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The Cover Story: Popular Science

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Popular Science engages over six million print readers with the latest research and innovations, but the brand also likes to have a little fun sometimes, too. Its July/August cover is a testament to that.

The Star Trek franchise is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. And with that, comes a new movie with a cast including actor and writer Simon Pegg. Pegg plays Scotty, the Enterprise’s engineer—a perfect cover star for Popular Science.

Here, min chats catches up with photo director Thomas Payne and articles editor Kevin Gray to hear more about the origins of its July/August cover with Pegg.

min: What made you go with a Star Trek theme?

Kevin Gray: Even though we're grounded in facts, we love covering sci-fi. We're Trekkies, absolutely, and we knew covering Star Trek during its 50th anniversary would resonate with our readers. We felt it would appeal to a younger audience, since it's a younger cast, as well as readers who remember the original series. Then it was a matter of figuring out which cast member we wanted for the cover. It was Thom’s idea—he really masterminded the whole look and feel.

Thomas Payne: Simon Pegg seemed like a natural since he has so much cred; not only is he an actor in the movie, but he's an actual nerd. So he makes a good cover subject, since he really lives and breathes this stuff. [And] since Pegg also wrote the new Star Trek [with Doug Jung], he's steeped in the culture.

Gray: We had decided the previous summer we wanted to run an “Insane Ideas” issue this summer as a fun, engaging sort of PopSci beach read. There are so many things in science and tech that make you go, “Holy crap, that's insane.” We wanted to cover those things in a playful package. So we wrote about a fusion rocket to knock out comets about to hit earth; a taxi drone; a story about a day in the life of the first full facial transplant recipient; tiny robots that travel through space on laser beams; stuff like that. That fed into Thom's concept for how he would treat Pegg on the cover.

min: How was Simon Pegg as a subject? Any fun stories you can share?

Gray: We try to integrate the PopSci brand and content across print, digital, social media and video. So we baked in a lot of fun viral stuff that would knew Pegg would play along with. We knew he has played harmonica with Coldplay. He and Chris Martin are friends. So we made sure to bring a harmonica to set, and asked him to play and got it on video for (he's really good). If you haven't heard it, it's worth listening to. He also did a lightning round of silly questions for a video Q&A—we had to beep out a lot of his colorful British-isms (Kevin laughs).

Payne: What's great about Pegg is that he's really friendly, and was totally willing to play with us and do all the things we asked of him. He was game for all kinds of PopSci-type questions that had nothing to do with the movie (like whether he thinks Scotty is jealous of Kirk and Spock's on-screen bromance).

min: Is there added pressure to nail a cover like this, given the legacy of Star Trek and how engaged its fans are in all things relating to the franchise?

Payne: I'm a huge Star Trek fan, so I wanted to make this cover look as gorgeous as possible. I take the legacy as seriously as any hard-core Trekkie.

min: Not to get too nerdy here, but were you concerned about mixing in a Star Wars reference (roofline) with a Star Trek themed cover?

Gray: We did that intentionally! We thought it was a funny insider-nerd joke for fans.

min: Did you run into any challenges with this cover? After all, you packed in a lot in without making it too cluttered.

Gray: Actually it didn't, but thank you for noticing that. We've been streamlining our covers. We want to give enough information without overwhelming people with text and “art treatment.” We didn't shout out too many stories—the cover text only references about four.

One of our big features this issue is on tech training for U.S. Olympic athletes—you'll see we didn't try to make it a big coverline, but placed it in a spot that we thought might tickle readers when they noticed it—the "U.S.A!" chant right below Pegg's rocket pop. [It adds] a double dose of humor since Pegg is British.

Payne: Once we saw this image, we were pretty much sold on that being the cover. It has a lot of swagger to it. The choice was down to two versions (the one you see on the cover, and the one that appears next to his Q&A, where he's holding the drink), but ultimately that was always going to be the one. We love that little bit of attitude.

min: What’s your main objective with any cover you design?

Gray: Grab your attention. Get you talking. Stay in your mind. Sometimes we do that with a conceptual image, a great photo, or cool text treatment. The idea is to be true to our brand: be bold, smart and clever.

Payne: We want something that leaps off the newsstand. We like all of our covers to have that swagger.

min: What’s your favorite part of this cover?

Payne: I think the attitude. It screams Star Trek, it screams fun and it screams summer.

Gray: The action it conveys. Between Pegg biting the rocket pop and the in-your-face Vulcan salute, it feels likes he's in motion, which is hard to achieve in one photo.

Payne: Yeah, getting him doing the Vulcan salute jumping off the page, I just love it. It's so dynamic. The photographer Scott [Schafer] and his team at Catch Light Digital really helped us make this cover pop. We're so happy with it.

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