The Art of Research: How Journal Covers Influence Readers and Research

When you think of a research journal, what do you picture? Is it a vivid, detailed art spread, or a simplistic and minimalist design? Journal cover art is a surprisingly polarized medium—most journals feature either highly graphic, detailed, and aesthetically pleasing art or subdued, uniform designs, but there aren’t many journals that fall somewhere in-between. Each style of journal covers communicates a different subtextual message and can play an important role in signaling the target audience of the publication.

Vivid and Graphic Journal Cover Art

Some journals feature highly graphic covers for each issue, similar to the magazine approach of drawing a potential reader’s attention by using vivid, striking design to stand out among its many competitors. As such, we’ll call these ‘magazine-style’ covers for the purpose of this article. Pioneers in the use of magazine-style journal covers are Science, Nature, and the Lancet. Magazine-style cover art must fulfill several critical roles to be successful:

Simplistic and Uniform Journal Cover Art

On the other end of the spectrum is the minimalistic cover art. For these journals, issue covers typically look nearly identical and feature no images at all, with only the text changing from issue to issue; we’ll call these ‘uniform’ cover designs. It may be surprising to see that the journal with the highest impact factor across all of academia—CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, with a whopping 2022 journal impact factor of 254.7—uses a uniform cover art style. Many smaller journals will also use uniform cover art, as this strategy is more cost-effective. With uniform cover design, the journals are aiming to achieve a distinct set of goals:

  • Enhance readability. By using a uniform template for each issue, readers know exactly where to look to gain the information they need. It’s typically quicker to identify the journal issue number or key articles.
  • Prioritize content, not appeal. These articles aren’t aiming to draw in readers—they can trust that readers will read the issues due to the intrinsic content without needing to be drawn in by cover art.
  • Express academic rigor. Some readers may interpret a uniform cover design as a signal of its focus on scientific content rather than mass appeal, improving their impression of the journal’s research value.
  • Build a brand. Similar to highly graphic cover art, these covers still play a large role in establishing a journal’s brand. Even minimalistic covers will be used to establish a journal’s typography, color palette, logo, and other features that will be consistent across all of the journal’s materials, including their website, presentation materials, and more.

What Cover Art Says About the Journal

Ultimately, the most important task that cover art performs is establishing the brand of a journal. Branding is a vital tool for establishing a journal’s reputability, respectability, and target audience (Gringarten et al., 2011). Branding can also be used to align a journal with its publisher or connected organization—for example, some journals published by Harvard University use the University’s distinct red and white colors and Proxima Nova/Merriweather fonts to align with the University’s established brand.

Cover art can play a key role in subconsciously communicating the publication’s target audience. Many journals that focus on a narrow target audience of researchers within the journal’s field of study use uniform journal covers. For these journals, cover designs don’t have to entice readers—they rely on their readers having an established pattern of reviewing every issue or being brought to the publication to read a specific article, not by the issue cover. On the other hand, many journals with magazine-style cover art aim to attract a wider audience of lay people or scientists outside of the specific discipline the journal publishes in. Because they can’t rely on readers independently seeking out research articles, they invest more resources in attracting attention. Having a wider scope also means that they’re up against more competition for attention, so there’s more emphasis on catching readers’ eye.

Which Cover Art Style is Better?

There’s no clear-cut better or worse cover art style. Magazine-style and uniform cover art serve separate purposes and communicate distinct brand identities to the reader. Regardless of cover art style, a journal should be evaluated on the merits of its scientific content; however, the art can serve as a shortcut toward understanding the journal’s intentions.