The Daily Heller: RIP to the Last of the Truly Great Magazine Covers

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Starting in 1992, Rodrigo Sanchez was the head of design for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper El Mundo (Madrid); from 1996 to 2022—26 years—he assumed responsibility for Metropoli. Since then he combined that job with the art direction of the magazine realm of the publishing company Unidad Editorial, and for the last 10 years, the art direction of the daily newspaper El Mundo. Metropoli folded during the pandemic. Now he is looking for his “own independent path.”

Sanchez’s covers for Metropoli will be missed for the inspiration they offered other magazine designers and for what they say about the capacity of the public to focus on a brand that is purposefully in flux. Here he talks about a few of his favorite covers (the captions are also in-depth analyses of each, so make sure to read them).

There is a Spanish saying about very self-centered people who want to be the child at a baptism, the bridegroom at a wedding and the dead at a funeral. Well, Metropoli, its masthead, has become the protagonist of the cover whenever it has had the opportunity. For the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it occupied the content of the three billboards. Photomontage by Luis Parejo.

What is the process of conceiving, pitching and executing a cover?
A chaotic process. Full of doubts, obstacles, more doubts and unexpected solutions. More the fruit of intuition than of practical theory. Although the result may prove otherwise, I am not able to apply an aesthetic or practical theory to any of the challenges I face.

I put my mind to it and I do it. And it comes out. But it’s intuition. And that brings me problems when it comes to working in a team. Because it is difficult to transmit to a team something that I don’t know, that I just do it. Hit and miss, that’s how work is.

In Metropoli, for example, there is more intuition than reflection. A reflexive intuition, because experienced and trained intuition has a lot of reflection. There is energy, audacity and a lot of courage. These covers are a step forward taken with courage. Without fear of equivocation, looking the error in the face and being aware that the defect is beautiful.

Metropoli, its covers, are the work of an author, not of a team. There are many professionals, many techniques and many hands doing them, but they are instruments working for an orchestra conductor.

There are characters identifiable beyond showing their face. Jackie Kennedy, for example, can be recognized by her hairstyle or her attire. It is the aura that surrounds a person with charisma or a very powerful personality. Jackie’s recognizable tweed suit is as much her as she is herself. There was no need to show her face for the reader to know who we are talking about. The magazine’s masthead, once again, tries to blend in with the character, even if this means losing its location and part of its shape.

So there are no committees or editors to thwart you? But is there a brainstorming process?
There is no brainstorming to make a cover, there is only one tormented head, mine. Searching for an agile, ingenious, different, obvious or fanciful formula. Working on the concept of the theme, getting to the bone. And, at the same time, to find an object or a common referent on both sides, the author’s and the reader’s, so that the idea is recognizable and shareable. If we lose the common referent, we lose the essence of communication. That is why life experience is very important in this and in almost all professions. The more trips, the more films, the more books, the more years and the more experiences and the more resources to use.
What I have figured out over the years is that stress, lack of time and the fuss around me brings out the best in me. That is, a newspaper’s newsroom. I believe that in an isolated environment, to some extent aseptic of noise and movement, I would be a failure as a designer.

The execution of a cover has to be perfect, but that is only a matter of skill, ability and knowing how to handle tools correctly. The important thing is the idea and the management of that idea. The execution is incidental. Fundamental, but accessory. Metropoli feeds on ideas and is executed with craftsmanship.

Why not make a cover about the best bakeries with the remains of a loaf of bread. With the breadcrumbs. And using that raw material to draw, in negative, the letters of our masthead, like the game of a bored child who is still not allowed to get up from the table. Photograph by Ángel Becerril.

What, if anything, is your philosophy about cover design for the magazine?
Normally, publications take their themes to their covers and adapt them to the shapes and forms of their magazines. Metropoli, on the other hand, took its cover to the theme and it is the cover that adopts the form, shape, color or smell of the theme it deals with. If no two themes are the same, no two covers should be the same. It is our obligation as communicators to adapt to the needs of that subject, to its shape, its sound, its smell and its color. It is the constancy and consistency of this treatment that makes a product identifiable over time, not the masthead. And the masthead has to be an active part of the front page, no longer a spectator who is oblivious to what is happening underneath it. Integration is also information. From there, the secret lies in fun, emotion and love for the work. Always do something better and bolder. Go where others don’t dare. To do what the competition never does (or doesn’t know how to do) and to think about the capacity to surprise, towards our readers and ourselves.

This was the last “last” cover of Metropoli. The magazine stopped printing in the middle of the pandemic. It made no sense to continue publishing a magazine about leisure when we were not allowed to leave our homes. We were under arrest. To say goodbye we chose a theme on how to make and cook pasta at home. The illustration, made with fresh and dried pasta, is based on Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting, THE BEDROOM IN ARLÉS, 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands). Work by Gabriel Sanz.

Every issue, every cover is different …
But our magazine is always the same, but the topics that make the cover are unique and unrepeatable. Why should we treat them all the same? Equality is sometimes the greatest inequality. An injustice and, in journalism, a mistake. Each subject must have the opportunity to stand out from the rest, to live its moment of glory, to stand out and become unforgettable.

There is little more to say about a work in which there are no rules, no conventions, no concrete guidelines and not even defined long-term lines. Eclecticism becomes a flag and it is difficult to define boundaries between styles, manners or working trends. Anything goes: shouting, whispering, caressing, singing … and for this we put colors, shapes, sizes, letters, drawings or photographs at the service of graphic journalism. Be flexible and unpredictable.

A cocktail glass made with Mondrian’s modular technique. Simple and effective. It looks hard, but it is soft to the palate. A picture to hang. Illustration by Rodrigo Sánchez.
When I thought of this cover, the image of Albert Einstein writing his formula for relativity on a blackboard came to mind. I imagined what could have been a blackboard scribbled by Stephen Hawking with formulas and explanations. We tortured, once again, our masthead to look like anything but our masthead. And we succeeded. Torturer: Ulises Culebro.
Dog cookies, in the shape of a bone, are the islands that make up the Dog Islands archipelago. Divided into two groups, the Western Islands and the Eastern Islands, all within the great Metropoli‘s Sea. We created a sea chart and named the islands after dogs: Greyhound Island, Half Dog Island (the one cut in half), Big Dog Island, Flea Island, Chihuahua Atoll (one of the small pieces of one of the cookies), Big Poodle Island, Terrier Island or Dalmatian Island. And the geographical features or channels between islands also had dog names: Ensenada del Hueso Roto, Canal Afgano (near Isla Greyhound), Cabo Colmillo or canal de Las Manchas (between Isla Dálmata and Gran Caniche). The covers are there to thrill and have fun making them. The same thing Wes Anderson must have thought of and done with his movie. Photograph by José María Presas.