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The front cover design, a photograph of the group on a zebra crossing, was based on ideas sketched by McCartney, and taken on 8 August 1969 outside EMI Studios in Abbey Road. At 11:35 that morning, photographer Iain Macmillan was given only ten minutes to take the photo whilst he stood on a step-ladder and a policeman held up traffic behind the camera. Macmillan took six photographs, which McCartney later examined with a magnifying glass before deciding which of the shots would be used upon the album sleeve.
In the image selected by McCartney, the group walk across the street in single file from left to right, with Lennon leading, followed by Starr, McCartney, and Harrison. McCartney is barefoot and out of step with the other members. Apart from Harrison, the group are wearing suits designed by Tommy Nutter. To the left of the picture, parked next to the zebra crossing, is a white Volkswagen Beetle which belonged to one of the people living in the block of flats across from the recording studio. After the album was released, the number plate (LMW 281F) was stolen repeatedly from the car. In 1986, the car was sold at auction for £2,530 and in 2001 was on display in a museum in Germany. In 2004, news sources published a claim made by retired American salesman Paul Cole (7 July 1911 – 13 February 2008), that he was the man standing on the pavement to the right of the picture. On the original cover, McCartney holds a cigarette; in 2003 several US poster companies airbrushed this cigarette out of the image, without permission from either Apple or McCartney.
Shortly after the album's release the cover became part of the "Paul is dead" theory that was spreading across college campuses in the United States. According to followers of the rumour, the cover depicted the Beatles walking out of a cemetery in a funeral procession. The procession was led by Lennon, dressed in white, as a religious figure, Starr, dressed in black, as the undertaker, McCartney, out of step with the others, as a barefoot corpse, and Harrison, dressed in denim, as the gravedigger. The left-handed McCartney is holding a cigarette in his right hand – indicating that he is an imposter – and the number plate on the Volkswagen parked on the street is 28IF, meaning McCartney would have been 28 if he had lived (albeit incorrect as McCartney was only 27 at both the time of the photo and subsequent release of the record). The escalation of the "Paul is dead" rumour, which became the subject of intense analysis on mainstream radio, contributed to Abbey Road's commercial success in the US. When interviewed in London by New York's WMCA, Lennon ridiculed the rumour but conceded that it was invaluable publicity for the new album.
The image of the Beatles on the Abbey Road crossing has become one of the most famous and imitated in recording history. The crossing is a popular destination for Beatles fans and a webcam, provided by EarthCam, has operated there since 2011. In December 2010, the crossing was given grade II listed status for its "cultural and historical importance"; the Abbey Road studios themselves had been given similar status earlier in the year. In 2013, Kolkata Police launched a traffic safety awareness advertisement against jaywalking, using the cover and a caption that read: "If they can, why can't you?" The cover image has been parodied on several occasions, including by McCartney on his 1993 live album Paul Is Live. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Abbey Road E.P. parodies the cover, with the band walking near-naked across a similar zebra crossing, although the musical content is different.