Updated: Nov 21, 2021
I am asked to illustrate cover submissions quite often and have had a pretty high success rate. These jobs tend to be tricky, so I’d like to address a few points.
First: Congratulations! You are about to publish your research in a major journal. You are thinking of submitting a cover proposal…
1. Should I hire an illustrator?
The first thing to do is to look at the most recent covers of the journal to get a sense of their style. First and foremost- are they mostly illustrations? Maybe you have an awesome image from your research. Hiring an illustrator for a cover submission is an investment, and it is worth considering what value you place being the “cover story”. Having your work on the cover of a well-known journal can vastly increase your exposure and lend prestige to your research. But there are no assurances your proposal will be selected, so it’s not really worth submitting something half-baked. If you are going to do it, invest! Hiring an illustrator may only be worth it for a high-profile publication. But even if your submission isn’t selected, rest assured, these pieces end up getting a lot of use in conference presentations, posters, etc. They can also attract press attention even if they are not selected!
2. When should I start working on a cover submission?
I cannot stress this enough: Think Ahead. After the formal acceptance letter, it is very common to get just one week to submit a cover. So if your paper is, say, accepted with minor revisions, this is a good time to hire an illustrator and start working on a sketch (or at the very least get in touch with one or two whose work you like to discuss a potential piece). By now you know the journal and its style, and with more time you have a better likelihood of producing a submission that will be selected, as these illustrations need to be rendered at a very high level. Plus, you will also save some cash as most illustrators, myself included, charge a rush fee for jobs with fast turnaround. For reference, magazines can spend months working on a cover.
3. What is (and isn’t) important when designing a cover submission?
Some journals use metaphors and conceptual art on their covers, others go for hyperrealism. Color, dynamic composition, and a strong visual concept are extremely important. What’s less important is precisely representing a complete picture of your research. Graphics are about communicating your work clearly (and aesthetically). Covers are about advocating for your science through beautiful imagery. Graphics and figures are about accuracy. Covers are about attention. Representing your science accurately is an incredibly important trait for a researcher. I am in no way implying that a cover should misrepresent the science! But ideally, a cover will accurately convey the message of your research without getting bogged down with details. Preoccupation with precise representations can be the downfall of a cover submission, particularly if it is rushed (see 2 above). For a submission to be competitive, the art needs to be highly polished and this takes time. If I am busy redrawing something, that time is taken away from making sure the visuals are as compelling and perfect as possible. Accurate communication is important, to be sure. But the selection of a cover has little to do with this type of precision. I will say it again: Covers are about attention- That’s why you want that cover in the first place!