers or photographers rather than just computer skills.

“You have to clearly define the ideas the cover needs to communicate.”

Kiefer teaches from a graphic design point of view. But even though most of the 50 workshop participants are indeed designers, he stresses that creativity is not necessarily tied to graphic design or any job in particular and that you don’t have to go to art school to learn it: “The most important part of creative work happens inside your head. You have to clearly define the ideas the cover needs to communicate and it has to tell a story.”

Stefan Kiefer

Stefan Kiefer

Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Art Director, Founder (Hamburg)

Stefan Kiefer was born and grew up on the German island of Sylt. He worked as an illustrator and art director for many famous national and international publishers, agencies and companies before joining Spiegel, where he worked for 18 years, including 13 as cover art director. At the end of 2014, he founded Hongkong Studios in Hamburg. Working in a 400-square-metre large former warehouse, the company is a creative laboratory for graphic design, workshops, art, photography and music.

Creating Great Magazine Covers – The Rules

Besides this fundamental piece of advice, Kiefer introduces seven rules for making a great magazine cover. They are based on a set of guidelines written in 1904 by the otherwise forgotten Ernst Growald. Here is a rough translation of Kiefer’s rough rewrite of Growald’s rules:

  1. A magazine cover needs to engage the viewer at first sight and leave a lasting impression.
  2. A good cover serves the purpose of talking even to those who don’t wish to be addressed
  3. The title page can never be liked by everyone, but it can be noticed by everyone
  4. Good covers are seen, not read
  5. Don’t tell a long story on the cover – no one wants to get their feet wet while standing on the street looking at it at the kiosk
  6. Don’t interfere with the work of you cover artist more than you would interfere with the work of your tailor
  7. Pay attention to your competitor’s covers – not to imitate them but to make yours better.

Since only very few people talk to tailors these days, Kiefer condensed Growald’s rules into a more concise and contemporary version, but you’ll have to go to one of his workshops to learn those …

The 45-Minute Cover

For the following 45 minutes the participants split up into 10 groups of five and develop a cover for one of two fictitious magazine Kiefer proposes:

“Go”, a magazine for start-ups and “if”, a magazines about possibilities (as in “what if … “). Both published monthly with a print run of 100.000 copies, for a target audience of 21- to 41-year-olds.

The Brief: Come up with a subject you’ll cover, a headline, a subheading and an image and be ready to share your idea with a scribble in a 30-second presentation. Stefan Kiefer and Horst Moser (who Kiefer spontaneously invites into the jury) will select their two favorites and have the audience choose the “winner” by applause.

“I am not sure if I would show my scribbles in front of this big audience!”

Working With Strangers

It is amazing how well we work together in our creative team of five strangers. We quickly pick the “if” magazine, rather than “go”, settle on the subject “time”, decide to change the title to “what if” and eventually choose “what if time wasn’t money” as our integrated headline and subheading.

We spend the rest of our 45 minutes trying to come up with an image to visualize the possibilities of disconnecting the common understanding that “time is money” and the consequences this would have. At the end we run out of time and settle on the image of a “Hamsterrad” (That round thing a hamster runs in round and round. The “Hamsterrad” is the German equivalent of the English idiom “rat race”.) with no hamster in it but a sticky note on it: “back in five”.

And the Winner is …

My team is super proud as “What If Time Wasn’t Money”-Cover gets applause from Horst Moser and praise from Stefan Kiefer who admits: “I am not sure if I would show my scribbles in front of this big audience!”

Some of the ideas the other teams came up with:
if – the magazine of possibilities

  • if there were no more borders
  • if we could change our identity
  • if we break free from our comfort zone
  • if there was no meat

go – the magazine for start-ups

  • who is standing behind me
  • secrets of success
  • everyone needs to start somewhere
  • the crowdfunding issues
  • the road to starting a business is no cakewalk

In the end, our idea is not among the final two. The crowdfunding-idea and break-through-your-comfort-zones compete, and – well, who cares which one actually won, it was great to be there!

Impromptu creative teams thinking up a magazine cover in just 45 minutes in Stefan Kiefer's workshop "Think Cover" © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype) Impromptu creative teams thinking up a magazine cover in just 45 minutes in Stefan Kiefer’s workshop “Think Cover” © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)