Jessica Helfand | Essays

Animal Magnetism

Left: Everybody's Poultry Magazine, January 1952. Right: Dairy Today, January 2008, designed by D.J. Stout, Pentagram

A magazine is that rare publication in which you're actually expected to judge a book by its cover. This explains why a good magazine cover — like a good book jacket or, say, a poster — benefits enormously from a great, central, visual idea, which is one reason why portraits are so ideally suited to covers. This is perhaps particularly true of fashion and lifestyle magazines — things like Vanity Fair and Vogue — publications that typically enlist a celebrity's likeness to help sell magazines.

With such an unbeaten formula for success, clearly the barnyard is the next logical step.

Or is it? Unlike their consumer counterparts, trade magazines aren't obliged to sell themselves in quite the same full-frontal manner. They're not competing for the same kind of attention in a dense visual marketplace. Their circulation is mail-driven — not newsstand-driven — but does this mean they don't deserve the same attention to scale, drama, impact? D.J. Stout's recent redesign for Dairy Today reminds us that a good magazine cover depends less on a magazine's circulation and content, and perhaps more on the art director's imagination and skill.

But you're nothing without a star.

Some years ago, I wrote an essay on the uncredited art directors of trade magazines, in which I went to great lengths to learn more about — of all things — poultry farming. When I saw the new and improved "Dairy" I wondered: beyond the white background and the big nameplate and that exquisite bovine mug, what was so different from those magazines of long ago?

Initially, many trade periodicals resembled newspapers: black and white and photography-free, they often sported sketches of animals in lieu of more realistic portraits. Ornamental flourishes and decorative typography further completed the picture.

Left: The Poultry World, April 1879. Right: The Feather, January 1900

By 1912, most trade magazines in the poultry industry looked like this:

Left: Poultry Success, April 1912. Right: The Farm and Poultry Monthly, February 1912

Over the years, with advances in printing and increased budgets, two-color lithography was gradually introduced, resulting in covers that essentially retained the same basic ingredients. While a bit more playful, they still resembled scholarly journals, right down to the scotch rules framing the art.

American Poultry Advocate, assorted covers, 1907-1910

Nevertheless, cover portraits persisted. Some clung to more classic, representative models — evoking, for example, the pastoral ideals of a painting by Turner or Constable. Others were more ambiguous — as in this cover showing a hen being speared by an inverted pyramid of triangular typography. Profit, indeed!

Left: Portrait of a Cochin Hen. Right: Feeding Poultry for Profit, early 20th century

By the 1920s, the basic cell divided, as single portraits gave way to twins, often — as seen here in these early issues of Poultry Tribune — shown deep in conversation.

Poultry Tribune, May 1926 and December 1929

And then, sometime between the early years of the great depression and the endless years of the cold war — wham! — there's this astonishing formal shift. Where there once were flourishes, there's now a kind of Art Deco geometry, a brief but unmistakable flirtation with Constructivism, and a predisposition for the holy trinity of black, red and white. We've entered the new century with a vengeance — and the fowl have never looked lovelier.

Left: Poultry Tribune, March 1937. Right: Grain and Feed Journals, January 1951

You might think, by now, that this relatively enlightened approach to cover design might reveal itself in more profound ways — leading eventually to hens and chicks rendered with greater degrees of abstraction, heightened minimalism, gestures befitting of the many newly modern ways of interpreting form.

But infact, no.

Everybody's Poultry Magazine, November 1935 and February 1952

Inventive expression is soon trumped by the safer, less objectionable and more crowd-pleasing choice to return to — you guessed it — the portrait. (Aspiring forensic poultry experts — I know you're out there — might deduce that the choice to show birds featured deep-in-conversation was, in fact, merely a staged re-enactment of the mating dance that led to the baby chicks featured on this February 1952 cover of Everybody's Poultry Magazine.) But wait: who gave birth to that new logo?

Everybody's Poultry Magazine, March and October 1952

That same year, 1952, Everybody's Poultry introduced at least three new visual interpretations of their logo. But they managed to retain consistency by including portraits, not of poultry, mind you, but of, well, women.

Left: Dairy Today, January 2008, designed by D.J. Stout, Pentagram. Right: Good, March/April, 2008, designed by Scott Stowell, Open

By reviving the animal portrait on the cover of Dairy Today, Stout's redesign nods to a distinguished history of obscure trade magazines whose largely unnamed art directors tried to do justice to material many of us would characterize as, well, mundane. Like his brethren in the poultry press, Stout's readership will benefit from an elevated sense of formal attention paid to a non-newsstand offering. At least that was my supposition until opening my mail a few days ago, when I saw the most recent issue of Good magazine. Side by side, these cows almost look like they could be engaged in conversation. Or, for that matter, a mating dance.

This essay was originally published in February, 2008.

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [13]

I do not think it is taking an easier or safer way out to use a portrait. Actually I think using portrait in any design work is always risky. Even in the article you have question their choice of using only women.

I think the art director of the magazines during that time (of course I didn't do the research, I am just guessing) simply want to focus on the people's attitude toward the animal, rather than the animal themselves.

I think that is a respectable idea, although I don't often agree with it. In a cinema for example, bad monster movie focus on the monster. Good monster movie focus on the people's reaction to the monster. Again, if you are going to have a magazine cover being about a war, tank being blown up or planes flying overhead will be less effective than nervous solider marching or civilian crying.

But may be you are right, may be an opportunity for abstract forms of animal design on the cover was missed.

But this article remind me of car magazines. When I was in the United States, Car magazine has cars on the cover... or worse, a half naked woman next to it. But after I come back to Thailand, I saw one car magazine with a picture of man, and he is a car lover. I was so surprised by that in a good way. Yes, car magazine about car lover should have car lover on the front. No one is going to ask "where's the hot chick?" unless they have grown so accustomed with the idea.

I will agree that D.J. Strout of Pentagram's design the Dairy magazine is quite stunning and successfully bring the meat back to the trade magazine cover. And in today's world where Martha's magazine and Oprah's magazine and Rosie's magazine, portrait on the cover may looks overdone now.

But I still think that human lives on the cover if done correctly, can create a very powerful design.
Panasit Ch

I for one, appreciated this article, especially since my first job out of undergrad design was doing editorial and publication design for Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy, and Reptiles magazines in 1997. In retrospect, the job was laughable, and the content I worked with was even more hilarious. Still, I learned a lot, like how to get a cat's attention for a photo shoot: tuna fish (canned, but in oil not water). The covers were always the most enjoyable part, and during the late 90s we pulled every Photoshop trick out of the hat because that was the in thing to do. But in the end, the animals portraiture was all that mattered. Not even the most translucent masthead floating over some environmental texture with a 20% drop shadow could save us from a dog's, cat's, or lizard's bad posture. Paula Scher summed it up best in 'Make It Bigger': (paraphrasing) there are coping and craving magazines; no matter the content, the editorial direction will address either or both of those needs.
Jason Tselentis

The two covers post-Great Depression are as striking to my eye as the present-day covers. One note, the cover from 1937 is indeed a portrait itself; a man who is presumably a poultry farmer. It doesn't detract from the author's point that women and children appear so heavily as "safe" material for the portraiture cover, but I felt it tied in well with Panasit's point about car magazine covers in America.
One final note, I wouldn't classify the women on the covers as utterly out of context as a heavily done-up woman in pair of Daisy Dukes and stiletto heels reclining on a car hood; she probably has no intentions of flipping that hood up and grabbing a wrench after the photographer leaves. But the women from 1952 covers (especially on the left) look like they easily could have at least a chicken or two in the backyard. No denying the appeal is in their femininity, but they are not inappropriatly (or even grotesquely) miscast here, I feel.

I have a hard time taking this seriously. I can't help but see the cover for Dairy as ironically built with a good bit of snark.

Was it really designed for the dairy industry reader or as a showpiece for other designers to see? Like "guys, check out what I did with this cow for this farm magazine!"

The big image of a cow up close seems to be more of something to giggle at than anything else. While I understand that this does engage the viewer on one level, and in publicity such as this informs non-industry types about the magazine, it strikes me as both self-deprecating, uninspired and given credibility only with the brand-name label from Pentagram.
Nate B

"But you're nothing without a star."
• or a Dot.

D.J. Stout of Pentagram has done a beautiful job of defining the design of Dairy Today with the "Follow the Dot" structure. He underlines the masthead with a humorous "portrait" style photograph of a cow. The portrait of Animal Magnetism looks like a layer mask and is silhouetted by a flat PMS color which compliments the dot. It reminds me the work of Richard Saul Wurman who I heard speak at Cooper Union back in the early 1980's. Wurman was an "information architect" and founded the TED.

At least that was my supposition until opening my mail a few days ago, when I saw the most recent issue of Good magazine. Side by side, these cows almost look like they could be engaged in conversation.

Jessica do you know Scott Stowell? In Scott Stowell's Bio, he writes that he has taught design at Yale University and the School of Visual Arts.
Carl W. Smith

Having been raised in Nebraska, I can say that the Dairy covercow is a sexy beast (and photographed tastefully). Tags like ironic, a showpiece, over-designed, giggle-worthy, or snarky are cheap shots. It's good design for something that typically gets no design attention at all. I am curious to see what happens to the overall level of Midwestern / agrarian design in the PSD (post-Stout-Dairy) era.
Jason Tselentis

I agree with Jason. I grew up in Wyoming, and cannot remember having ever heard the word, "design." My cousins showed cows and sheep in the fair each year, and I saw the care they would put into their animals. (I even got to help them sheer the sheep!)I think they would be proud to see such great care put into magazines such as these. (And I love the historical images you have here.)

My introduction into the design field was, while having no experience at all, paid to design layouts for a popular dog journal. I was to create "ads" for the dogs that won Best in Show. I was lucky to have any influence on what was produced. The person who hired me claimed to have the best designed ads in the journal, but they were just bad. Imagine glamour shots for dogs with poorly photoshopped graphics and pink, feathered color fields merging into the photos of the cheerful pup, bad type, and REAL cheesy slogans that went along with the dogs name.

To see a dairy magazine that has been so well considered makes me proud to be from the country. As if the beautiful plains and the mountain peaks weren't enough. ;)
Able Parris

Ah, a timely post here. It is the one-year anniversary of Pet Monologues, an animal blog. Our blog has evolved to help heighten public awareness of animal issues and to encourage people to think about how we as humans relate to animals.

That said, we have become educated about animal-design topics. One thing we have learned is to be careful, very careful, with the D-word on certain sites, Craigslist pet forum, for example. Bring big D to the animal world is a hot potato topic! Sides will be taken, lines drawn in the sand and mud. We have just posted these covers with commentary on our blog.

We are now drawn to ask if this new design is good for the target audience? We are reminded of tenets: 1) never underestimate one's ability to appreciate a good idea. 2) don't aim at the lowest common denominator but aim high. Educate.

Do we have a good design solution: Is there a strong, singular concept? Is it appropriate? Well executed? Yep by Jiminy Cricket.

Pet Monologues has a year-long initiative in 2007-08 recognizing World Animal Day called Bless the Animals which is about collecting works that showcase animals in commercial messaging media. If this community comes across the kind of animal related messaging we are looking for, please point it our way. It would be appreciated. Woof!


i think it's true !!
Gavalian Web Design Studio

I think the new Dairy format already looks like it's worked itself into a corner. The cows aren't interesting enough to create a cover that is strong enough as portrait-only, in my opinion. I would like to see how well this develops over the next year, say. There is a sense here that this design was created on the basis of 'if we can do this with a magazine about cows, think what we could do for your magazine'. The only problems being two-fold. People in the industry are unlikely to care what's on the cover, they want to information inside. I actually think they would prefer something that sums up seasonal changes in the industry, rather than a cold, emotionless portrait. Secondly, a magazine like this shouldn't aim to be appreciated by a design audience, but rather by it's normal readership. There's nothing wrong with 'mundane'.

Well considered, carefully executed design always brings with it layers of meaning. When it comes to design for design's sake, that's great; when it comes to branding, the layers can become problematic.

The whole appeal of portraits on the cover of glam magazines is that they sell the attractive quality - the sexiness - of the subject. When I first saw Stout's cows, I thought, "this isn't what the industry wants! Dairy farmers want information, not pin-ups for their fridge doors!"

My next thought was, "oops, maybe this IS for the cow-fancier crowd. Maybe pin-ups ARE what they want."

Now I'm finishing with the thought that Stout must have seen the semi-subversive double entendre here.

A nice piece of design work, the question is: will the audience feel that 'Dairy' is finally speaking to them, or that they're being made fun of?

Do dairy farmers feel the same way about cows that glam mag readers feel about celebrities?
Anne Stewart

As the average age of producers and calf raisers gets younger, more of the magazines are cleaning up their designs and offering more online content. The younger producers are not the majority of the market but they are rapidly gaining influence on the farms, and over increasingly larger-sized herds.

In the dairy industry, unarguably the cow portrait is overused. But more importantly it's an image that they can use to show off the redesign for months to come.

And YES! Dairyman love a beautiful cow. For example at World Dairy Expo, everything from how the cows walk to bone structure is analyzed in day-long judging contests. The funny thing is that a real dairyman looks at the udder, not the face. That would have been an attention-getting cover...

I like the redesign overall, especially if the fresh bright blue is the start of a new color scheme.
Brian Meyer

nice pics!

Mr Cowhide

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