The best magazine covers of recent years have been the more unconventional ones (Little White Lies, The Gentlewoman), subscriber editions which can do away with all the copy to present one strong image, or new small-scale titles that can afford to tweak the design with each issue (Port). One of the few mainstream, shop-shelf titles that is doing excellent covers at the moment is Vogue UK, which is going through a really strong patch right now.
Take the April 2012 issue, with an idea for a cover that could have gone so very wrong: blue and orange can look horrid; there's a LOT of copy; that shiny happy photo. But they've managed to get every element spot on, but without shouting about it. The palette and type look effortless, but I bet hours went into getting them blanked just so. This isn't a cover that looks graceful and fresh by chance.
And the photo. Sienna Miller is in that very particular British career of actress-who-doesn't-really-do-much-acting/sort-of-model/ex-partner-of-posh-british-actor (see also: Liz Hurley; Sadie Frost) that gives her just enough of a public persona to get away with what could be the cheesiest of model poses – grinning from ear-to-ear really shouldn't work. Somehow photographer Ryan McGinley manages to capture a look of "oh how jolly nice, I'm on the cover of a magazine!" without making it look too much like an issue of Jackie. Again, it looks deceptively easy but I bet it ain't.
Design that doesn't tell you it's been designed. Good work, Vogue.