The smart cover design of Riverfront Times

The smart cover design of Riverfront Times Riverfront Times is an alternative weekly newspaper based in St. Louis, owned by the Viilage Voice Media chain of newspapers. Tom Carlson has been the senior art director at the paper since 1988. He does a lot of smart, cool work. 

Carlson is one of a number of alt weekly art directors who are doing amazing, creative work with their designs, crafting cover after cover from scratch, on super-low budgets, with limited deadlines, using primarily stock imagery and self-created artwork. Last month SPD posted an article about the cover designs of Alexander Flores at the Dallas Observer. We'll have more design from other weekly papers later in January.

As free papers, these weeklies are removed from the restrictions of newsstand sales and subscription renewals. WIth improved printing and reproduction capabilities (although their art directors would probably disagree about the quality), these papers have been able to get much more sophisticated in their cover designs, now oftentimes rivaling and surpassing other, slicker publications in their regions. There is some brilliant publication design going on under the radar at many of these weekly papers; it's a highly-fertile ground for creativity and originality.

Carlson's best covers at Riverfront Times are complete self-creations, made with stock imagery and Carlson's own technical skills. What photography he uses on the cover is generally by former staff photographer Jennifer Silverberg, and is made-to-order to Carlson's creative direction. "My cover philosophy is object-oriented. I like to go for visual solutions with clarity and directness that render text all but unnecessary. I tend to avoid decorative type choices and use type that just is, and let the words (when we have them) do their job."

You can find more examples of Tom Carlson's wonderful work at Riverfront Times here.

(Above): St Louie Chop Suey cover, November 16, 2006. Photograph by Jennifer Silverberg; type, design, and digital manipulation by Tom Carlson.

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(Left): February 26, 2009. Source material: public domain imagery and Newscom; copy, design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson. (Right): December 29, 2005. Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg; design, lettering, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson.

The cover on the left imagines how an alt-weekly would have covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1850s.

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(Left): October 2. 2008. Dog photo: iStock; design, photography, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson. Apologies to George Lois and his classic Esquire cover. (Right): August 20, 2009. Operation Game: Milton Bradley; photograph: Jennifer Silverberg; design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson.

The cover on the left is an homage to George Lois's Esquire cover about the remaking of Richard Nixon's image in the late 60s. This cover refers to the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden vice-presidential debate during the 2008 election campaign. Tom Carlson on the cover, right: "This is for a feature about a doctor who went off the skids. I like to get at the subject matter of a story without trying to do the writer's job. Sometimes this is done by not putting the headline of the story on the cover. Once in a while  you get lucky--the doctor's practice was in the St. Louis suburb Creve Coeur, which is French for 'broken heart.'"


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(Left): January 22, 2009. Spray paint cans: Krylon; photography: Jennifer Silverberg; design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson. (Right): October 15, 2009. Bird: St. Louis Cardinals; design: Tom Carlson.

Tom Carlson on the October 15, 2009 cover: "Some weeks we have features that don't present intriguing visual possibilities. We try to look for other things in the book on which to base a cover graphic. On this particular week, we had nothing. Then "luckily" the Cardinals were swept from the baseball playoffs by the Dodgers, giving us an opportunity to put out a cover with no type (well, there's that "X") that St. Louisans would still get."

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(Left): April 9, 2009. Skull graphic: iStock. Photography: Jennifer Silverberg; design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson. (Right): October 23, 2008. Photography: Jennifer Silverberg; design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson.

Left: The cover is about a group that assists terminally ill patients who kill themselves with helium.

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(Left): April 19, 2007. Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg; design, type, and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson. (Right): January 29, 2009. Helmets: Riddell; photography: Jennifer Silverberg; design and digital manipulation: Tom Carlson.

(Right): This covers refers to a Super Bowl appearance by the Arizona Cardinals, who used to be based in St. Louis.

To see all these covers collected in an online gallery, plus 10 more, please visit the Robert Newman Design Facebook fan page.

  • Kayleigh Ryley

    These are fantastic! All of them are my favorite!

  • Alexander Flores

    Tom is the man. He kills EVERY week!

  • Josh Klenert

    Fantastic work!

  • Grant Glas

    Wow - hats off to Tom... wish I could pick up a copy of RFT. Amazing work.

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