I was browsing the Cover Junkie site when I stumbled upon this cover of The New York Times Magazine.

I don't get it.

How am I supposed to get what the cover tries to tell me?

Are there any cultural, linguistic or other references that the cover (or its designer) tries to link to?

enter image description here

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    What does it mean to you? – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 19:07
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    For me the simplest solution is that the NYT Magazine editor was incompetent and failed to convey meaningful message with this design ;-) – szulat Jan 7 '16 at 0:31

How am I supposed to get what the cover tries to tell me?

Well reading the article is a good place to start. If that's not sufficient then it might not be the best design either of the cover or the article itself. In this case it did require a bit more research to figure out as they didn't include the below in the article:

Are there any cultural, linguistic or other references that the cover (or its designer) tries to link to?

Based on the article, I believe the following is probably the cultural reference point though only the Designer could know with certainty:

Rojava is working to become its own democractic nation built entirely on Western Ideals and women's rights. It is also, according to the NYT article, translated to ‘land where the sun sets.’

The flag of Rojava is:

enter image description here

But even more telling is the YPG, People's Protection Units flag/pennant seen here (first one):

enter image description here

I think its pretty safe to say the colors were chosen to portray these concepts which correlates to the photo selected captioned, "Five young Kurdish fighters walking through Tel Brak, a town formerly held by ISIS."

While it strays from what the New York Times typically does it is bold, representative of the story, and like Rojava is a stark contrast from the norm.

  • I think this is a safe guess, but we should emphasize that's all we can do--guess at the meaning the designer intended (if any). – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 21:09
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    @DA01 I think there's a world of difference between "guess at the meaning" and "educated guess" especially when we're talking about visual communications in journalism. But yes I could be completely off, perhaps they just liked the way it looked. I contacted the designer with a link, maybe she'll come and offer some of the thought process that went into it. – Ryan Jan 6 '16 at 21:23
  • great idea! Would love to hear from the source. BTW, I do agree that this is an educated guess (as are the other flag related guesses) but then it raised a question in my head: what's the meaning behind omitting the green specifically? – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 21:24

The New Times Magazine brand is, apparently, a solid color with the logo, usually with a single strong vignette or silhouette image, or a photo full-bleed.

This particular cover is no different except they chose for some reason to feature a photograph in a rectangular aspect that does not conform to the aspect of the magazine.

So it means they liked the photo.

As for why it belongs at the bottom, I would say that once you decide to not crop it, it is the only good choice for placement.

enter image description here

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    The same thought crossed my mind, but it seems to me that the same photo could have been taken in portrait rather than landscape (more or less) or multiple landscape photos could have been taken to make a portrait style photo. The cover seems more deliberate than "that's the best we had" or "this is the one we really liked and there aren't any portrait alternatives." Additionally, even if those are the reasons, why did they choose to use those colors in particular over other color combinations? – Hanna Jan 6 '16 at 15:58
  • You can't specify to a photographer in a war zone to only take portrait! :) It probably was not an on-spec photo. The most deliberate thing I see on the page (when compared to other NYTM covers) is the lack of any other story "elevator pitches." By the time the designer sat down with it, the committee had already worked out the details and he/she was left with 5 elements: a size (brand), a color (brand), the logo (brand), a hand-picked photo, 1 head+subhead. The designer probably tried cropping as the first thing because of the brand, but It probably killed the framing. – Yorik Jan 6 '16 at 16:06
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    I don't think a publication such a TNYM would settle for such a bizarre format just because they couldn't do better. The easiest thing they could've do is to crop photo, and the blue sky would play the role of the solid background. I'm sure the original size would allow it. And as @Johannes said, your analysis can't explain why those colors, or why this format? More questions than answers... – Olivier Malki Jan 6 '16 at 16:23
  • "Couldn't do better?" I said they liked it and the placement is the only good choice. Its a great cover. Brands have limited color palettes. I have never worked with a brand where I was allowed to pick off palette without authorization. Note in my screenshot of google images, the upper left cover is the same yellow. Brand Color. – Yorik Jan 6 '16 at 16:41
  • As for using blue, we don't know if that was a choice, but I personally would have picked the yellow form the pre-determined palette for the stark contrast. – Yorik Jan 6 '16 at 16:46

The colors of the Kurdish flag are red, yellow, and green. The top half of this cover happens to have two of those three colors, maybe coincidentally.


Question: How am I supposed to get what the cover tries to tell me?

There's certainly a meaning to the cover design and the best way to get some clues is to read the article of the author mentioned on it.


My interpretation

Why I think the cover is split in this way is to represent crossing a border into a new state (Rojava).

The reason why it might be red/yellow might be related to the good old colors of communism and the marxist philosophy. So the whole thing might simply symbolize the crossing into a new ideology.

Read the article and see below for some sources.

Some sources

Rojava: "The political system of Rojava is inspired by democratic confederalism and communalism. It is influenced by anarchist and libertarian principles, and is considered by many a type of libertarian socialism. The Constitution of Rojava has protection for currency, property rights and free trade. The basic unit at the local level is the community which pools resources for education, protection and governance. At a national level communities are unrestricted in deciding their own economic decisions on who they wish to sell to and how resources are allocated. There is a broad push for social reform, gender equality and ecological stabilization in the region"

Also read: Economy: "In 2012, the PYD launched what it originally called the Social Economy Plan, later renamed the People’s Economy Plan (PEP). The PEP's policies are based primarily on the work of Abdullah Öcalan and ultimately seek to move beyond capitalism in favor of democratic confederalism. Private property and entrepreneurship are protected under the principle of "ownership by use", although accountable to the democratic will of locally organized councils. Dr Dara Kurdaxi, a Rojavan economist, has said that: "The method in Rojava is not so much against private property, but rather has the goal of putting private property in the service of all the peoples who live in Rojava."

This region is governed by a left wing group called "People's Protection Units" (Y.P.G.), apparently inspired by the "Kurdistan Workers’ Party" (P.K.K.). Their colors are mainly red and yellow, both based on marxist-leninist ideologies.

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    This is all a very nice interpretation. But it's your interpretation. Which is fine, as art is often about the viewers interpretation. But we can't possibly say any of this was the intent of the designer of the page. – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 21:07
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    @DA01 If you read the article, it's pretty clear what it's about. I wrote this answer and my pseudo is on the footer so it might be possible it's my interpretation based on the article and the conflict indeed ;) I doubt the New York Times Magazine limits itself in doing simple "art" without any meaning or intention, or ever did; that's your interpretation they do "art" only. You've left this comment on pretty much all answers including your own, I think we got your position on this question and only the designer of the cover will be able to give you a proper answer! – go-junta Jan 6 '16 at 21:17
  • "only the designer of the cover will be able to give you a proper answer" exactly. :) – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 21:23
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    @DA01 Then it could mean the graphic designer did a pretty bad job or you're confusing graphic designers and artists; maybe you should contact him/her about this and mention how confusing/meaningless the cover design is. I sure hope we (graphic designers) don't simply apply colors and shapes randomly, and transform a clear message into a cryptic one. That seems to go against the purpose and goals of our work but it's not impossible some do it! Personally, I find the cover quite intellectual and far from being meaningless or random. Maybe I read too much into it... – go-junta Jan 6 '16 at 21:48
  • I think designers can do both. There's a bit of art in all graphic design...and I think on something like a magazine cover, it can be mostly art. And sometimes art is purely about the visual. It's nice when everything has meaning, but sometimes it's just because "well, it looked good". – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 21:54

It doesn't have to mean anything. Or if it does, it doesn't have to mean anything in particular to anyone in particular. It simply could be done for visual interest and impact with no other secondary meanings intended.

Beyond that, we'd have to ask the designer of the cover directly.

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    I'd add that even if it doesn't have meaning, it can have meaning to anyone, though what meaning they take out of it could be arbitrary but it will be influenced by their own views or those of their culture. Same goes for if it does have meaning. In the end the designer does their best to either convey meaning or not to but it sits outside of their control how people interpret their works. – Hanna Jan 6 '16 at 19:37
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    I actually agree 100% with both DA01 and Johannes. I mean, I always refrain from talking about my own art and rarely title anything because, to me, it is akin to leading a witness. At the same time, I like to pretend to myself that I meant certain things, but rarely do I formulate a story of scaffold for what I have done. Many people want to be told what to think about artworks. However, the OP seems to ask for specificity (which we simply cannot provide). Obviously, there may be subconscious choices being made here, but it reads as a technical exercise in simplicity to me and it is elegant. – Yorik Jan 6 '16 at 19:52
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    @Johannes agree totally. This type of question actually creeps into the world of art. One could argue a magazine cover while has a design goal of attracting attention, is really more about art. – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 19:52

There's quite a few meanings I can draw from the use of color.

Context is important, and as we can read from the headline, the main article is about young Kurds fighting ISIS with guns and ideas. I think the "youth" and "ideas" parts are very relevant to the meaning of the colors.

Yellow is great for attracting attention, which as far as a magazine goes, is pretty important. The color itself has many meanings, here are some that I think really apply in this case:

  • Yellow is the color of sunshine. It's associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.

  • Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy.

  • Use yellow to evoke pleasant, cheerful feelings.

  • Yellow is an unstable and spontaneous color, so avoid using yellow if you want to suggest stability and safety.


The red color also has meaning. Granted, it contrasts nicely with the yellow, but other colors could as well.

From the same source as above:

  • Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.

  • Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure.

  • It has very high visibility that’s why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red.

So from the colors there's a feeling of instability, war, danger, and intensity yet at the same time we have these young Kurds, and youth is often associated with energy, innocence, joy, cheer, passion, desire, and spontaneity.

But who knows, I could be 100% off-target here.


After discussions with DA01 I feel like I should mention that the research behind the meanings is potentially questionable. People may have different personal meanings and it's not an exact science so I'd take it with a grain of salt. That being said the possibility still exists that these meanings played into the decision making, whether or not the meanings themselves are proven in any way.

Though after reviewing the other answers I'm inclined to lean towards the flag theory myself. Though flags themselves often have meaning behind the colors as well.

I'm personally very curious as to what meaning could be derived from the fact that the magazine cover is split 50/50. Why not 40/60, or 25/75?

Maybe it's the binary between "utopia" and "hell" or perhaps that the country itself is torn.

I wish I had more cultural insight as that may play a bigger role than anything I've mentioned so far.

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    "enhances human metabolism" = this is where I think we're creeping in to pseudoscience and speculation. There's no reason one can't associate all these things on a personal level, but on a universal level? Not at all. – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 18:58
  • Also, the source linked to is just someone's list. There's nothing backing any of that up. I wouldn't put any worth into that at all beyond it just being someone's opinion. – DA01 Jan 6 '16 at 19:02
  • @DA01 of course it's just a list, however other sources I've been able to find seem to share the same definitions in one way or another. – Hanna Jan 6 '16 at 19:14
  • Whether the metabolism bit is speculation or not, I'm not sure on, and it's not relevant in this particular case anyway, but if you look up online most people seem to think that the color red is associated with making people feel hungry, which is perhaps where that line comes from. – Hanna Jan 6 '16 at 19:16
  • @DA01 I've updated my answer to address some of your concerns. – Hanna Jan 6 '16 at 19:24

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