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Skin Deep


The Final Decline and Total Collapse of the American Magazine Cover, Part Two

[Preface: Mid-January, I started researching the appalling state of magazine covers. No rush. Imagine my ‘surprise’ when Michael Bierut announced his similar disdain for magazine wrappings last week. Michael and I exchanged a few encouraging emails. In the end, I decided to eject much of my essay. My impetus had been primarily to create a place where you could go for examples and historical perspective. Waiting another month or two to post this would serve more to duplicate rather than augment the other conversation. And walking away from it entirely didn’t seem tenable. With that in mind, I’ve edited my essay as a companion to Bierut’s article in Design Observer — which I highly recommend.]

There was a time when a magazine’s cover broadcast its editorial conviction. Art Directors like Mehemed Fehmy Agha (Vogue, House & Garden, Vanity Fair), Alexey Brodovitch (Harper’s Bazaar), and Eleanor Treacy and Francis (Hank) Brennan (Fortune) did this by hiring the best talent of their day.

Now, not only do we submit to the same tired approach to interior content but the perception is that the death of the magazine cover is upon us.

“Today, the art of the magazine cover has been vanquished by celebrity worship and bad taste. Innovation, creative expression, or even cleverness has been mostly abandoned. Artistic considerations are limited to how much retouching the celebrity headshot requires in Photoshop and how many headlines can be crammed in before the cover looks too “busy.” The result: A world in which it’s difficult to tell the difference between Playboy and Harper’s Bazaar without cracking them open. …Perhaps we live in an age with little patience for cover artwork that interprets a magazine’s content rather than just telegraphing it. Or perhaps readers don’t know what they’re missing and publishers don’t particularly care.” — Coury Turczyn, Popculture magazine

The Washington Times reported last year about the growing trend of ‘skin’ covers, that the race towards the tawdry is mostly a fight over a smaller market share. Playboy and Penthouse magazines combined are far less in sales than National Geographic. Dwarfing them all is Reader’s Digest. Rounding out the other top ten sellers are mostly magazines for aging boomers. However it should be noted that the greatest single issue sold is the yearly swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

Cosmopolitan and Maxim offend with equal temerity, as illustrated last year when a �morality’ based special interest group forced Wal-Mart to pull many offending issues off its newsstand. Wal-Mart and other bulk retailers are test marketing U-shaped blinders to cut out much of the offending chatter: lascivious cover text and scantily-clad models. Wal-Mart bowing to pressure, and perhaps rightly so, defended their decision. Spokesman, Tom Williams said, “That’s to accommodate those customers who are uncomfortable with the language on some of the magazine covers.”

It seems that we are the likely and inevitable inheritors to these grotesque montages at the newsstands today. The near marriage of carefully orchestrated type in synthetic union to the model’s choreography is a progressive trend from knocking-out type to the digital sleight-of-hand today. Not only are cover lines a return to 19th Century aesthetic, but the hyper-media entanglement, so gross at present, may be looked upon as an evolutionary �next step’ — an interpretation of video.

“We all look at the world through a culture that filters our experience through its language and symbols — just as these cover models look at us through a forest of words. Like the cover models, we live inside the alphabet, and inside a technological culture made possible by the power of literacy.

“We might ponder how magazine covers today reflect our ambivalent dance with language, categorical thought, global media, the ubiquity of advertising and spin, the colonization of our thinking by culture, and the supermarket of proliferating but limiting choices brought to us by multinational corporations. More simply, the models on magazine covers look at us through the listed contents of those magazines, which they practically wear like a garment, or stand in, like an aura. And we look back at them through the aura of our own ongoing narratives, our individual tables of contents, our personal cover lines.

“The early 2000s are so immersed in commercial typography, channel-hopping, web-surfing, consumer culture, competing values, and objects clamoring for attention that the picture of a cover model cheerfully or seductively immersed in a forest of words may seem to us a mere depiction of daily normality — a normality both reflected by and fueled by the words on the covers of magazines.” — Dr. Gerald Grow (Professor of Magazine Journalism, Florida A&M University


The following are listed without prejudice or favor. There are a few omissions that are painfully compounded by the relative youth of the internet and in some cases, for example: the New Yorker or Raygun/Beach Culture, where published volumes of their cover art has prohibited or negated an online presence.

In alphabetical order:

Adbusters, scroll down: Adbusters

Better Homes and Gardens: Better Homes and Gardens

Burpee seed catalogue: Burpee Seed Catalogue

Cosmopolitan: Cosmopolitan Magazine (US Edition)

Coupe Magazine: Coupe

Dynamite, The Magazine: Dynamite

Emigre: Emigre

Esquire: Esquire Covers 1, Esquire Covers 2

Eye: Eye

Fangoria: Fangoria Magazine

Fortune: Fortune Magazine 1, Fortune Magazine 2

Harper’s Bazaar: Harper’s Bazaar (USA)

Heavy Metal: Heavy Metal

House and Garden: House and Garden Magazine

Life: Life Magazine

Mad Magazine: Mad Magazine

Metropolis: Metropolis Magazine

National Lampoon: National Lampoon by issue

New Yorker, a handful of examples:New Yorker 1, New Yorker 2, New Yorker 3

New York Magazine: New York Magazine

Playboy: Playboy Magazine

Popular Mechanics: Popular Mechanics Covers Gallery

Rolling Stone: like getting blood from a…. well, this should lead you to the 2003 covers. A little bit of work and you can search by year, but this has been engineered to be prohibitive: Rolling Stone Magazine 1

Saturday Evening Post:Saturday Evening Post Covers, JC Leyendecker Post Covers, Neysa McMein Post Covers, Lagatta Post Covers

Speak Magazine: Speak

Starlog: Starlog

Stockholm New, small collection: Stockholm New Magazine

Sunset Magazine: Sunset Magazine

Texas Monthly: Texas Monthly

Time: Time Magazine’s Cover Database

Vanity Fair: Vanity Fair, under Mehemed Fehmy Agha, 1934-35

Vogue: Vogue Magazine (USA)

W: W Magazine

Wired: Wired Magazine

Zzap 64: Zzap Magazine

Iconography.net are due credit for a handful of the above links. Sadly missing are resources for: RedBook, Dutch Magazine, Spy Magazine, Idea (Japanese Publication), and Wallpaper.

Finally, thank you very much for some last minute help from Michael Bierut, Alexander Isley and Rudy VanderLans.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Feb.24.2004 BY E. Tage Larsen
ps’s comment is:

i wonder how much of this has simply to do with magazines being a platform to promote brands. the brands in this case being celebrities. because of the cultlike following these brands have, the magazines sell and bring along advertisers, which in return create revenues for the magazine...

it might simply mean that these celebrities -- or brands -- are doing their job very well. which is to sell themselves. and offering the same standard fare usually sells. think starbucks, macD, gap etc. after all you are not going to most of the big brands for variety, but consistency with slighly different flavoring once in a while.

i do believe that this trend brought along more specialized magazines. but some of them might simply be on the web, by subscription or in a specialty section of the newsstand. magazines like real simple, dwell come to mind.

there are magazines -- fairly popular, that are making an effort for different covers. wallpaper, wired, come to mind. even "w".

my 2 cents for today...

On Feb.24.2004 at 09:51 PM
marian’s comment is:

Eric. Wow. Thanks for pulling all this together.

I missed the DO discussion -- OK, it was still happening today, but by the time I got there I thought I might as well post anything I have to say here.

It's pretty clear that mainstream covers in general are getting worse from an aesthetic/design standpoint. Mostly due to the malignant cancer of typographic clutter.

I'm not sure I buy Michael B's celebrity lament, though. Following your links, especially back to the much-vaunted Esquire magazine, I think what Michael is lamenting is the loss of a designer (George Lois) with a specific magazine and point in time. Before, after and even during the presumed Lois years, the Esquire covers are still littered with celebrities, and despite being dated many of them look very similar to those we see today.

The bigger issue is that whole "is the Big Concept, Artistic License dead?" thing which I brought up here a while ago--perhaps ineptly--and don't intend to return to. It's interesting ... or perhaps predictable that those big ideas we (they, actually, over at DO) were lamenting the loss of are on the lampoons. Adbusters, National Lampoon (brilliant stuff -- though I guess it doesn't count for the argument, being from the 70s).

The New Yorker is cited as an exception throughout these discussions, and I certainly have to jump on that bandwagon. They are that one magazine whose covers I look forward to and often keep.

Following your links ... Harper's Bazaar was really Stepford Wives during the early 80s -- those covers all together are freaky. They must have got a new Art Director in July 92- The covers from then on for a few years are gorgeous, but started to deteriorate in 95 ... I remember buying HB during that era of good covers -- there came a point, despite being a bit of a fashionista, of no longer being able to stand the hideous appearance of e.g. Vogue. Interestingly the European versions of North American fashion mags were much sleeker. I wonder if that has something to do with this whole "designing for the advertisers, not the buyers"?

I can't believe how beautiful those early covers from Fortune, and House & Garden are ... I find it interesting that many of these magazines celebrate their best covers -- their old covers, their uncluttered covers. Some are even "voted best covers" presumably by their readers, so it would seem they fly in the face of their own readership. I would bet that if House & Garden returned to the illustrative, graphic cover style of the 30s they'd sell more copies.

Goddammit. All this makes me want to start a magazine ...

On Feb.25.2004 at 02:15 AM
Jason’s comment is:

These days, I subscribe to magazines that have little or no advertising. Why? Because I'm nearly intolerable of content being interrupted.

Magazines must compete with the web and cable TV. Have they resorted to this cacophony of image/text to match what the other media is doing? Getting attention is a big part of the game. Sure, they're yelling and screaming at us. But I'm not always willing to listen. Some of the worst magazines out there look bad and are filled with terrible editorial content. Garbage in leads to garbage out, and vice versa. Usually, if I don't want to look at it, chances are I won't want to read it.

One of my favorite magazines looked fancy and had fantastic writing too. Speak is long gone, but I still go back to those issues and read the articles because they looked awesome and were full of substance.

On Feb.25.2004 at 02:19 AM
eric’s comment is:

Jason, thanks for the link. I've added Speak to the main list. For that matter, i'd like to continue the magazine list as an ongoing resource. If anybody has anything else to offer please let me know and i'd be glad to consider updates.

On Feb.25.2004 at 06:46 AM
jesse’s comment is:

I don't know about anyone else, but I've been enjoying the covers of Metropolis magazine.

On Feb.25.2004 at 08:45 AM
eric’s comment is:

Jesse, taking a quick look through 2004-2003 i have to ask why? As provocative as the magazine purports to be (i actually don't follow it,) the covers don't seem to be any different from other science/media trade mags.

Of course my reaction may be biased as i am still suffering from that horrible talk that woman gave at the Nat. AIGA conference last Fall.

On Feb.25.2004 at 09:05 AM
Joe VanDerBos’s comment is:

A slightly different take on the matter, from the Columbia Journalism review: Little Murders by Jesse Sunenblick

"Thirty years ago, editorial illustration in our mainstream media was provocative and smart, driving the words as often as following them. Today much of it is literal and safe, more decorative than idea-driven. How did this happen in an age where image is everything?"

I can't faithfully summarize the article, it's too detailed to get a short once over. It includes comments by Milton Glaser deconstructing the move toward photography as more "real" than illustration, and why viewers have so little time or skills anymore to decode complex covers.

Sad, but true.

On Feb.25.2004 at 09:11 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Marian, Fabian Baron was responsible for those great early/mid 90s covers of Harper's Bazaar. Elegant. Great use of Didot throughout the magazine as well.

On Feb.25.2004 at 09:23 AM
Arikawa’s comment is:

Joe's link above didn't work (for me), so I'll post it again, as well as the related Speak Up back issue (Jan 19 04) that talked about it.

+ "Little Murders" - Jesse Sunenblick, Columbia Journalism Review

+ "Open to Interpretation?" - Speak Up, Jan 19 04

On Feb.25.2004 at 09:33 AM
eric’s comment is:

Joe: I, unfortunately, was going to school for illustration in the late 80s/ early 90s which was the alpha and omega of editorial illustration. The market ran aground after a very successful run in the 80s only to be further sundered by a wave of infantile graphics and vector-based nonsense.

The superstars of the 80s like Arisman, Mahurin, and Burke continue to get work but there aren’t really any “hot” new illustrators. There are some really good ones, just not household names. Where’s today’s Patrick Nagel? Those damned posters were everywhere and he was merely the cheesecake lineage of Vargas and Petty playing out.

Craft took a backseat, in a very active way, over abstract Kitsch, child drawing. Some of which is fine but is too easy to do poorly, and frequently is. It’s not so much a lack of ambition as it is driven by Art Directors that would rather hire what amounts to juvenile clip art to represent their content.

Jon: thanks for the Fabian Baron link.

On Feb.25.2004 at 09:47 AM
Todd W.’s comment is:

It would be great if every month we could all get a nicely priced, manageably sized piece of art in the mail. Maybe several. But to step back and think of what a magazine cover's purpose is, in most cases it's to sell the contents of the magazine. And it has a self-contained feedback loop, in sales figures. So testing effectiveness is straightforward. Put x on the cover, look at y sales. Try a on the cover, get b sales. The more mass market the topic/magazine, the broader appeal and more generic the cover. I'd suggest that the Esquires, etc. of the past had a much more limited audience at the time and thus, more specialized and thoughtful cover art. (This hypothesis could be researched, I suppose.)

At the bottom of all the grousing about the decline of cover art is a disdain for everyday people and everyday taste. Don't feel bad about it, I feel that way too, a lot. Some of us are even proud of it! It's what makes us different (read: superior). Cover art has changed, for the worse we say, because people respond to it. And, if we're all following the AIGA sermon of design solving problems, the problem here is how to sell magazine. Apparently gaudy, text heavy covers featuring a lot of skin is the answer to that problem. And frankly, I don't see a lot of difference in the tact taken by, say Wallpaper or Surface vs. that of Us or Maxim.

On Feb.25.2004 at 10:44 AM
a gentry’s comment is:

"And, if we're all following the AIGA sermon of design solving problems, the problem here is how to sell magazine"

I must disagree with this comment. Our job is not merely to sell a magazine, but to accurately represent the content inside in a compelling manner. When we view the ROI team as our only client, we end up with trite covers. We need to realize that our "client" may not be at the meeting - they may be writing the stories, shooting the photographs, editing,e tc.

On Feb.25.2004 at 10:49 AM
tricia’s comment is:

Covers must reflect the content honestly. Is the content celebrity based? Yes, because that’s how those audiences want to be entertained now. We do not design for ourselves. We design for our audience. Therefore the complaint is about culture as much as design. Most of the magazines mentioned as having stronger designs do not rely as heavily on broad newsstand sales and/or the audience is different.

On Feb.25.2004 at 10:54 AM
eric’s comment is:

Todd: i think the reaction to cover design isn't so much one of "everyday people and everyday taste” if Wall Mart is agreeing with it's middleclass detractors that enough is enough.

The problem with these montage covers is their "sameness." Though the Esquire/poster covers are usually more aesthetically pleasing, the fact is that there's more room for each of those issues to contain a unique message.

On Feb.25.2004 at 11:00 AM
Tricia’s comment is:

a gentry: "our 'client'. . . may be writing the stories, shooting the photographs, editing, etc."

Nope. These are co-workers for the client which is the readership.

On Feb.25.2004 at 11:01 AM
eric’s comment is:

Both over at Design Observer and here, there has been a lot of speculation about the preponderance of celebrity covers. In my research, I came across a really good article in Mediaweek some time back that addresses this:

"I don't know if it's a timidity, a reflection of the culture overall, or driven by a combination of marketing-driven covers and a cult of celebrity," says Arthur Hochstein, art director of Time. "There's a lot of ingredients in the goulash that have produced covers that seem less risk-taking."

"We're not willing to ever fail," laments Rolling Stone veteran Roger Black, now chairman of design studio Danilo Black. "There has to be a net under every cover, and the end result is that everything is just a little safer."

"Publicists "are giving orders to the magazines about what the setup is going to be, demanding their own photographer or the right of approval of the pictures," Black says.

"I wish we'd had newsstand numbers [for Lois' covers], because by the time Lois and Hayes reached the end of the era, the magazine was in really bad shape," says David Granger, editor in chief of Esquire, published by Hearst Magazines. "George did a number of truly great covers, but there are some true disasters, just hilariously bad covers."

Concept covers are tricky, and "they mostly tank" on the newsstand, Granger says. Esquire's October 2003 Ali cover, featuring a recent photo of the fighter opposite one taken in 1966, was a disappointment on stands, selling about 95,000 copies (average single-copy sales hover at 100,000).

Conversely, last November's cover, which had Britney Spears striking the same pose Angie Dickinson did in March 1966, struck gold, selling a whopping 170,000 copies.” - All from Lisa Granatstein’s article in Mediaweek, c.2003
On Feb.25.2004 at 11:34 AM
Greg’s comment is:

I tend to agree with the statements made so far, regarding the decline of magazine design. (Particularly Cosmo, I hate seeing those things come in my fiance's mail...I liked the minimal cover they used to do in the 60's, just the girl and the name. Now it's Sex Secrets! every month. How many sex secrets can there be?).

But I can't help wonder, in thirty years will we pine for what's going on today? Did people talk about how magazines were shitty in the 60's, and if only it could be like it was in the 30's? I don't really subscribe to the "it's good because it's old" theory. There are legitimate arguments to why something is good, but age shouldn't be one of them.

On Feb.25.2004 at 11:41 AM
marian’s comment is:

How many sex secrets can there be?

Aahh .....

On Feb.25.2004 at 11:54 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

I don't see anything particularly wrong with celebrity covers. As Eric mentioned in the Ali/Spears covers, people want to read what they want to read. It is the job of the magazine to respond to the readership. It's the vulgarity of typography and the lack of "good" cover photography that results in the sameness across the newsstand. One cannot tell the difference between People, Us, InTouch, and the redesigned Star (save for its size). If you're going to have Britney on the cover, have a damn good photo, not just a smiling face.

On Feb.25.2004 at 12:57 PM
Todd W.’s comment is:

Our job is not merely to sell a magazine, but to accurately represent the content inside in a compelling manner.

Perhaps where the current approach fails is that it attempts to only sell a particular issue of the magazine, and not the magazine as a concept or ongoing publication. Perversly, I think many magazines actually prefer not to take this approach because they make more money on single copy sales than subscriptions. Nevertheless, the trend is founded on the fact that Doris from Peoria likes to see Courtney Cox Arquette's head blown up to full size and slapped with multi-colored type. And Jake at U of C loves to see scantily clad models ready to satisify his fantasy urges every month, not just in Feb. Look, taste is rare and no one ever got anywhere complaining about it. If everything was well designed, it wouldn't hold any value.

On Feb.25.2004 at 12:57 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

A couple votes for magazines with covers that I enjoy:


Graphic Design USA -- It's free, that's why you can't flip through more than three pages without the paper manufacturer's ads violently snapping your fingers to their ads.

On Feb.25.2004 at 01:31 PM
Joe VDB’s comment is:

I haven't seen it said in this discussion, but it's a truth that strikes you after working for many different magazines across market segments and distribution quanitites:

Magazines only exist to put their advertisers' messages in front of the desired demographic's eyeballs. If they don't deliver on that score, noithing else matters. They're gone.

(Thanks for fixing my linkage problem)


On Feb.25.2004 at 01:58 PM
eric’s comment is:

zoelle: coupe's been added. now i have to run out and find the magazine... never seen it before.

On Feb.25.2004 at 02:17 PM
jesse’s comment is:


Sorry, been in meetings all day. I wonder, did you go back any further than 2003? I don't think the past year's worth of Metropolis covers has been their best, but I still think they manage to maintain a certain "Metropolis feel" with each issue, and generally they do a good job of highlighting the lead story in a bold, simple manner. I think the real strength of the magazine is in its interior editorial content. Nice layouts.

Maybe I just like the style. Don't know. I just thought it deserved a look.

On Feb.25.2004 at 02:58 PM
eric’s comment is:

Jesse, it seems their back issues with covers only go back to 2001. i'll add them to the list but i think it's probably the size of the magazine and the super-saturated color that's really grabbing your attention.

On Feb.25.2004 at 03:17 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I think I have only once bought an issue of Metropolis (or I got a free sample, can't remember) and the cover was designed by House Industries. It wasn't great, but I got all excited about it.

One magazine I used to buy when I played basketball and followed it religiously was SLAM. Their third and fourth years the design was amazing, the covers were very restrained (for a b-ball magazine) and the spreads inside were really, really cool. Much of design from that magazine mysteriously got replicated a lot in ESPN's magazine. But back to the covers, as expected, they commonly had Shaq or Jordan or some other big-time player on the cover but every now and then they will have shots of college players or street ballers who nobody knew. Their cover photographs would be very well shot, lots of dramatic lighting and stuff that would make up for the lack of a big name on the cover. (They have some here labeled as their classic covers, but they are actually the worst ones).

Anyway, it was a great magazine until it went all futuristic and weird.

On Feb.25.2004 at 03:17 PM
jesse’s comment is:

Yes, Eric, it's definitely the colors. Ooh, the colors, the pretty colors.

Come on, if it's not your cup of tea, fine, but please don't be patronizing.

On Feb.25.2004 at 04:58 PM
eric’s comment is:

Jesse - not being patronizing. I said before that i wasn't too familiar with the magazine. In looking through their back issues the thing i noted (from the last few years) is that they've been going for a super-saturated palette. maybe it comes off differently in print... just an observation.

i'm surprised that i'm not more piqued by the mag because it employs a lot of people that i like.

On Feb.25.2004 at 05:22 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Metropolis' covers are really good. Looking at them on the web, without reference to size or the intended colors, it is easier to judge them actually. I like the type, I like the colors, I like the masthead and other than Rashid I didn't see many other celebrities on the cover… the two covers for 2004 suck though.

Anytime Bryony and I travel, she buys Lucky. Sure, it falls under the celebrity covered by type syndrome but the concept of it is actually interesting. I mean, the magazine's editorial content is advertising. That's what they do: They sell you shit (good shit!). If anybody's not familiar with the magazine, the whole content is basically pictures of stuff with the information needed to buy it (when, where and how much). They even have some cool little stickies that you can add to the product you are interested in (I have a picture somewhere where I am covered in these stickies, I'll try to find it). Anyway, the cool thing about it is that it is unabashedly created and designed to be one giant ad.

And I also think, if I remember correctly, that the ladies of Number 17 were a big part of the concept of the whole magazine — not only designing it. (which goes to show that there is such a thing as graphic designers influencing the end product).

On Feb.25.2004 at 05:44 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Didn't Paula Scher design the new Metropolis logo/masthead? It's the part I like the most about the mag.

Semi-related story. I saw a special on cable the other day that was a retrospective of sports photography -- from about 1912 to 1965. It examined mainly the amazing work of LIFE magazine photographers and Sports Illustrated photographers -- how they worked, how the public reacted, how they served as the primary visual media for an entire generation, etc.

It was amazing how many memorable photos from magazines became icons of the 20th century -- Ali's clenched fist standing over Frazier, Gehrig's big swing in Yankee stadium, and countless others that have become ingrained into public consciousness.

But It all seemed to end in the late 60s - early 70s -- coinciding with the flourishing of network television and live sports broadcasts. It's funny, but there are 10 times more photographers at sporting events these days -- but there doesn't seem to be nearly as many memorable or culturally significant photographs. That's probably because every baseball game is televised on a dozen channels, from a dozen vantage points -- live. Who can recall a single photograph anymore?

LIFE eventually went out of business in the early 80s. Sports Illustrated endured and thrived, but it's not the same magazine that chronicled the pasttimes of yesteryears.

Television changed that medium. Television changed a lot of things, including the way the public consumes all types of media. Especially magazines.

I don't think it's just cover art that's in question here. It's everything in between too.

On Feb.25.2004 at 06:01 PM
jesse’s comment is:


Sorry, you caught me in a grumpy mood. The college is going through a reorganization ... uh, I mean, I'm not allowed to talk about it. My brain is fried after today's meetings.

It's true, the colors are part of what draws me in to the covers of Metropolis. But if you want super-saturated I think Wired would be a better example. As for Metropolis, I think the type treatment is well done, and their style flows consistently from the cover through to the last page. And boy, do they like their grid.

There are other magazines whose covers I think are worth looking at, but you've already listed them. Again, I was just throwing out another name. Glad to see you added it. This is a good topic, I'm hoping the thread lasts a while.

Now I'm going to go bash my head against a wall for a bit.

On Feb.25.2004 at 07:04 PM
eric’s comment is:

jesse, it's a safe bet that i'll be patronizing at some point in time in the future... just put in on my tab.

tan and armin - consolidating what the two of you said and maybe repitching my �synthetic union’ from the thesis and it seems logical that magazines at present are just exercising their rights towards adaptable marketing. i have no doubt that the current sad state of clutter is feedback from tv and web (flexible media) saturation.

as brought up earlier, maybe our nostalgia for the static picturesque covers of the 30s - 60s coincides with a cultural off-ramp towards the 'iconic' (ala Tan’s quandary of famous pictures.) With flexible media invading everything we do, it would be an unlikely prospect to sell to us in a static format. Jason Priestly’s grinning face all done-up-pretty would definitely need 40 lines of text to register my interest.

On Feb.25.2004 at 07:42 PM
marian’s comment is:

I know this doesn't really count, because it's an art magazine, and doesn't fit the topic at hand of the degeneration of mass media magazines, BUT Parkett is one I've always loved and, er, wished I could afford. I love their masthead most of all.

On Feb.26.2004 at 01:07 PM
surts’s comment is:

you may want to add TexasMonthly if it hasn't already been mentioned

On Feb.26.2004 at 02:30 PM
eric’s comment is:

Michael, excellent idea. thanks for the link. i've added it to the list.

Marian, i swerved away from addressing too many travel, art or photography magazines. In some ways another Gerhard Richter painting might as well be Justin Timberlake if slapped on the cover of a magazine to excess.

On Feb.26.2004 at 02:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Speaking of Texas Monthly… word on the street (OK, word on HOW's letter from the editor) is that DJ Stout will be redesigning HOW magazine. I can't wait to see how that turns out (although that is until February 2005). Alexander Isley's design is OK, but a design magazine designed by one of the best magazine designers can only be a winning combination.

On Feb.26.2004 at 04:08 PM
Daniel’s comment is:


Just to bring up a bit of historical perspective here, remember that Alex launched Spy magazine, creating an entirely fresh new approach to editorial design. The added effect was to create a brand new generation of imitators too, which is always the case with milestones in design.

This isn't to say his design of HOW is wonderful or anything -- it's merely to add a little background to the picture.

On Feb.26.2004 at 04:23 PM
Daniel’s comment is:

The topic of magazine cover design is interesting to me, and it's one that I've been struggling with for over a decade, with varied success.

The cover is, in politician's terms, the 800 pound gorilla of editorial design. The next cover is always looming, waiting to pounce on the people who are in the position to create it. Creating a cover is often a group effort (to put it nicely), consisting of the art director, the editor, perhaps an editorial director (in some of my experience), and even -- in the most extreme and ethically questionable circumstances -- the publisher. Naturally, more people tend to get involved whether invited or not, which makes it even more, um, challenging.

In the best of times, when I was designing covers for Wired (June 1999 - March 2001, and several back in the mid-1990s), the most important thing about the cover was the concept. This was a direct result of the magazine's founding philosophy that it was not like other magazines, that it was the world's guide to the future, and that it should look like it had dropped onto your desk from somewhere far into the future. It was a renegade magazine, rebellious and feisty and willing to take huge risks.

There were other times when the biggest concern wasn't necessarily the concept, but how to sell more issues, which served two distinct purposes (in our minds): gain a wider audience for the "revolutionary" stories we so deeply believed in (yes, it was cult-like at times), and gain a bigger circulation so the advertisers would be happy. Each purpose served the other -- the more readers we got, the happier the advertisers were, and the more issues we could produce.

When Condé Nast bought Wired for a paltry $45 million or so back in 1998, people thought the idealism and the original revolutionary philosophy would die. It didn't, at least not immediately. It took some time to change (for better or worse), but the editorial director, James Truman (the man responsible for Lucky, among other things) was a champion of this rebel mentality, and he pushed us -- the editor and myself -- to push things as far as possible. He served, in a way, as a very knowledgable and inspiring client.

All of that is to say that the cover of a magazine is a individual thing -- there's not an overall "right" way to design a cover. People magazine should not have a conceptual, poster-like Henry Wolf cover. It would be absurd. The cover is basically a billboard for what's inside. If you're pushing stories about Bill Clinton's latest sexcapades, then you put a grainy shot of Monica Lewinsky on the cover and splash the tabloid with enormous headline type.

Covers from the past that we all seem to admire, such as Esquire, Fortune, Vogue, and numerous others, all are a product of their time and environment. The magazine industry has always operated on several levels -- even when Alex Liberman was producing amazing covers for Vogue in the 1940s, the skin trade was pumping out cover after cover of scantily-clad women, and the movie industry was as full of exploitative and exclamatory publications as it is today. They just look "better" because they're from a different era, printed differently, designed differently (have you ever spec'd galleys for a 10,000 word story to send to the typesetter?), and created in a different era. I'm sure that, to the contemporary readers of Esquire and Vogue and other "fine" magazines of the past, the Hollywood mags and the skin rags and the tabloids all seemed tasteless, vulgar, poorly-designed, and low-brow.

Ironically, these sorts of magazines are venerated and labeled as "ephemera" by designers the world over. I'm guilty of it myself -- I constantly drool over the design of my old issues of Esquire, Wrestling World, Popular Science, Good Housekeeping, you name it. They're artifacts of another era, an entirely different world, a different culture, and different ideas.

So while it's fun to prattle on about how great those old magazines are and how today's covers suck, we have to remember that those old covers are now completely out of context, relics full of nostalgia, and simply windows into what used to be. We can learn from them and admire them, but to draw comparisons to today's magazines is self-defeating and just a lot of spinning of wheels. My goal is to design things that are relevant to today, that fit within the context of the world we live in, and perhaps even challenge what a magazine is expected to be.

Sure, we're inundated by inane magazines obsessed with celebrity and pop culture and all of that, but what's wrong with that? The mainstream will never go away, and to expect covers of mainstream titles to be works of art is idealistic and pointless. Let The National Enquirer be what it is (and it does it well, too), and enjoy the Eye magazines, the Flaunts, the Metropolis' and whatever else it is designers enjoy these days.

On Feb.26.2004 at 05:18 PM
big steve’s comment is:

daniel, you beat me to the punch in bringing up Flaunt. I know it's the epitome of a celeb starfucker magazine, and i know that that the cover is merely a gimmick... but I love it, and i think that the cover is the coolest on the newsstand month to month...

Anthem is also coming up with some interesting things, both on the cover and inside. I never fell in love with the cover of SPEAK magazine, but the layout insider was the most inspiring, refreshing thing i've seen in a long time (and according to the SPEAK Diary, David Carson played a role in the early days of the magazine).

As for the pre-1950 sports photos, they are really amazing. Neil Leifer was the sports photographer of the 20th century... but I think that Walter Iooss (the prince) has done a great job of giving us memorable images over the past 20 years. Beyond that, i really don't subscribe to the romanticism of an era past (or the icons of said era).

On Feb.26.2004 at 08:52 PM
surts’s comment is:

trés cool link JonSel. I've got a TAG HEUER AR that is worthy of an amz link, too bad there isn't an image to show due to copyright. Assouline published it

On Feb.27.2004 at 01:01 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Out of sheer love I have scanned the covers of one of the best design magazines I have ever come across. Called Matiz, it was published in Mexico City from 1997 to 2004 and was a huge influence in my design education. The covers were especially intriguing and diverse (not so much the first ones as you will see) and I looked forward to the next issue simply to see how they would treat the masthead. I thought it would be cool to have the covers documented since there is absolutely no information about that magazine on the web. I am missing 3 or 4 issues but other than that, the collection is pretty representative of the work. I also included the designer's name in case anybody is interested in googleing further.

On Mar.03.2004 at 04:03 PM
Jason’s comment is:

I like the varying masthead on Matiz. Are there other pubs you can think of who do this?

On Mar.03.2004 at 09:50 PM
eric’s comment is:

Armin, thanks for the post. There was an article on the WSJ yesterday about a big upswing in latin american publications. i hunted for a few minutes to find it to send to you before i got distracted. I'll have another go today.


I wish i had an image of the Heavy Metal masthead evolution. Over the course of a year, in the late-80s, they moprhed the logo. At the end they posted the changes and it was so gradual that you didn't notice.

i'll try to think of some other masthead changes other than Matiz.


ok, this has no bearing to anything in this thread but i just bought the Lippincott Mercer compendium on branding called Senses and i can't recommend it highly enough. it's the book of the year for me. i swear my undying love to this book.

On Mar.04.2004 at 08:54 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> ok, this has no bearing to anything in this thread but i just bought the Lippincott Mercer compendium on branding called Senses

That's funny. I was at Borders yesterday and I saw that book. I had never heard of Senses to be honest but it looked pretty damned interesting. I was this close to buying it — I was going to dinner afterwards and didn't feel like lugging around a 100 lb* book around.

* Estimated weight based on amount of laziness at the moment. Actual weight may vary.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:08 AM
eric’s comment is:

so clean. so pretty. so heavy.

the life of design.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:15 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

I can't think of a true mass-media publication that changes their masthead frequently. Raygun, of course, did it. Not sure if they still do (or are even still published). Emigre fluctuated fairly frequently.

Paper magazine used to do incredible photoillustrative treatments of their consistent logotype under the direction of Bridget de Socio. Several years back they mainstreamed it a little, though, and the treatments are a little more sedate.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:21 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> under the direction of Bridget de Socio

Not to derail off the conversation, but nothing says welcome like a missing image on the home page.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:33 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Yeah, that is a tad weird. Just click it, though, and you get a new window with images. Don't blame the linker.

On Mar.04.2004 at 09:42 AM
JoyOlivia’s comment is:

More on this at


How to Play the Cover Game Now! by Ina Saltz (posted March 1, 2004)

On Mar.04.2004 at 02:03 PM
Daniel’s comment is:

Ina Saltz's Folio article boils down magazine cover design to a few simple "rules" to follow. How absolutely ridiculous. It reads like a Cosmo Sex Survey gone bad. This is the exact problem with magazine design today. The idea that there can even be any rules at all, that there is a perfect science to a cover, is absurd, and this belief system (it borders on a religion, believe me) is propagated by circulation directors, publishers, and other bottom-line-minded people. Ina is an art director by trade, but I'm afraid she crossed the line long ago.

On Mar.04.2004 at 03:44 PM
eric’s comment is:

It's not technically a magazine, but i've added the Burpee Seed Catalogue to the database because it's an important cultural index and shares an affinity with magazine design.

it can be accessed here: Burpee Seed Catalogue directly.

On Mar.09.2004 at 01:13 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Bazaar's subscribers get the nicer cover. Interesting.

Thanks to Joy for the tip.

On Apr.19.2004 at 03:38 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Bridget Socio has to be one of the best unknown designers in town. At least she seems unknown. The web does no justice to her sense of space on the page. Precious is not the right word--magnifique is, perhaps.

And that Burpee catalgoue, man that is some kind of object lesson in the decline--oop, I mean the state of design in the last hundred or so years.

On Apr.19.2004 at 04:05 PM
eric’s comment is:

Popular Mechanics has now been added to the covers database. A quick link, here...

Popular Mechanics: Popular Mechanics Covers Gallery

also, our libertarian friends at Boing Boing brought the following to my attention a couple of weeks ago:

"The next ish [ issue? blech] of Reason magazine will be mailed out to 40,000 subscribers, with 40,000 custom covers, each bearing a satellite photo of the individual subscriber's neighborhood, with the subscriber's house circled. The point? "Everybody, including our magazine, has been harping on the erosion of privacy and the fears of a database nation. It is a totally legit fear. But they make our lives unbelievably easier as well, in terms of commercial transactions, credit, you name it."

if it plays out, how can it not be magazine cover of the year? the creepier and more invasive side of vanity.

On Apr.21.2004 at 09:08 AM