Michael Bierut | Essays

The Final Decline and Total Collapse of the American Magazine Cover

About a month ago, I turned on the Public Radio International program Studio 360 and was pleased to hear the unmistakable Bronx accent of legendary adman George Lois, who was host Kurt Andersen's guest that morning. The talk inevitably turned to Lois's covers for Esquire in the sixties, the high point of his career and probably one of the high points in 20th century American graphic design, period. Why, wondered Andersen, didn't anybody do covers like these any more? "They're all infatuated with the idea that celebrity, pure celebrity, sells magazines," growled Lois.

Exactly one week later, I served as a judge for the annual competition of the Society of Publication Designers. Walking down table after table groaning under the weight of glossy magazines festooned with photographs of celebrities (or "celebrities") Jessica Simpson, Ashton Kutcher, Carrie Anne Moss and Justin Timberlake, it was hard to deny that Lois was right.

George Lois's covers for Esquire provided my first glimpses into the world of graphic design thinking. In the suburban Cleveland of my childhood and early adolescence, Lois's images -- Mohammed Ali pierced with arrows a la St. Sebastian, Richard Nixon in the makeup chair, Andy Warhol drowning in his own soup - didn't look like anything else in our house. I realize now they were like messages from another world, a world of irreverence and daring. Each was so brutally concise, so free of fat and sentiment. They weren't just pictures, they were ideas. Even before I knew he existed, I wanted to do what George Lois did. I wanted to come up with those ideas. I suspect I wasn't the only one.

But that was then. Today, you'd search in vain for a magazine that commissions covers like those. The best-designed mass circulation American magazines today - Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and, yes, Esquire - usually feature a really good photograph by a really good photographer of someone who has a new movie out, surrounded by handsome, often inventive typography. The worst magazines have a crummy picture of someone who has just been through some kind of scandal, surrounded by really awful typography.

What art directors used to call the "Esquire cover" - a simple, sometimes surreal, image that somehow conceptually summarizes the most provocative point of one of the stories within - never found many imitators outside of Esquire even at its peak. Certainly few editors, then or now, were willing to imitate Esquire's Harold Hayes, who gave Lois the freedom to devise covers from nothing more than a table of contents.

And it's important to remember that Esquire was famous then not only for its covers but as the place for great writing, a place where Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and John Sack helped invent the New Journalism. Indeed, it was Sack's profile of Lt. William Calley, accused of leading a massacre of women and children in a Vietnamese village, that inspired one of the magazine's most powerful covers. I doubt that Lois at his peak could do one tenth as much with a vapid puff piece on Cameron Diaz.

But today I also think that there is simply a general distaste for reckless visual ideas. In the sixties, the bracing clarity of the "big idea" school of design was fresh: Lois, like Bob Gill and Robert Brownjohn and their disciples, could rightly claim to have found a position beyond style. But eventually the cadences of the big idea, the visual pun, began to seem not just brazen, but crass, with all the subtlety of an elbow in the ribs.

You can only have your rib poked so many times, and it doesn't seem to put you in the mood to buy things. Today's magazine ideal magazine cover is enticing, not arresting, aiming not for shock, but for seduction. A George Lois Esquire on today's newsstand would be as out of place as an angry vegetarian at an all-you-can-eat steak dinner. And whatever function graphic design is supposed to serve these days, ruining your appetite doesn't seem to be one of them.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [72]

This is a little off-topic, but what I've always loved about the New Yorker covers was precisely that they weren't big idea covers. Not only are they arguably the greatest showcase for talented illustrators, the covers nearly all express the same basic idea: a love of New York. It's an idea with seemingly endless expressions. The Sempe covers, some older ones by Gretchen Dow Simpson--well, everyone has their favorites. The covers all tend to capture a moment or an angle of life in the city that makes you want to go out and find the moment for yourself.

The NYer has certainly taken forays into topical covers, though. The first I remember was Tina Brown's first issue--a punk rocker (Tina) lounging in the back of a Central Park horse-carriage, the driver in top hat and tails (William Shawn? Ross himself? in any case, "the establishment") looking rather scandalized. There followed a few attempts to key covers to articles in the issue but they were done with Brown's lack of deftness and thankfully that line was abandoned. Recently, of course, there was the black twin towers cover and "Newyorkistan" -- both masterpieces of perceiving just the right note to hit at just the moment it was needed.

With DGQVF and even TONY all basically looking the same both inside and out, I wonder why no one has adopted the New Yorker model? There's lots of magazines with photographic equivalents of the typeless cover, but none seem to express anything. Just fashionable absence. I suppose that's an idea. Alas.

Funny you bring up the New Yorker. My favorite magazine cover of the past 10 years was a New Yorker that came out right after the O. J. Simpson verdict was announced. It was a very pretty color drawing of a glass of orange juice, exactly half full...or half empty. An old-fashioned visual pun, elegantly rendered.
Michael Bierut

Since we are all still up this late I thought I would chip in with some unrelated thoughts to Esquire but more towards magazine covers. Last year we were in charge of launching a new magazine for a university here in Chicago (Michael you may have actually seen it among the entries of the SPD competition). When I think of magazine covers I tend to visualize the cluttered mastheads and the accompanying blurbs at various sizes all over the cover. You almost need a Keanu Reeves-Matrix way of looking at things to be able to see the picture behind all the type.

Anyway the magazine we did, being distributed by mail to alumni and friends, didn't have to fight for newsstand attention so the cover could be very minimalistic, I wasn't obligated to put the masthead at the top (I didn't) and the only callouts I had in the cover were set in 12 pt Filosofia. When we first showed to our client, her reaction was Oh, it's so... clean.

I better have a point right? Right. Well my point, that may have not been too well formed, is that mass-consumer magazine covers are a useless cacophony of layered type. No matter how bigger the headlines get none of them pop anymore than the one next to it. Magazine visual overload has finally matched that of the cereal aisle in the supermarket. And I'm not coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs.

The shift from visual idea to visual formula reflects a shift of power since the 1960s from editorial priorities to marketing priorities. Consumer magazines exist to attract advertising, not because their publishers want to express a critical point of view about the world. The editorial is there to deliver readers to the advertisers and most of it is utterly saturated with the concerns and values of the advertising that surrounds it. But we knew all this.

The reason there are so many coverlines is simply that publishers are convinced that the more they offer upfront, the more chance something will appeal to readers. This leads to bad design, but unfortunately it appears to work. What is astonishing, in retrospect, is the freedom that editors and art directors once enjoyed to select a single controversial theme for the cover, thus potentially alienating anyone who wasn't interested, not that it seemed to worry them. In the 1960s, the best British consumer magazines, such as Nova, showed the same singlemindedness in their selection of cover theme, such as the famous "You may think I look cute but would you live next door to my mummy and daddy" cover (1966), showing a black girl - and nothing else.

A decade later, British editorial designer Pearce Marchbank was still able to produce Lois-inspired covers for Time Out, London. They, too, are design classics. In 1988, as part of its 20th birthday celebrations, Time Out published inserts showing all of its hundreds of covers to date. The falling off in the 1980s - Marchbank stopped doing the covers in 1983 - was all too apparent as a cheery, chaotic, photo-led, celebrity-obsessed, consumerist view of the reader's likely interests took hold. Something for everyone. Or not.
Rick Poynor

Yes It is very very important to remember that it is the whole editorial direction of the magazines that has changed, and graphic design can only ever follow the content.

If the content is celeb culture as it seems to be now, then designers have little choice. I think art directors had more freedom before because you could never have sold magazines on the back of just one face 40 years ago. Even film stars were not really well known in the intimate ways we know their every move these days, and such intrusions into one persons privacy was never courted by the celeb or the magaizne itself. Chat shows and clothes/fashion/perfume endorsements and singing careers based on celebrity were practicaly none existant.

Magazines 40/50 yrs ago were also less about peaking into someone else's lifestyle I think. I think the magazines were tailed more to the what th ereader would get out of them than what the advertiser secretly wanted to sell.

You could also tell an ad from content in those early mags. These days the magazine is actually ALL advertising driven, with interviews and pics resold from syndicates or written up as by way of promoting a new film, book, cd. So you get the same Cameron Diaz "content" in every mag for 2 months.

It suprises me that a magazine doesn't go for 'out of sequence' interviews - get people who aren't in the immediate promo spotlight, or are just interesting people. I actually think readers would go for that far more than the "blockbuster' style vacuous interview.


The lesson is not that "celebrity sells," since today's magazines so often feature names like Gretchen Mol and Carrie Anne Moss about which I doubt there is much genuine public curiosity. The reason? The terms under which publicists permit their Big Name clients to appear on covers are often so onerous that the bookers are forced to go with the ingenues on the B list. So the celebrity face simply provides a bit of innocuous eye candy to package the marchandise within.
Michael Bierut

There are certainly one or two questions that perhaps needs answering from art director's :

1. Ok - if Timberlake's headshot HAS to be on the cover why don't more mag's use illustration rather than straight photography as a solution. Rolling Stone used to do this a lot ages ago. I'm wondering what the rationale is for just using photo portaits rather than illustrational ones is?

2. If all the magazines are using head shots+same grab-bag of headline clutter etc., with the aim to stand out on the shelf, how come they don't realise that when on the stands all the mag's look exactly the same and therefore by doing something different they WOULD stand out? Or is it a case of 'playing chicken' and seeing who will try something different first?


Michael, regarding your title The Final Decline.... I think we haven't seen the worst yet. Celebrities' status keeps rising and it isn't only for Hollywood actors anymore. Models, athletes, corrupt CEOs, presidential candidates, Joe Millionaires, Reality TV losers, etc. People that 40-50 years ago would have never been on the cover of a National magazine are all expecting their turn... and last time I checked, Carrot Top still hasn't made it on any cover, so the Final Decline is still ahead.

To answer David's questions, those decisions are not made by art directors any more, but by the editor-in-chief, with the help of the publisher, and the feedback from focus groups!. At least in most wide-circulation magazines.

The days of powerful figures like Lois / Fleckhaus / Brodovitch / Baron are sadly over.
Jesus de Francisco

Time's recent cover of George Bush with the kiss mark on one cheek and the black eye on the other was the first time I've seen an image expressing an IDEA in a long time. And I'll remember that cover, even though I didn't read the article, long after I forget who Nick Lachey is.

I think The Nation and The Economist are a couple of examples of newstand magazine the still put ideas on the cover. The Economist often uses a flap for their coverlines, but the cover itself usually remains quite strong. The cover following the cancun trade talks is a recent favorite of mine. (more here.)

Open's work for The Nation has also been quite inspiring.

Now, these magazines are not exactly mass-market but the do fight for space on the same stands as time and newsweek, etc. I guess my point is there's still some good design out there, it's just much harder to find with the sheer number of clumsy stuff all around
Ryan Schroeder

A couple of months ago, I noticed for the first time how many magazines use plain yellow type on the cover.

There seems to be something of a visual archtype at play-- the yellow cuts through the photo underneath, and though the result is cluttered and dissonant, it still manages something legible.

Knocking type out in white still happens, usually with a drop shadow. But once you start to look, there is something quite disturbing about looking at a magazine stand and seeing so much piss-yellow type screaming back at you.

That's true Ryan - one of my personal favorites is the Harvard Business Review. While the type might leave something to be desired, they often employ illustrators whom work to tackle the meat of an internal article.

I'm also a sucker for the 'journal' format that they use, presenting the whole TOC right there on the cover. Our own JH & WD's New England Journal of Medicine, while not up against Us or Esquire for shelf space, provides a remarkable example of a cover that visually conceptualizes the feel of the content by creating an "illustration" with the type itself, poised and sterile. (And frankly that cover seduced me right into the science of the waiting pages inside - it just felt so, well - so 'smart' - in the way my grandpa always told me I looked on Easter Sunday.)
Andrew Breitenberg

Michael, in your original post you suggest that today there is a "general distaste for reckless visual ideas". Then you talk about the way that graphic taste swung against the directness of the visual idea (and it seems safe to say that this taste change started with designers themselves).

In this thread we've been touching on the reasons why publishers, who determine the new cover conventions, are so cautious. But are you also suggesting - as publishers doubtless assume - that many people today have lost, or have never acquired, the taste for challenging and provocative editorial ideas visually expressed? That the public is nervous or put off by the committed points of view such powerful cover ideas embodied? (Like we care!) That most of us really do prefer our soothing, second-tier celebrities to anything that might prompt us to ask questions or make us think?
Rick Poynor

But eventually the cadences of the big idea, the visual pun, began to seem not just brazen, but crass, with all the subtlety of an elbow in the ribs.

I see this happening with indie rock poster design. Everything has a punchline. It feels tired.

I think what bothers me the most about the common magazine cover is the assumption that the average reader will care about XYZ celebrity. I can understand the visual and sex appeal of the celebrity, but often times it could pretty much be anyone.

Not to play Devil's Advocate here, but sometimes when I look at Us and Vogue, two magazines whose designs are just utterly cluttered and ugly, I wonder how they manage to sell so many damn copies. It is possible that in the right situation, bad and cluttered design somehow works better than the pleasing streamlined typography?

And another note: The early Wallpaper issues were really good at doing covers that had gorgeous models, and were seductive without playing into the celebrity gossip quagmire. That always impressed with me enough to buy the publication--at a hefty $8 at that. And frankly, some of those covers were more sophisticated and alluring than your celebrity cover.

Andrew Yang

New Yorker OJ cover is here.

One of my favorites too.

Armin hit the nail on the head:

"[T]he magazine we did, being distributed by mail to alumni and friends, didn't have to fight for newsstand attention so the cover could be very minimalistic"

The reason covers have to be so catchy is that newsstand sales have become so important. Maxim Magazine reaches up to 50% of its readership through newsstands, so it has to use celebrities/T&A to move the magazines.

This is why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are on the cover of so many business magazines... it's sad, but I stop any time I see them on the cover, and usually buy the mag.

The best covers are always going to come from mags that reach their audience through mail subscriptions. If you're anywhere near a newsstand, your cover has to scream "buy me, buy me NOW!"

The mass-market magazines get a very high percentage of their sales as a result of impulse buy — during my time as art director of Marie Claire in Spain as much as sixty four percent of our readership was considered "non-committal." This makes the publishers push for the easy solution: celebrity pictures and as many of the stories inside as you can fit as headlines on the cover.

There's no way to know if the public demand celebrities or if they do because that's what we force-feed them — just look at mainstream TV. But that's the situation we have to deal with and, by my experience, the marketing department in a corporation owned magazine has way more power than the art department...

We will have to conform with how tastefully some magazines — GQ, Vanity Fair, etc. — deal with the problem with the use of good photography and carefully crafted type.
Jesus de Francisco

Perhaps one of the problems is that magazines have to work so hard to sell themselves. We're bombarded with more "free" entertainment and information (in the form of continually piping television and Internet) than ever, and here magazines are begging for readers' measly two dollars. This desperation naturally leads to the lowest common denominator.

I think that the key to a magazine renaissance might be in adopting the Vice model of distribution -- just give the damn things away. Everybody knows that the money is in advertising (not subscriptions or over-the-counter sales), and advertising is dependent upon circulation.

I used to work in the "alt-newsweekly" business. We understood that the secret to maintaining a readership was in being prolific and giving readers no excuse not to pick up our paper.
Cowboy X

For the person who was looking for a magazine to do "out of sequence" interviews, I've been pleased with The Believer, published by McSweeney's. It's a literary magazine that doesn't focus on what's coming out in hardback this month. Instead it is often publishing articles about authors that everybody missed the first time round, or interviewing people it just finds interesting. This month's lead story is about Mishima--when was the last time anyone wrote or read anything on him?

I wish there was a film magazine that adopted a similar tactic (but not laden down with theory and jargon like Film Quarterly).

Charles Burns designs the covers, with a quartet of portraits holding down five boxes filled with text. It is a lot of text, but the cover does pop out among the other mags (Borders likes to place it close to Maxim and FHM for some reason).

p.s. It seems that the only time many magazines ditch the avalanche of copy is when tragedy strikes (major deaths, 9-11, etc.) Perhaps this is another reason simple design isn't popular at the moment?
ted mills

sure - the believer, cabinet, no smiling, index, etc., are all great mags but they aren't mainstream.

What it comes down to is the approach to people on covers I think.
Time, to give them credit have used the illustrative or photo illustration technique very well on occasion. And some of the business mags like Fast Company do this also.

Its the lifestyle/music/women's magazines that seem to be all looking very uniform these days(years!).

Perhaps this is cheeky but I wonder is it that there is a level of intelligence and 3 second extra interpretation needed to read the cover of a mag that has a bit of an illustrative approach to its cover stars? whereas a straight dull headshot at least just says what it is on the tin and is a faster visual 'read', if you know what I mean.

BTW in a sense The New Yorker HAS dumbed down since it lost Art Spiegelman and they've pretty much dropped socia/political style illustrations for lots of washy winter scene's or visual jokes.


The British style mag Sleaze Nation just relaunched as Sleaze, using an uncluttered, high concept cover (a photo of Posh Spice being burned) which both features a celebrity and attacks celebrity culture:


That technique is perhaps cunning, perhaps sleazy, or perhaps simply 'national' in the sense that British tabloids have always simultaneously promoted and destroyed celebrities.

I think the Golden Ageism of comparing what we have now to the art direction of the 60s is not misplaced, but perhaps it's worth considering that:

1. Good art direction is still around, just not in the mainstream.
2. The 15 or so years following 1962 were a completely anomalous time when marginal (even 'Aquarian') values somehow occupied the centre ground.
3. The conformity and pragmatism we have now is business as usual.
4. Depending on which astrologist you follow, a new age of Aquarius will arrive some time between 2060 and 2100. If any magazines are still around, they're sure to look great!

Perhaps the most elegantly designed mainstream publication of the 20th century was Fortune magazine, particularly during the 1930s when it first appeared. It also happened to be one of the best-written magazines as well, with folks like James Agee on staff. Some of the covers can be seen here. September 1931 is one of my favorites. What distinguished Fortune, I think, is that the covers were at most only tangentially related to the stories inside. That approach avoids the sometimes strained cleverness of "idea" covers but still allows the artist to tackle serious subject matter. I often wonder what it would take to support covers like that today.

One measure of how far magazine covers have fallen is how disposable almost all magazines are today. I can't think of a single mainstream magazine that I would collect or even want to have sitting on my coffee table for much more than a month. To the dustbin of history with you all!

Good art direction is indeed still around and I think Momus's comments are spot-on, Sleaze looks like somethng that could well invent it's own genre. However, I would also add that one should not underestimate the importance of the influence of the editor in getting ideas signed off. Many editors these days are given the huge responsibility of chasing the ABC figures of their competitors. For them to try and do something different from the norm takes a big leap of faith and also belief in their art director. Even then, they will often be whipped into line by the publisher or have pressure from demands from the ad managers for certain types of stories to match the advertising they are trying to get in.

I think it's a cliche now to talk about the 60's Esquire covers with such reverence. At that time, politically and culturally there was a greater desire for thought-provoking material and discussion in magazines. Covers of magazines only reflect the culture at that time, unfortunately ours today is obsessed with celebrity.

Covers that today scream 'Celebs worst fashion moments' or 'Is Jennifer pregnant?', will be seen as being as culturally relevant in ten years time, as Esquire covers were in the '60's.


Assuming we're talking strictly about mass-market, mainstream non-political magazines here, the analysis is spot-on. But I do think there is some very good work being done by smaller but still national political mags, such as the Nation and the American Prospect.
Brandon Keim

George Lois's Esquire covers were not just artifacts of their age, but also great works of design. Today's Us cover may be the former but it's unlikely to ever be regarded the latter.

Lois never hesitated to give credit to his editor, Harold Hayes, for making the covers possible. From his (very entertaining) 1972 autobiography, George, Be Careful (Saturday Review Press):

The big reason Esquire's covers succeeded when they did was...Hayes' hands-off attitude toward my work. Two months before each issue he told me all he knew of its contents, and I called my own shots.

Impossible to imagine now.
Michael Bierut

And Rick, in response to your question about whether people have lost their taste for "challenging and provocative editorial ideas visually expressed," I think it may be something a little more subtle. I think the convention of the celebrity cover has become so associated with mass-market general interest magazines that the style has become shorthand for the genre.

People scanning the shelves need to find the thing they're looking for. A spaghetti package can look a lot of different ways, but if it doesn't look like a spaghetti package in some fundamental way, people won't believe there's spaghetti inside.
Michael Bierut

What story would even need clever George Lois cover to express itself today?

well said Gary. I take issue with the contention that "The worst magazines have a crummy picture of someone who has just been through some kind of scandal, surrounded by really awful typography." This attitude totally buys into the philosophy that has corrupted general interest magazines and turned them into in-house promo vehicles for the infotainment establishment: that you can't sell magazines without an "exclusive" cover photo of a star. To get that photo, the marketeers who now masquerade as editors trade away their editorial independence (ie, their balls) for access. In truth it's the best (and increasingly the rarest) magazines, not the worst ones, which refuse to play that game and end up using photos from the free market or grab shots by papparrazi, which lack hair and makeup and lighting but more than make up for that deficit by illustrating stories that go beyond the smoke and mirror fantasies of rich and powerful folks and their image machines. George Lois is still briliant but he's also obsolete because the imagine machines won't allow the likes of him anywhere near their precious charges.

I think the convention of the celebrity cover has become so associated with mass-market general interest magazines that the style has become shorthand for the genre.

Perfectly put, Michael. I wonder if the problem is compounded by the increasing interchangeability and lack of specialization among magazines? People who follow Vogue for the fashion coverage are grumbling about having to see Natalie Portman or Angelina Jolie on the cover; I wonder if this marks the magazine's final descent into the undifferentiated fray of "general interest" magazines that spans from Newsweek to InStyle. Or to use your own example, what will supermarkets look like when all boxes contain spaghetti?
Jonathan Hoefler

Critique magazine had some amazing covers if my memory serves (and unfortunately, Google can't find any of 'em on the Net). Too bad they went bye-bye.

True, it was a design magazine, so it did operate at a higher level, but still, most other design mags today have boring photos on the front...

In recent months, the only new magazine I have spent considered time with, both reading and enjoying its graphic treatment, is Zembla Magazine, "the new international literary magazine that offers fun with words." Rick Poynor mentioned it in a previous post, and I've now seen two issues. (Issue number three comes out this week in England, and I will scramble for a copy.) In what other magazine, filled with Dior, Gucci and Honda ads, can one read a thoughtful piece about W.G. Sebald, Cynthia Ozick's fantasy interview with Henry James, or a new literary work by Adam Ant?

This said, even this adventuresome enterprise (published by the rare book dealer Simon Finch with a fresh approach to editorial design by Vince Frost) feels the need to have "celebrity" covers.

The first two issues are graced with Tilda Swinton (the star of Orlando and Young Adam) and ZZ Packer (the hottest of the new, young novelists). Zembla tries to be ironic about these covers. ZZ Packer is called a "cover star." Tilda Swinton's piece is called "The New Celebrity Interview" because it offers a twist—she is the interviewer. In the end, though, the covers are the least successful part of the magazine.

It is sad that this new magazine, full of such promise, falls into the same trap as every other magazine on the newsstand. What does it mean when our best literary magazines aspire to achieve success by mimicking mass-market general interest magazines? For a magazine as good as Zembla, celebrity covers suggest not only a lack of nerve, but the flawed belief that the world is a better place if we make literary stars, not just movie stars.
William Drenttel

Michael, you have neatly sidestepped my question. The overwhelming message coming from your original post and many of the contributions to this thread is that, for the most part, with some honorable exceptions, newsstand covers are not so well designed as they were when editors and art directors had more freedom.

OK, agreed, so what I am asking is what this has to tell us about the audience that buys them? Saying that these covers are shorthand for their content is unarguable, but doesn't take us very far. Who says that "general interest" magazines must be largely about celebrity? Gary is right. If you take a sociological view, then in 10 or 50 years these products will be fantastically revealing of the preoccupations and priorities (and delusions?) of the societies that created them. Do these images simply reflect their audience or do they help to construct it?
Rick Poynor

Hi, this has been a great conversation.

First of all, one thing re: the Lois covers. I think when we used them as an unflattering counter to contemporary newsmagazine covers, it's important to remember that there are two sides: the design and what it depicts (i.e. politics). The fault could also be put on the latter half as well, in the sense that print coverage of politics seems less "urgent" now than in Lois's time. Television is, for the regular mainstream American, the medium for news. The big three newsmagazines have taken on a vaguely televised feel themselves, full of Entertainment Weekly-style factoids. It's hard to have a quirky, thesis-like design when the magazine itself is trying to strive towards information and away from thesis.

Secondly, are there other non-mainstream non-news magazines that people like the (cover) design of? You would think that for these more offbeat, obviously non-money-making magazines, making millions of dollars off of ad revenue wouldn't even be an option--so there wouldn't be a need to advertise everything on the front page. But a lot of literary journals have fairly boring covers--often just a piece of illustration that was submitted for the interior, copied on the front. In other cases, more "serious" journals, like October or the New Left Review, seem allergic to image, as though the presence of *only* type reflects the right kind of austerity relevant to serious intellectuals.

McSweeney's seems to have made the idea of the Magazine as an art form of its own into a kind of general aspiration for literary magazines. A lot of newer magazines, like Bridge and Palimpsest, seem to see packaging as part of the point. Might this vitiate the importance of the cover?

Finally, two (sort of) anecdotes about covers for mainstream fashion magazines. My girlfriend just returned from an architecture trip in Beijing and met the editor of the Chinese version of Seventeen. The issue they'd just put out had Liv Tyler on the cover but the editor said that in a few months, they were going to try put only non-famous girls on the covers, as part of an attempt to shift the editorial focus to the type of regular, normal girls who'd read the magazine. Also, a friend of mine works at FLAUNT, which has always had (I think) pretty interesting and (for a fashion magazine) unconventional covers. They seem to always have two covers: the inside cover is a typical fashion magazine cover (photo of a famous person), while the outside one is sort of an artistic interpretation of that one. The exterior cover often doesn't even have a flag or even any text--a pretty daring move I think; I make an effort to look for it on newstands and I can't always find it.
Ken Chen

There is only ever one magazine in each genre which achieves status as 'the best' or 'the most recognisable'. Everything else is competition.

Whether that competition decides the best route to success is lots of screaming coverlines or a minimal approach, is defined by the genre they are trying to fit into. Or the genre they are trying to change.

In either case, I don't think we can really moan about the decline of Esquire-type concepts on Esquire covers, it's just that their particular genre has changed.

If you want thought-provoking covers and lots of nice pictures, try buying The New York Times magazine instead. They don't have to compete on the newstand, but I guess that's the point.

If you review the magazine covers when Lois created his tours de force, many mainstreams like Vogue, Mademoiselle, Bazaar were also quite beautiful, and at times relied entirely on visual ideas or puns to make them work. Hey, even the Art Paul Playboy covers were pretty conceptual. However, few magazine covers were as strident as Lois' Esquire because Harold Hayes filled this otherwise men's mag with great content. Lois was told to flip through the articles and decide (with Hayes) what would be best to sell. It came down to selling an asset - like a story on Lt. Calley or M. Ali as martyr - and Lois did it brilliantly. This format was later adopted by New York Magazine and Spy after that. But when talking about decline, be careful what you mean. On the one hand there are few magazines in the mainstream that have such great content anyway, on the other there does seem to be less visual sophistication or risk-taking.

Lois once told me that GEORGE mag asked him to do a "Lois cover" for them. When he turned it in, they rejected it. There could be a million reasons why (and being afraid of a bold statement is one of them), but I think it was more because Lois picked ONE story and George wanted to sell more than ONE story. You can only do this quality work, when you are willing to put your mouth and money behind one strong editorial idea. Otherwise, even a good conceptual cover will be buried in coverlines.

But sometimes coverlines can be an asset. When Carson designed Ray Gun he used type as texture, design, and content. Those early and even later covers are really quite adventurous. They're not Lois style, but they were not like anything else, either. In fact, they reminded me (but were quite different) of Lubalin's Avant Garde covers because they were such anomalies.

I don't think the art of magazine covers is really in as much decline as Michael says. Yes, there are more cluttered, coverlined covers around, perhaps because there are actually more style and fashion magazines around (and they fit into a formula). But then there are the Flaunts, Nests, Dutchs, and many more that seem to be more playful than most.

What there isn't, and maybe this is what Michael laments, is a single vision that makes readers long with anticipation for each issue of a unique magazine to hit the stands. The thing I lament is the lack of that kind of consistency. But frankly, that didn't happen much even when Lois was doing his Esquire covers.
steven Heller

I agree with all the critique of current mass-market magazine design, but the "decline" thing seems a little easy. Isn't it more cyclical? The mags are businesses with an imperitive to continually grow, which means that they have no time and freedom to engage in 'elitist' excellence. Design elegance in the mass-market belongs to a time when the market was much smaller and slower. Maybe that time will come again, but for now the business climate values short-term growth, and excellence is a niche market. Eventually things will re-balance themselves, no?

I guess the thing that strikes me most about Esquire in the sixties is that I knew it because my Uncle James was a subscriber. Uncle James worked for the railroad. Esquire was just a normal magazine to him, not something daring and sophisticated.

I think that magazines like the Believer, Zembla, Flaunt, Nest, and Raygun are fine and worthy. But none of them would have found their way to my uncle's mailbox. Esquire, in all its glory, did.
Michael Bierut

Good points by Steven and Michael I think.

As for Zembla, it's a nicely designed magazine. It's also a magazine where the designer has been commissioned very knowingly by the publisher. Vince Frost is an excellent designer and anything he works on will stir up some interest.

Several of my friends have seen or bought it, they are all connected in some small way with design. Friends of mine who are writers however, have never heard of it. They continue to buy the New Yorker and other magazines. Personally I think that says a lot.

An historical footnote:
The blame for celeb covers must go back, in large part, to Life Magazine. Although the early issues had great journalistic photography, among the largest sellers were those with celebs on the covers. I remember a stunning one with Jeanne Crain in a bubble bath. But Marilyn, Clark Gable, Liza's mom, and many more made frequent appearances.

Okay, maybe Life doesn't deserve blame, per se. But its offspring certainly shoulders some responsibility. I refer to PEOPLE.

The theory was if celebs sell on the occasional Life, then celebs will sell every week on PEOPLE. And so the late 20th century celeb mag was born. I remember the premiere issue. The design was actually damn good for its day. It wasn't Esquire or even New York, but it was novel and alluring enough to capture a huge audience, including me (for over two years). I believe it was only sold on the newsstands too.

By the time I got tired of the same old diet, copy-cat celeb mags like US joined the fray, and countless other existing fashion and lifestyle mags started focusing on celebs. Oh yes, and let's not forget Andy Warhol's Interview (I actually designed a few early issues of that) and its star pix covers (reminicent of the old pulp Screen mag). This had a big influence down the road.

Remember before the celebs took over, most fashion/style mags used "cover girl" models. The major fashion mags still do, but the celebs have found a new vocation on these as well, as you know.

What does this all say about readers' habits. Well, the mags seem to sell well, so why change the formula. The market rules, as always.
Steve Heller

Rick, you asked whether celebrity covers reflect the magazine buying audience, or whether they help construct it. You're right, I sidestepped the question, because I honestly don't know the answer.

Although designers and their clients talk a lot about connecting with their audience, in most cases it's pretty hard to figure out what effect design has on that audience. Package designers who create a new spaghetti package are always quick to take credit for a spike in sales. But was it the new package that made the difference, or was it the new ad campaign, or the newfound zeal of the sales force, or the change in the recipe?

With magazines, the situation seems tantalizingly unambiguous. Every publisher I know who depends on newsstands sales knows which cover "sold best" and which "sold worst." This creates a feedback loop where what works before is repeated over and over again. It's just like a rat in a maze who finds the little lever that delivers the food pellets and can't help but hitting that lever again and again, even if it means leaving most of the maze unexplored.

The thing I honestly don't know is who's the addicted rat? Is the publisher? Or is it the reader as well?
Michael Bierut

The magazine cover does construct the audience to the degree that it builds desire. Don't forget that these celebrities are usually fused with other wildly expensive materials (Prada/private jet/backstreet boyfriend) and ultimately they symbolize the luxury of getting anything you want, whenever you want it - including photo shoots and magazine covers. Unfortunately a huge percentage of the readership wants to be told what to do...reading Vogue will tell you how to be the cover celeb.

And so the publisher is addicted to climbing sales, but also to telling people how to think and dress. So the next question is, how do we subvert the covers to pull a different latent desire from the news stand viewer? Given the celebrity machine, which gears can we replace that will ask the viewer to question their dependence on the authority of the publisher/editor ?
Andrew Breitenberg

I wonder if we should step back and take a look at how readers experience magazines on the newsstand in the first place. It's comforting to think that Michael's uncle James might have first seen Esquire hanging from one of those bountiful postwar kiosks that we've all seen in Berenice Abbott photos, but this month's readers face a very different environment. No matter what's on the cover of this month's Esquire, all a newsstand browser is likely to see of it is the top two inches. Maybe three inches at Hudson News; maybe one inch at Walmart.

A handful of wholesalers are responsible for the distribution of almost all magazines in America, and 88% of rack placements are managed by four private companies. It's understandable why titillating rooflines have become a fixture in every magazine genre, why there are at least four sub-brands of InStyle, and why there are enormous pressures on magazines like Rolling Stone to reduce their trim size to 8x10. The racks rule, and it's placement rather than art direction that can make or break a title.

Part of the homogenization of all magazines (both artistically and editorially) has to do with finding a way to buck the system. Wholesalers use a two-tier system to separate titles with broad demographics from specialty titles, whose distribution will be limited to outlets with available space. Making things worse, wholesalers buy second tier titles at a deeper discount, charge their publishers for returns, and demand even higher discounts on new titles. All of this makes for a financially regressive feedback loop that further favors any magazine with Jennifer Aniston on the cover.
Jonathan Hoefler

Great, provocative thread. George Lois once told me the story of his attempt to revive the lost era of magazine cover greatness at George Magazine. Go to this URL and search the word Lois to read what he had to say.
Michael Gross

Michael, thanks for the great link, and more reminders of how the mighty are fallen.

I was asked to write a review of George Magazine (John F. Kennedy Jr.'s political magazine) for ID when it first came out around ten years ago. It alludes briefly to the George Lois episode that Michael Gross reports on in depth. It's been archived at Typotheque.com here.
Michael Bierut

Eric Larsen has posted "Skin Deep," a great article on this subject, on Speak Up. It includes lots of painstakingly-researched links to magazine covers through history and should not be missed. See it here.

Michael Bierut

I miss Speak Magazine.

Speak was a magazine, the old-fashioned kind, with paper and ink and a really expensive print bill. It published long-form interviews, fiction, essays and features on a variety of topics.

It debuted in 1995, and after several inauspicious issues, found its niche as an "uncommercial" glossy. Unlike most titles, its editorial was designed not for advertisers or a narrow demographic, but for people who fancied a thoughtful and provocative read. The magazine ceased publication in 2001.

Thank you to everyone who supported the magazine over the years.

Dan Rolleri
Editor & Publisher

Anybody remember them? They had the graphic quality of Raygun, AdBusters, Esquire, Archis, and Wired with the editorial content of RollingStone, ArtForum, the Atlantic, Adbusters, McSweeney's, Harpers, and Emigre.

Their masthead hung on either the left or right page, with it bleeding off the edge. When they applied for a periodical permit via US Post, it was rejected because the logo was neither consistent nor identifiable. According to the Postmaster, "...you have no way of knowing what the title of this publication is." Although disgusted, Speak changed their masthead with issue #10. They met the standards in order to save on postal rates.

Speak was so many things at once, very simultaneous. I saw Chris Ware's work, learned about underground zines on lycanthropy and trepanation, and was told that Miles Davis did not give birth to cool. I even recall an article by Steven Heller about Nazi iconography, and something by or about Chip Kidd. There was no focus, and that's what I liked. Sadly, when you try to be so many things at once, you run the risk of losing your audience with such a varied image.

The editorial fate of Speak mimics the graphic fate of most magazines today. While simultaneity allows variety and multiplicity, it can project so many disperate and different elements that it becomes nothing but noise.

I still have a fair few copies of Speak.
I wasn't a big fan of the early design. Way too 'Dave Carson' and just plain messy, but after 3/4 issues it started to settle into its own style I thought that was more sympathetic to the content and yet readable. The mix of music+literature was a good one. They could so easily have just turned into an all music mag like any other.


I miss Speak, too, and bought every issue as they were published. I always found the design excellent (except for the David Carson designed issue, the only one that was Carsonish; I think it does Martin a disservice to file him under David, it's the other way around) and the writing/editing caught up. I actually bought ad space in an issue for my own magazine. But to put this on topic, I didn't find Speak's covers that special. They were consistent with the magazine as a whole and always curious but none really stand out. I can see the consistency as a distinct sensibility (there was no letdown)--as opposed to the stand-out Lois cover strategy. Could the inside treatments of Esquire be as challenging? Or did it become 'standard' editorial once you were inside?
Kenneth FitzGerald

I am involved in the relaunch of a magazine here in Vancouver which will be distributed nationally (Canada), called the Vancouver Review. Our first cover is a conceptual one-story shot -- conceived by photographer Mark Mushet with the editor, Gudrun Will. I'm looking forward to working with people with a commitment to "smart."

Interestingly, they were nervous about approaching potential advertisers with a shot of the morgue on the cover, but so far so good -- the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

I think that as usual people (publishers, marketers, whoever) underestimate the public's desire to be challenged or intrigued. Never declare anything not made of mortal flesh to be "dead." One day -- perhaps soon -- a large, mainstream magazine will emerge that takes content and the representation of that content seriously, and we will all rejoice.
marian bantjes

Excellent thread, but one thing that seems to be a bit overlooked is the fact that the magazine cover isn't just a billboard to entice a reader at the point of purchase it is also a vehicle to advertise it's content. In other words how can the cover of magazines such as People and US Weekly be thought provoking and well conceived if the content isn't? The majority of the "consumer" magazines don't dive in to issues beyond the surface of pop culture. Perhaps if the issues raised inside the magazines went deeper and were more thought provoking you would see this translated onto the cover.

There are plenty of well-designed magazines; the only problem is they occupy more niche markets. Magazines such as The Nation, The Progressive, The Believer, and a whole slew of Design magazines can afford well-designed covers because they are content driven. Consumers will often pick them up and read them because they have a general interest in politics and literature and not just because they are drawn to the cover story.

The issue may not be the decline of magazine cover design but the increase of poorly designed ones. More importantly the issue may be more poorly written articles and non-thought provoking content being injected into mainstream magazines.

More on magazine covers and contents - as seen in Britain's depressingly dumb new weekly men's titles, Nuts and Zoo - in this Eye Critique column.

Rick Poynor

Doesn't effective (even good) cover design come down to predictability versus unpredictability?

Whether or not a celeb is on the cover is irrelevant. The problem with periodical publishing today is redundancy.

I remember awaiting each issue of Michael Gross' National Lampoon anticipating what strange or witty would be on the cover (remember the "I'll kill this dog" cover? Or the chocolate Bengladesh icon?). That said, I really awaited every issue because I was an avid follower of the magazine. If the content was not good, I wouldn't have paid attention to the covers over the long haul, no matter how clever they were.

Conversely, I was not that interested in Spy's covers (they were fairly predictable after a while), but the overall content was fanastic.

The problem with Flaunt is that the covers are diverse, unpredictable, even well done, but the content is uninteresting (I was an avid follower for the first year). Similarly, BIG magazine: The covers are kinda interesting, but the content has lost its vigor over the past few years.

BTW not all celebrity covers are boring. Fred Woodward injects panache onto GQs covers that rises above the rest in the genre. The interior features are unpredictable, which is predictably Woodward.

So, I would argue that when any cover (whether celeb, type, illustration, whatever) becomes formulaic its time to change. Hey, I'd like to see a year where all magazines change their respective mastheads on every issue (like the thirties Vanity Fair), that would be anarchic but fun.

Steve Heller

P.S. And then after a year of anarchic fun it would be a formula. Plus ça change.
Steve heller

And of course the trouble is that if the magazine becomes extremely successful - Time, National Geographic, New Yorker, they are less likely then to change that style once they have hit the jackpot, as their marketing team would no doubt see it.

Sure, the magazine as global 'brand' can be a good thing, but it can get lazy and predictable very easily. Wouldn't it be interesting to shake up the N. Geographic for a few issues and see what else can be done with it's fantastic resources+content?

For a start a more funky mag (in the style of benettons Colors perhaps) could appeal to a whole new audience. And a more personalised mag that is about the people who look after, love, or kill animals could be more hard hitting and editorial.

perhaps every magazine needs its 'dumb version' and it's 'smart version' ;) just like a choice of broadshhet or tabloid for newspapers you can 'change the skin' of your magazine to suit your demographic.


You probably know this already, but SPEAK designer Martin Venezky's work (and Speak covers) is at http://www.appetiteengineers.com/

Beast magazine seems very influenced by Speak:
Ken Chen

I edit Scram magazine, an occasional journal of unpopular culture that's never going to have to worry about appealing to a mass audience. I decided some years back to entrust each cover design to an illustrator whose work I love, give them a few basic instructions (make the top couple inches jazzy since often that's all that shows, leave space for the barcode, have fun) and trust them to do something great. It's a little scary, but fun. Our readers and I never know what the next issue will look like--Mari Kono did a photo pastiche of 1930s movie mags starring cutie pie singer Janet Klein, Dan Clowes scripted an incredible wordless comic story that perfectly encapsulates Scram's thrift store record geek aesthetic, Tom Neely made the magazine name the punchline in a vintage Disney-style comic sketch, Peter Bagge used the Yardbirds' classic "Rave Up" LP cover as the basis for a portrait of featured artists Tiny Tim, Jackie Gleason, etc. So far we've commissioned fourteen covers (out of 19 issues), and it's one of my favorite things about doing the magazine. With so many terrific artists out there, excited to have the opportunity to take on a challenge like this, it amazes me that more publishers don't do this. When you have a magazine like ours, where a certain number of people are pretty much going to buy it whenever they see it, and that's sufficient to keep publishing, why not treat the cover like fine art?
Kim Cooper

Kim, I'd put most magazines that treat their covers as fine art into a niche category. I'd like to know your circulation and how many staff you have to sustain with these sort of covers? Take this sort of concept to a major publishing house and the idea would be dead before it focused on the Powerpoint presentation.

I've taken quite an apposite stance on this discussion, even though I'm an art director myself . It seems to me we are talking about two very separate things. Mass-market consumer magazines and special-interest niche titles. You can't compare a title like Marmalade with the GQ's of this world. They have totally different remits.

The ingenuity in publishing is to identify a new market, come up with an exciting new design and release this on the public before they even realise this is what they want.

As for celebrity covers, I stand by my earlier comments that they will, in time, become icons of our age. All celebrities will soon have their own magazines, with their publicists as editors. Information within these will become more specialised and in-depth and they will become portals in their own right. All tightly controlled by the image the publicists want to project.

Information about celebs will get more and more defined for a niche audience, who will pay more for the privilege of tapping into these feeds. Less print and more digital, these feeds will be updated in real time, by robots sending each other press releases.

Just a thought.

Gary Cook

been following this thread all week and enoying it greatly

seems to me the magazine industry can be compared to the film and music industries

in their time talented individuals such as george lois, orson welles and john lennon helped create the vast international concerns their respective creative industries became. they helped build something that might well ignore their talents today

the creative media industries are now all concerned to retain their market share and will automatically market research product until it becomes the bland stuff we see on the newsstand, at the movies and hear on the radio.

the industries got too big, too succesful and too anxious. there is so much to lose

so trips to the newsstand get increasingly depressing, but there are of course exceptions. as stated earlier fred woodwards GQ does the celebrity mainstream thing way better than anyone else, and every now and again a new title launches that attracts the attention for its design [though its been a while since this has happened]. many newspapers publish excellent magazines that don't have to compete for sales.

but like film and music, outside the mainstream there are plenty of independent alternatives. some are plain indulgent but many are genuinely interesting and innovative projects that challenge mainstream thinking

titles such as Marmalade [UK], Textfield [US], thisisamagazine {Italy] and Archis [Netherlands] are all worth looking at for how they combine text and design [as indeed was Speak]

increasing travel and the international networking provided by the internet means that smallscale magazines can begin to create an international audience that might sustain them. this doesn't just mean the usual london-new york-paris axis. i was in auckland recently and was surpised to find a store specializing in this kind of independent magazine. they stocked all the above and many other independent european and american magazines

jeremy leslie

As someone who came of age in the '60s I always appreciate an opportunity to indulge in some nostalgia, especially on a Friday. But it's important to remember that while Esquire (and let's not forget Clay Felker's other magazine, New York) was exploring the conceptual possibilities in cover art, there probably was just as much junk then as now. The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Simon & Garfunkle, etc. were pushing the boundaries of pop music , but their records rarely made it onto Top 40 playlists, which were preoccupied with tunes like "Yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy." The upside of trash is that it's easily forgotten.

Felker, Lois and that remarkable stable of Esquire writers were breaking new conceptual ground because the business side allowed them to follow their instincts, believing there was a profitable readership out there that would respond to those covers. Esquire was certainly a for-profit operation; now a chronic money-loser, the New Yorker was then one of the most profitable books on the newsstand. (By the way, take a look at a year's worth of New Yorker covers from the '50s and early '60s—you'll see that whether or not the subject was topical, the color scheme was an exact match to the quality of light for that time of the year, i.e., not just "spring," but early, mid or late in the season.)

Esquire eventually sank into mediocrity, but since then there's usually been one or two with some creative mojo. Two titles with covers designed by instinct-driven talent that immediately come to mind are Kurt Andersen's own Spy and, in its heyday, Wired. All of the Esquire covers you refer to featured celebrities. As I remember, Spy often didn't use a celebrity, and Wired frequently dispensed with a photo altogether.

The really interesting experiment in cover art began about two weeks ago, when Moss took over as editor of New York. A really talented magazine editor who's never run a magazine that stood on its own on a newsstand. Has that ever happened before?
Mark Paul

Mark, before joining the Times, Adam Moss ran Seven Days, a great weekly that was a cross between the Village Voice and New York. From various published reports, it sounds as though his influence is not yet being felt at New York. Certainly it will be interesting to see him attempt to bring the design and editorial standards he established at the Times Magazine to the newsstand.
Michael Bierut

Ralph Ginsburg and Herb Lubalin must not be left out of any magazine discussion.

Ginsburg, who worked at Esquire when Henry Wolf was art director (who also smartly art directed Bazaar and Show), took a dangerous leap into taboo territory when he published Eros. This hardcover, subscription only magazine about eroticism, elegantly and startlingly designed by Lubalin, may not have been the run-of-the-mill barbershop periodical, but it was daring, bold, and ahead of its time.

Lubalin applied an advertising-inspired typographic aesthetic imbuing every article with a visual "big idea." Although Ginsburg was charged and convicted on pornography statues (pandering through the mails), and served 9 months in prison for publishing the magazine, this was more tastefully written, designed and illustrated than today's soft-core Stuff, FMH, Blender, and Gear. Sure it was a hardcover magazine (an anomoly today but not in the early 60s - i.e. Panorama, Audience, American Heritage) without advertising, but it was a model for how to wed content and design in all periodicals.

Less legally precarious, but no less editorially striking, Ginsburg's Avant Garde (also designed by Lubalin), which was sold on newsstands, altered the conventions of magazine form (it was a square) and design. Lubalin introduced more ambitious typographic contortions (type as illustration is one way to describe it), on spreads that had their own integrity yet meshed well with the entire editorial flow. Of course, he also designed his most famous (and missused) typeface, Avant Garde, for the masthead and department heads. The mag was of its time, but it still has resonance.

Did either of these magazines have influence on mass magazine design of their day? Not directly. But I know from experience that they opened the eyes of art directors and designers to what was possible. Moreover, the collaboration between Ginsburg and Lubalin (that rare comingling of two strong egos a la Felker and Glaser or Hayes and Lois) was the envy of all in the field.
Steven Heller

As a sometimes comics artist and a full-time "content provider" for the Web and other publications, I can appreciate the whining about good graphic art not being appreciated. What I think is missing from the argument is the recognition that we are still talking about magazines, here, a medium that is, for the most part, a time-filler for most people, something you look at while waiting for a haircut or a dental exam.

As for ESQUIRE, the last time I picked up a copy was while on the treadmill. Fifteen minutes later I had gone from cover to cover and read all that I cared to read. And I still wasn't done with the treadmill, goddammit.

I understand why those interested in graphic arts consider the matter to be very serious, but I would find it refreshing to have someone within the industry say "but when you get right down to it, we're only doing magazine covers! We're lucky to be getting paid for this junk!"

Paul Hehn

I posted a follow-up to this, including a further example of low quality covers (imho) and then examples of some really fine recent covers (again, imho):

I am looking for prints of two New Yorker covers, both by J.J. Sempe. Both are images of cats. One is from November 24, 1997, called "Luxurious, Quiet, and Cozy," and one is from March 1, 1982, an image of a cat sitting at a kitchen table looking out. I'd like to get these for my mother, who lives near the WTC in Manhattan. Anybody have any idea where I could find these for purchase? THANKS.
Susan Ross

A little late in my response, but take a gander at Radio Electronics c. 1974.

Apparent forerunners in the yellow text field. It's ugly, it's busy, and it's what you're talking about.

Dirk Barnett at Popular Science forwarded this link to the PopCult website. "The Decline of Western Magazine Design" by Coury Turszyn compares magazine covers then and now with predictably devastating results.
Michael Bierut

This excerpt from an AdAge.com interview with Hearst President Cathleen Black offers insight into the marketer's perspective on this issue. Most marketers regret the decline as much as designers - many of us got into magazines because we love them, we're readers, and we appreciate design. Unfortunately, we are responsible for responding to the dictates of the market. Two market factors that create the current state are (a) changing tastes and (b) many times more media choices. Today's media environment is far more competitive it was in Lois' heyday. With increased competition comes decreased creative flexibility. I'm not trying to defend crap design, just illuminate some of the forces that demand it. The true creative test is how to continue to sell great design in this more demanding environment.

This excerpt veers of topic after the cover discussion, but remains interesting....

AA: Last year a lot of big magazines all seemed to be taken by surprise by weak newsstand sales. Is this trend continuing?

Ms. Black: Trying to put it in a nutshell, whether people will return to the newsstand in the ways that have been bankable -- I would suggest that it's unknown. On the other hand, Oprah is averaging 950,000 copies a month. It's over a 40% increase over the year before. Cosmo has reached 1.9 million, 2 million copies [on the newsstand], so it's able to sell. You've got a lot of just different things going on, and a tough economy.

AA: Once we separate out the Oprahs, is there a change in consumer behavior?

Ms. Black: I don't think we know that at this point. I do think there's too much product duplication. There's not enough uniqueness out there. Or in a very down economy if people are in the supermarket one less time a week. You've lost that clear chance to pick [new consumers] up.

AA: Hearst's Good Housekeeping and Redbook.

Ms. Black: I don't think it's the product at all. There are times when the cover or the coverlines just miss. Sometimes a celebrity falls out at the last possible second, or their movie gets moved. And you can't get the celebrity you want. This goes on all the time. The people responsible for getting cover celebrities, they'll be bald in three months because they are pulling their hair out.

AA: Can you stop using celebrities on the cover?

Ms. Black: We talk about this internally constantly. The answer is we don't know. We are in the world of celebrity everything and one would like to imagine it will run its course. But your guess is probably as good as mine as to when the winds begin to shift.

AA: You tested last year a non-celebrity cover for Good Housekeeping.

Ms. Black: It did very well. And Country Living had never put a food picture on the cover and around the same time they put this gorgeous layered cake on the cover. It was one of the best-selling issues of the year. Everyone once in a while [you] can really strike the exact right note. [But] if you look back to what Vogue started three, four years ago, with maybe one or two
issues with a celebrity on the cover ... practically overnight, there's a celebrity on every cover. The models didn't sell.

AA: Are magazine brands transitioning to a time win which key titles, once established, are less annuities than more perishable products?

Ms. Black: There are magazines tied to celebrity personas. They're on the cover every month. I don't think we've moved off our belief that investing in a brand over a period of time will bring more resonance and have a stronger ad and reader franchise over a period of time. Look at Cosmo. Now, it's an international franchise. I don't think we've seen yet that the momentary hit has that kind of staying power.

AA: But as for a shortened shelf-life?

Ms. Black: I don't think there's necessarily any proof to that. People put up Rosie as an example. But [Martha Stewart Living]has significant competition in Real Simple. Certainly her legal difficulties have added to that a lot, but Real Simple has given it a huge run for its money. With the persona approach, you have to have someone so unbelievably unique and special, and a person that a reader will aspire to be. Like Oprah [Winfrey]. They admire Oprah, and Oprah is serious businessperson. You can do business with her, and she is predictable.

AA: So what happens to that magazine if Oprah gets hit by a bus?

Ms. Black: I don't know! Having just celebrated all of her 50th birthday celebrations from Chicago to Santa Barbara, I wish her a fantastic next 50 years, at least, and not just because of our partnership.

AA: Everyone talks about magazines' need to sell better against other media instead of each other. How can this be accomplished, when mag sales reps' instincts are to beat up on the competition, and ad buyers do the same from their side of the desk?

Ms. Black: We are in a very unique situation, because we are competing head to head. [Television] programs don't. It's the card we're dealt.

Our great selling point is to say the combination of print plus TV, or cable, is the most effective ad message. There are studies after studies that assert that. But what happens is we have to prove our effectiveness when we are 5% of someone's overall budget, which is nearly an impossible task.

AA: You've mentioned the level of details marketers want from magazine circulation, and you've likened what they want to Coca-Cola telling Pepsi about marketing strategies.

Ms. Black: You've got it exactly right. But it really is about the changes that marketers want on the [Audit Bureau of Circulations] statement, which we would suggest is far too demanding. It's like saying, "How do you do it and what do you do and what are your pricing strategies?" Circulation is a lot about pricing strategies, what we -- or Coca-Cola or Pepsi - would call sampling. We need to put our copies into the hands of potential readers. Unfortunately, no magazine is going to spend $50 million to launch a new product.

AA: Hearst has done many joint ventures. How do those ventures work out, for example with Smart Money, which has seen high-level turnover lately, and what happened with Talk?

Ms. Black: We have editorial control of Marie Claire. It is joint on Smart Money [with Dow Jones & Co.] And in my eight and a half years, there's never been any real editorial issues.

The way one goes into a partnership, you have to have a shared vision. You have to understand what you are getting into and what your partner expects about editorial content. Of course, Oprah is going to know what's on every page, as she should. The idea that we "have a contract" is irrelevant. If the person whose magazine it is named after doesn't like what's in the magazine, then we didn't have the right conversation to begin with. Which I always thought about Gruner & Jahr and Rosie [O'Donnell]. When [former G&J CEO] Dan [Brewster] used to say [editorial control] is in the contract -- it's her name on it! Come on, guys!

On Talk, Hearst came in long after that joint venture was created with Tina [Brown] and Ron [Galotti] and Miramax. We were never there in the beginning. That's always a challenge.

AA: [Good Housekeeping editor in chief] Ellen Levine says you have a motto
in your company: It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

Ms. Black: Only for me. They can't do it.
Bart Stephens

This month's issue of Folio, the meta-magazine for magazine professionals, weighs in with their cover story, "Winning the Cover Game: Find Out What's Working Now and Why." The article includes some "timeless rules" that George Lois evidently failed to master, all courtesy of Susan Ungaro, the editor of Family Circle:

Use the power of the personal. Be sure readers know "what's in it for you!" Use personal pronouns and action verbs.

Make promises that are attainable and believable. No bait-and-switch lines!

More isn't always better. A cluttered cover is less readable.

Leave cleverness for inside the magazine. Coverlines should be clear and not coy.

Folio also recommends the following words as "proven attention-getters" on a cover: FREE, NOW, EXCLUSIVE, YOU, SEX (sometimes), SECRET and SURPRISE.
Michael Bierut

Coming to this discussion a little late, but also feeling very close to it. The first thing I think of (regarding the celeb covers, glowing with big chunky yellow type etc) was something that happened in a class I was taking with Ed Benguiat a few years back.

Ed noticed a Supermarket circular in the corner of the room, and once it was in front of the class, someone remarked how awful and ugly the chunky yellow black and red pages were. Ed defended it. Because regardless of how ugly it was--it worked--you couldn't ignore it. It was good design because it had the intended effect, to make you notice it.

but Ed was also the one who left us with the words, "make it beautiful for the people"--and he did not mean people magazine.

People has certainly defined the genre of celeb journalism content wise, but it competitors: US, InTouch, Star all try to out glow each other. People has such a lion's share of the pie right now, and is strong enough in reputation and subscriptions, that it can, for the moment, rest on it's laurels. The rest are hungrily competing for the scraps.

And the battle is on the Newstand every week. Or rather it's on the supermarket checkout line, in WallMart, and in conveinence stores. magazine are not sold like Newspapers anymore, they are like a stick of deoderant, hair gel, a bottle of snapple.

Guilty pleasure is the word that I hear tossed about, and the reason the covers are designed the way they are is that now everybody is competing for the same smaller pie of advertising, so there is much less latitude for creativity. Marketing drives. Period.


Jobs | July 18