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Behind the scenes: how we made the January 2018 cover package

New year, new you—or, rather, new dawning way of organising every aspect of your life. For our first issue of 2018, we decided to put together a cover package all about the future, with essays on shopping, politics, food, sex and computing.

Imagining the future

As our creative director, Mike Turner, explains, “We knew from early on that the cover feature would consist of a number of smaller articles making up a ‘bundle’ of interesting reads. Each would focus on a subject that is a big part of modern day living.”

“We came up with the shortlist of five topics. With technology being the common factor, it seemed apt to label this collection as ‘The Future issue’—we wanted to ask what developments are happening in these areas, how will our lives be affected by them.”

Choosing to badge the package as a “future” issue wasn’t just a thematic decision, however; it was also a savvy editorial one.

“Any magazine, especially a monthly, faces a special challenge in getting the right sort of cover that can command interest on the news-stands both sides of the festive season—because the mood is so different in decadent December and back-to-school January,” explains editor Tom Clark.

“In the past, Prospect has sometimes done a ‘big ideas of 2015,’ or whatever the year is, but I wanted to try and give this a bit more of a theme than that, so we thought we’d look into specific areas of day-to-day life and make the single editorial point: the future is coming, whether we like it or not, so we’d better get our heads round it.”

The future of computing

As the package came together over a series of editorial meetings, it became clear that it needed to encompass both changes to our everyday lives and to the bigger, structural bodies that govern them—like politics and technology.

Jay Elwes, executive editor of Prospect, contributed a piece on the future of computing.

“The science involved in the drive to create quantum computers is especially fascinating, and has an appeal all of itself. But more broadly, the potential power that could be derived from a universal quantum computer is enormous.”

“Sandu Popescu, a senior physicist at Bristol University, told me ‘that on longer terms, this would change the face of the world.’ My sense is that he is correct in that.”

Getting to cover such a complex topic in-depth is, he says, a particular delight of working at Prospect. “It allows us the space to analyse the complex array of ideas, some of them deeply counter-intuitive, that come along with subjects of this kind. Also, Prospect has a very strong history of science writing—our writer Phil Ball recently won an industry award for pieces he’s written for us.”

Tom agrees. “You could say the clue’s in the name: Prospect. It has always tried to look ahead to where things are going. In everything we do, we try and encourage to cast an unsparing eye, engaging with inconvenient facts as well as those that fit with preconceptions. That is important for us politically, to avoid us falling into a partisan trench.”

“When you think about the future there is sometimes a danger of being led by either techno-enthusiasm on the one hand or blind panic on the other. What I like about this set of essays is that they don’t fall into either trap”

When asked about the editorial process, Tom also stressed the importance of working with complex ideas. “By far the hardest piece to edit was my colleague Jay’s piece on quantum computing, purely because the underlying science of quantum is so difficult to put into words.”

“But it was rewarding to keep going with because he had this really powerful journalistic insight, which is that these new computers are something fundamentally different— no longer about zeros and ones or on/off switches.”

“In the end, I took some of the exposition of the science and scientific history out of the printed version because the constraints of space, but the nice thing about having a parallel online operation is when you’ve got good material like this you can publish a longer version on the web, which is what we’ve done this time.”

Designing the cover package

Of course, making a series of complex ideas work on the page isn’t just about using editorial judgement—it’s about making every part of the reader experience work.

“It is important to have a visual consistency throughout a cover package,” says Mike. “There has to be a clear link between the cover, the contents listing, the intro page—giving a brief introduction to the following articles and teeing up the reader for what is to follow—and the articles themselves.”

“Prospect covers usually follow a format: image on the right, text ranged left. We felt, though, that this January issue need to stand out as a special issue.”

“We decided on a typographic route, centred on the page with a geometric diamond pattern as a background, all in a colour palette predominantly in the Prospect red with a fresh yellow for the text colour.”

“This pattern and colour palette was then carried on through the interior of the mag—on the contents page, intro page and as badges that began each of the 5 cover features. To add further consistency to the bundle, the opening spread of each article follows the same layout.”

“However, each piece also uses a headline font and secondary colour that relates to the specific subject matter, for example, the future of computing has a digital style headline font with an electric orange; the future of food uses a comforting handwritten script font and an organic green colour.”

“The result is a clearly defined package of quality features. With the design and typography complementing the themes, rather than distracting from them.”

And what does Jay make of the finished package?

“That it’s really excellent. It also tells us that, despite the political morass of Brexit, Trump, Putin and all the rest of it, that culture, science (and also people’s private lives) do not stand still. That despite the deadening effects of our increasingly polarised politics, progress can still be made—often despite our leaders, rather than because of them.”