Examining the Ordinary

This month marked my five-year anniversary as a subscriber and an allegiant fan of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The publication started out 15 years ago, but in recent years, the Cook’s folks have been growing a small but venerable empire with a website, the more colorful and gregarious Cook’s Country, and the television show, “America’s Test Kitchen.” It’s become an elegant and relentless cooks’ paradise.

With about 10 recipes per issue, the magazine presents rigorous taste tests, earnest comparisons, and careful advice, all hand-illustrated in pencil. It represents what Consumer Reports could have been and the Farmer’s Almanac may still be to certain crowds.

While filing away the January/February issue for later reference, I noticed the cover: a slate blue background framing a conscious group of oranges on parchment. Even though I’d never seen the cover before, the elements were at once original and familiar. Had this cover been done before? Was the first issue of the year always blue? I retrieved the other 30-odd issues to find out.

A Cover Appraisal

The cover has a consistent template: an illustrated food surrounded by a solid border of color. These are the only variable design elements aside from the issue’s content. As it turns out, the covers are of assorted (but limited) colors and feature assorted (but limited) foods. But even with this variety, each issue arrives with a comfortable familiarity. Cook’s has managed to vary each cover just enough, making it seem entirely new but entirely familiar at the same time.

Five years of magazine covers by color and food type. I chose colloquial color terms arbitrarily to track subtle differences.

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be any particularly complex formula to choosing the color of the cover color or the food. The criteria seem, in fact, to be as simple as choosing a seasonal food with a frame color that a) looks good and b) was not used the month before.

That said, there were a handful of patterns over five years of covers:

  • A homogeneous food arrangement (e.g., apples, not a group shot of apples and oranges) appeared on the cover 90% of the time (27 covers).
  • A heterogeneous mix of foods appeared on the cover only 10% of the time.
  • Blue and red are tied for the most popular cover color, making up almost half (47%) of all the covers.
  • A blue cover is never used with a blue food.
  • Blueberries have never appeared on a cover.
  • An orange cover is only used when the featured food is orange.
  • A purple cover, only used 10% of the time, is primarily used with heterogeneous food arrangements.
  • Pears have been the most popular cover food, appearing on three covers. All three covers were the November/December issues (2002, 2004, and 2007).
  • Squash is the second-most popular cover food, appearing in Nov/Dec 2006, and the September/October issues of 2004 and 2007 respectively.
  • Foods that start with “P” (23%) are most often chosen for the cover, followed by foods that start with “S” (20%).
  • Eggs were featured in March/April 2004, making them the only non-fruit/vegetable cover in five years. It’s also one of my favorite covers.

Is there a pattern to the colors chosen for each cover? I’ll never know.

By the time I’ve finished these exercises, nobody’s better off. I don’t know much more about how Cooks’ puts together cover ideas than when I started. In fact, charting trivial data is just a standard procrastination tool for me; this exercise a clear example.

But sometimes, it’s instructive to look at familiar objects up close, examining them in objective terms. Sometimes, it’s just interesting to take something pretty familiar and examine it from every angle.

Sometimes new insights emerge from the ordinary.