Q&A: Time’s Creative Director on Designing Covers for the News Cycle

The magazine won Adweek's Cover of the Year for its Trump series

Time's covers made a splash this year. - Credit by TIME
Headshot of Sara Jerde

After winning Adweek’s Cover of the Year award for its series of covers depicting President Trump in a storm, we caught up with D.W. Pine, creative director at Time, about the process behind the covers and staying creative in such a fast-paced news cycle.

The first cover came out in February and showed Trump in the midst of a storm. The most recent, released in September, shows him floating at the surface of a flooded Oval Office.

Here’s what Pine had to say:

Adweek: What was happening in the news when the idea for the first cover came up?
D.W. Pine: One of the things that kept coming up was the chaos that was happening in the White House at the time. In my head, I was thinking a tornado or some kind of hurricane that was happening.

Tim [O’Brien, who designed the covers and has worked with Time since the early 1990s] has a great relationship with Time and myself. I reached out to him and we started talking about it a little bit. [The design] was nice and simple, and you had this storm brewing inside the Oval Office.

What’s great about that image is that either side could take something away from it. If you’re a supporter of Trump, you say, ‘Yes, look how resolute the president looks amidst the storm around him.’ If you’re a opponent of Trump, you say, ‘Wow, look at this storm this man has created inside this institution.’ That’s a great place for a Time cover to be.

In Time’s history, we did six or seven different covers where it’s an homage to our self where we follow up, and we always give you that X cover since the 1930s. But there have been occasions where we’ve gone back. I went back to Tim, and he thought, ‘Oh, OK, let’s add more water to it’ after a flood of really bad information that was coming out.

As we put it on there, it just kind of clicked. Not only was it a literal storm, but a reference to Stormy Daniels, so that went from there. Once we did it a second time, I thought, ‘Eh, I didn’t know if we’d do it again.’

But there’s more problems and more chaos, and when Stormy Daniels just recently came into the news, we came back and figured he’d update it one more time with water completely flooding the Oval Office.

I can’t honestly say that we will not do it again, but this might be it for us.

Who knows with this news cycle, though?
No doubt. I have people sending me their ideas of what they envision the next one being.

What’s notable, too, about this cover series is how colorful and vibrant it is.
Tim has a pretty vibrant pallet. It’s a painting, so we don’t touch the art in any way—it just popped. I think the color of the water lends itself to very deep and rich colorful blues and teals so that might be what you’re reacting to.

It’s interesting. Most people see the Time cover digitally, so I have to think about that more than in the past, where the Time cover used to be seen more on newsstands. In the last decade, more people see it digitally. In the last three to four years, we’ve animated it for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We’ve been able to capture an entirely new audience showing the cover in a completely new way.

The animations of those covers specifically made it even more amazing. You saw a rainstorm happening, saw the water as it was rising up. Just being able to see that animation furthered what we were trying to say with that imagery.

How did he make the cover?
He works almost like you’re painting on a wall. He sits down next to his easel with references on the side and is able to create an image like that, working overnight several nights in a row. The amazing thing about a Time cover—that was done in about 24 hours. It’s not a huge lead time, and these artists that work with us are just incredible in what they can turn around. He paints it on a wall, then photographs it in a high resolution, beautiful photograph, and we send it in. (See video of him doing it here.)

Do you think your creativity has shifted in this news cycle?
The great thing about Time, specifically, is that we have the license to cover any number of topics. We cover political world events and sports and health and parenting and society. I’ve taken that mantra and applied it to how we create things visually. Yes, we can run a news photo from Syria, but we can also do an oil painting of Angela Merkel.

It could be a high, 3-D render piece or it can just be plain type or photo illustration. We have the license that our readers expect from us to not only show them varied topics but ways we show them that topic.

Fortunately, the news cycle almost forces us to do different things. … That’s what makes it a very interesting place to be right now. To be able to come back once a week and try to crystalize what happened in the world is not only a big responsibility, but I think it’s enjoyed by people nowadays. It gives them a chance to sit back and take it in.

Given this news cycle, the shelf life of a print magazine is so short. How do you make sure it stays fresh?
I love going into the weekend knowing what we’re going to do. We close the cover on Wednesdays. In the last two years, that very rarely happened. We have to be right on the news.

Not only on the news, but we come at the news in a more analytic way. We try to help you understand why it happened, not the what happened. … We can always plan, but you have to be willing to throw those plans out at any given time.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.