How a First-Time Graphic Designer Created an Award-Winning Cover Design

Web developer Rob Pennington shares his story about learning new technical skills to better serve his agency. This project received an honorable mention in the 2016/2017 Adobe Creativity in the Public Sector Awards.

How a First-Time Graphic Designer Created an Award-Winning Cover Design
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The Volunteer State Guard Magazine is a quarterly online publication detailing stories from and about the Tennessee National Guard.

The magazine is made available to about 16,000 U.S. Army and Air National Guard personnel and their families within the state of Tennessee.

Since taking over the art direction and layout, public sector designer Rob Pennington helped the publication win several awards.

One award-winning project involved a cover feature of Tech. Sgt. Angie Johnson, a member of the Tennessee Air National Guard who has a budding career in the music industry and was a contestant on “The Voice.”

“This was only the fifth issue since we redesigned the publication,” Rob said.

“Guardsmen like to see stories out there of their fellow soldiers and airmen. Finding out more about the men and women who serve and what they do in their civilian life makes them more relatable to regular folks out there.”

The Angie Johnson issue was published October 17, 2014.

The creative process

“I knew I wanted to use Angie on the cover and as the feature story. My goal was to illustrate Tech Sgt. Johnson’s story in the best way possible,” Rob said.

First, he came up with the headline “A Big Voice for the Guard.”

“I thought that was a good play on words for her being a contestant on “The Voice” and also being such a positive force out there representing the Guard.”

Rob also had a vision in mind for what he wanted for the cover: he wanted to show Angie in uniform while depicting the World Series in the background.

So, he relayed that to photographer Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III. He coordinated a photo shoot with Angie and gave plenty of photos to Rob to use.

“So, I improvised in Photoshop with the photos that Davis shot and some stock baseball photos.”

“I was then able to crop her out and Photoshop a more visually appealing background to use for the cover.”

See more photos of the making of this cover on Behance.

As a finishing touch, Rob added a touch of Air Force navy blue to the cover to make it pop and give it more of an “Air National Guard feel.”

“We were getting a lot of great feedback about the Angie Johnson issue and the redesigned magazine as a whole,” Rob said. “People were talking about how beautiful the magazine was.”

“I feel like that kind of response to your work is the ultimate reward for an artist.”

Other feedback Rob received:

“Wow, that’s a beautiful magazine. Exceptionally well done! Excellent article and photos on Angie! We would like to also share this article on ang.af.mil  (Nationwide Air National Guard website).  Thanks so much!” — Maj. Mary L. Harrington – PA advisor to the director, Air National Guard

“What a most wonderful story of TSgt Angie Johnson. Many kudos for her fortitude. A big voice, indeed.” — Laura Marbut Marino

Takeaways and lessons learned

When asked to redesign the Volunteer State Guard Magazine, Rob was technically “just a web developer.”

He was new to Adobe InDesign, but eagerly jumped in to learn the program as much as he could.

“I always laugh when I hear someone say, ‘That’s not in my job description,’” he said. “Being a multi-faceted creative professional makes you an invaluable resource. By branching out and learning new skills, you help yourself and your organization.”

His advice for creative professionals like himself in government agencies: “Take on as many projects as you can. You never know who might see your work and that can lead to other opportunities.”

Since taking on design duties for the magazine, Rob has received several awards which he says “wouldn’t have happened unless I jumped in and broadened my artistic horizons.”


Read more in our Creating Impact series.

Special thanks to Rob Pennington at the State of Tennessee for his contributions to this article.

Read Angie Johnson’s story in the magazine.

Follow Angie Johnson on Twitter.

See Angie Johnson singing at the World Series.

Learn more about the Volunteer State Guard magazine. See all issues here.

Or visit the Tennessee National Guard website.

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