Face Up Online: Wax Poetics
Making old school new school.
I love the current trend towards independently published magazines. There's a great energy and passion in the movement, whether the publications cover food, fashion, music or art. Not so with their cover design though. To my eye, several trendy mags tend to be archly cool and distant, lacking the eye-popping quality that great covers embody. So many indie magazine covers look sleepy and dull, like the tabletop art books they emulate. Fortunately, there's Wax Poetics, whose covers are brilliant splashes of imagery, that resemble old-fashioned LPs filled with engaging brightness and poster-like impact.
Case in point: the latest cover, issue #59. It features a photo by Jonathan Mannion of Aaliyah, the young R&B singer and actress who tragically died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22. Creative director Freddy Anzures treats each cover as a graphic work of art, with minimal cover lines (in this case just Aaliyah's name) and simple typography. As with all Wax Poetics issues, there's so much goodness that they need two covers. Like a classic LP, you can flip the A-side over and there's a second cover on the back, this one featuring contemporary R&B singer Kelela (photographed by Yev Kazannik). That's a standard Wax Poetics format, and it's so effective that sometimes the back cover is better than the front. In this case they even put the issue's coverlines on the back instead of the front!
I'm a little biased when it comes to Wax Poetics, because it's one of my favorite magazines. The content mix of old school funk and R&B, jazz, Latin, blue-eyed soul and contemporary hip hop is right in my cultural sweet spot, and it doesn't hurt that the magazine is filled with vintage LP covers and labels and lots of back-in-the-day photographs. The covers work as brilliant graphic statements, and they blow up on social media. Awhile back I posted a cover featuring RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan on my Tumblr page, and it quickly became the most "liked" and reposted item I've ever featured.
What I really like about this Aaliyah cover so much is that it's simple, graphic, and iconic. It's also designed to engage its audience on every possible platform. This is a classic case of a magazine developing a cover format that not only works on an issue-to-issue basis, but also fits into a visual branding that defines the publication's identity. It's also a great example of how a low-budget magazine can use vintage stock photography to create a contemporary and modern-looking cover format.
There's a complete collection of every Wax Poetics cover stretching back to #1 on their website here.
No discussion of a Wax Poetics cover is complete without talking about its very distinctive and unusual logo. I'll admit that my old-school sensibilities were unsettled when the magazine ditched its old, all lowercase sans serif vintage jazz LP-style logo several years ago for an illustrative and more stylized approach. It's taken me a couple years to come around to appreciating the uniqueness of the new logo, with its resonance of LPs and recording tape. Apparently the editors and creative director are so sure of their branding and audience loyalty that they're comfortable not having the actual title of the magazine in the logo. I don't know anyone who refers to Wax Poetics as WP, but the logo is smart and stylish, reflecting the mix of old school and contemporary cutting edge that defines its editorial voice.
And it's that classic and modern mix that really makes this Wax Poetics cover so wonderful. It is vibrant, iconic, bold and simple, which makes it one of the brand's most memorable covers of the year.
-- Robert Newman was most recently the creative director of Reader's Digest. He has been the creative director of Real Simple and the design director at Entertainment Weekly, New York, Details, Vibe, Fortune, The Village Voice, and Guitar World. He was also the editor of The Rocket, a music and culture magazine based in Seattle. Visit his site and and follow him on Twitter: @Newmanology.
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