Advice from Nelu Wolfensohn

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We’ve been running our Student Cover competition annually since 1964. Each entry is sent in by a professor who chooses five students from the school’s senior class to submit to the competition. Though we don’t always print the name of the professor in the article, we do note and respect the work they do. We noticed over the years that the same professor’s name kept turning up over and over again in the winning pile–Nelu Wolfensohn, from the Université du Québec at Montréal. This year, he appeared again, listed as the submitting professor for our 2009 winner, Amani Lusignan. Judges weren’t given any information about the schools before judging, so it became apparent to us that Professor Wolfensohn had hit upon some sort of teaching method that produced entry after entry each year to catch the judges’ eyes.

When I called Professor Wolfensohn to learn about his involvement with the Student Cover Competition, he told me that his students have been participating in the contest since the early 1990s, when Wolfensohn’s first batch of entries earned one student an honorable mention in the competition. Since then, his students have gone on to win 12 additional honorable mentions, and 11-first, second-, or third-place prizes, an amazing track record that he has racked up thanks to his Tim Gunn-like mentoring of his students.

The process starts in the third trimester of the senior year, when Wolfensohn begins by showing his students a slideshow of magazine covers, including past Print covers. He has a credo that he uses for the competition, a philosophy that he calls the “image concept.” He describes this as a “powerful visual statement” that conveys the artists’ message purely with images. Though this idea has long been popular–Wolfensohn notes the tendency of governments and other propaganda-creators to push image-only messages–he also points to the decline of the pure visual concept in the age of the web. He describes Print, approvingly, as one of the few magazines that continue the tradition of using the “image concept” on all of our covers.

Once students develop an understanding of the types of images that may work for a cover, the students make between 50 to 100 rough sketches each of possible cover concepts, 20 to a page. Wolfensohn then sits down with each student and helps him or her choose about 15 to 20 sketches to develop further. He has enough experience to know that judges generally dislike overly religious or pornographic covers, and steers students away from such topics.

Eventually, when the students have completed their cover entries, Wolfensohn puts up all of the covers–usually around 60 to 70 covers–in a room, and invites other professors in the department to offer their opinions in a mini-judging. Each professor is given five green pushpins and two red ones to indicate their choices, including top picks (indicated by the red push pins, natch). “It’s very interesting to see how the votes converge,” he says. Wolfensohn takes his colleagues’ opinions into account, but ultimately, he makes the final decisions: “It’s not parliamentary,” he jokes, a reference to the political system of his native country. He points out that one of this year’s honorable mention winners, Vanessa Caron, and her cover of a dog sniffing another dog’s bottom (above), was not chosen by any of the other professors, but that he decided to enter it nonetheless. The cover turned out to be quite popular with our judges, who found it’s cheeky humor endearing.

Wolfensohn acknowledges that he often includes a wild-card entry like Caron’s in his submissions, a nod to the more unusual entries generated by his students. He mentions that over the past two decades he has seen a shift toward a more professional look in the covers from his students. He does say that “youngsters are always preoccupied with their own feelings”–a theme he tries to dissuade students from using, encouraging them to take a metaphorical approach to the covers instead. His students are allowed to use whatever medium they wish to make their covers, though “I have a preference for illustration,” Wolfensohn acknowledges, saying that “when you have complex visual ideas at stake, it’s nice to leave something to the reader’s imagination–photographs don’t always leave a lot of room for the imagination.” Imagination is the one factor that always comes through in the work of Wolfensohn’s students, a quality he has nurtured and encouraged during his two decades of participation in the contest.

»»Professors: Are you interested in having your students participate in Print’s Student Cover Competition? Go here for details on how to enter.