The October 17, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, featuring a graphically intense, black and white photograph of Michael Keaton in a preview of the Birdman movie, is one of the coolest and most iconic magazine covers of the past year. Photographer Art Streiber, design director Tim Leong, photography director Lisa Berman and lettering artist Geoff McFetridge have created a perfectly balanced cover that has a cutting-edge, contemporary flavor, while harkening back to the classic EW black and white covers of the early 1990s, which still resonate with many of the magazine's fans. And it's a cover that perfectly balances the demands of newsstand presence, reader engagement, and social media virality.
This is the latest signifier that there is an editorial and visual renaissance happening as the magazine approaches its 25-year anniversary. New editor-in-chief Matt Bean spearheads the brand. And he and newish design director Leong work under editorial director and former EW editor Jess Cagle.
As an early design director at Entertainment Weekly (I was there from 1994-96), I have a deep appreciation for the challenges and limitations of the magazine's cover design. A recent forum sponsored by the Society of Publication Designers at the SVA Theatre in New York City highlighted perfectly the changes to the magazine over the past 25 years. The event featured all of the magazine's past and current design directors and a great deal of dynamic work from the visual history of EW was presented. In the early days of the magazine, covers tended to be very spare, with minimal cover lines, and bold, graphic, iconic black and white photographic imagery. Actors like Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were presented in stark, simple contexts. As the magazine increased in popularity, and as newsstand sales became more important, and more challenging, black and white photography was cut, and the covers became more graphically complex. The result was action-packed covers that were highly effective, very commercial, but somewhat lacking in a higher artistic achievement. This is not meant as a criticism of any of the EW design directors, since I include most of my own covers in this category.
There have been, of course, some highly-memorable EW covers over the years, including the 2003 Dixie Chicks cover, which was ranked in a recent ASME collection of the best magazine covers of all time, and the unforgettable 2008 Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert parody of the famous Barack and Michelle Obama fist bump New Yorker cover. At its heart, EW is an entertainment newsweekly, and its covers generally have a sense of immediacy and response to current entertainment news and trends. Many times the imperative to present actors in character drives the image creation (see their countless superheroes in costume or Simpsons covers for great examples of this). That makes for crowd-pleasing images that aren't necessarily as artful as what appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, Esquire or New York magazine.
The essence of EW, to me, was that it always reflected the smart fan's take on movies, TV, books, music, and other forms of entertainment. It acknowledged the validity of its readers' obsessions. They were nerds before being a nerd was cool. Now that nerd-dom is having its day, EW has gone back to its roots in many ways, with complicated and obsessive graphics and charts, cool page presentations and lots of visual "winks" at the readers.
The Keaton cover is right in this sweet spot, with its hand-lettered cover typography that feels exactly like something I would have done on my notebooks in high school. Check out the scary, wavy type on the word LOSERS in the top right of the page, and the flock of birds above the logo. The type is funky and ragged, almost amateurish, but it strikes just the right tone. It has a sense of fanatic appreciation, and it doesn't overwhelm the photograph. I love the raw, almost punkish aesthetic of it as much as I love the stylish and intense quality of the cover photograph. The only color on the cover is the bold red logo, which enhances the classic feel. There are no drop shadows, 3D type or other computer-generated graphics that would make this cover feel dated in a few years. It's timeless. Twenty-five years from now when EW has its 50th anniversary gathering of design directors, it will still feel completely modern and contemporary.
It's heartening for me to see EW feel so essential and vibrant after all this time, especially after the many predictions of the magazine's death over the course of its lifetime. Tim Leong and his team have been creating a powerful series of covers over the past few months, including memorable images of Key & Peele and Michonne from "The Walking Dead" that show a keen understanding of the ways a cover must relate to audiences across multiple platforms. These are covers that delight, provoke, entertainment, and also sell, although that term has a much different and more diverse meaning that it did 20 years ago when I was creating at EW. This is a magazine that is about delighting its audience and validating their cultural obsessions, whether it's for Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Simpsons or Breaking Bad. This cover makes good on its brand promise brilliantly, and still looks like a poster that I'd like to put up on my wall. You can't ask for more than that from a magazine cover.
One of the most exciting series of magazine covers at the moment has come courtesy of Time Out New York. TONY has always had energetic covers, but its latest batch, created by new-ish art director Chris Deacon, are exceptional and rank among my favorite of 2014.
Deacon, who did excellent work in the UK at ShortList, NME, and Metropolitan, took over the art director role at TONY in June. The past few years the magazine's covers tended to be cluttered, noisy, and clichÃ©d, although they certainly had some graphic impact. But the new look directed by Deacon has been bold and fresh, with simple, bright, poster-like visuals. The covers are a constant treat to look at, surprising, vibrant and very modernÂ¬-a perfect reflection of New York City.
Case in point: the latest September 13, 2014 cover, which features a giant melting blue popsicle, with the words "SUMMER'S LAST HURRAH" printed on the stick like the little messages you see when you finish off your melting icy sweet in the park. It's a brilliant visual, and the photography by Stephen Meierding captures the moment perfectly. It jumps off the newsstand (they got my $4.99), and it stands in sharp contrast to just about everything around it. Whether TONY is showing film director John Waters on a hot pink background, or a #SAVENYC hashtag over stark white, these covers are powerful and imaginative. TONY is obviously working with a limited budget, but it doesn't show. Everything is smartly conceived and crisply executed.
The magazine's secondary coverlines have been greatly diminished compared with previous issues. A lot of people buy it because they're visiting the city and want to find out what's going on. For the rest, I imagine that the main image and headline are the selling points. It seems like the present team is doubling down on that idea, which has freed up more space for Deacon's bold graphic concepts. Part of the power of this current cover is that there's white space around the image, and the tagline to the main headline, "61 things to do before the season melts away" is nicely tucked into the corner with a subtle size that doesn't conflict with the image and cover concept.
One of the great mysteries to me is the TONY logo, which has remained untouched since the magazine launched in the early 1990s. The logo is drawn from TONY's London parent magazine, where the words Time Out originally spread full width across the top of the cover. At some point in the unfortunate magazine design world of the 1980s, the logo was condensed to half its width. The bad typographic results have lived on into the 21st Century. I quite like the black, white, and red color scheme and the way the logo reads out of any kind of visual background. And while my colleague says that the crude logo has "endearing charm," I think it's begging for an update, or at least a redrawing. Â
When it comes down to it, I'm very fannish about both the current Time Out New York cover and previous covers by Deacon. In a way, it reminds me of the work that Richard Turley did at Bloomberg Businessweek over the past few years. Not so much in style, although there is a similar brashness and immediacy to the work, but more so that these covers reflect a true love and passion for graphic design and magazine making. Deacon and his editors are engaging in a very rare (these days) and exciting visual conversation with their readers that is smart and highly contemporary. It's very inspiring to see this kind of energy, and they deserve a lot of support and congratulations for their effort!
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.
The August-September cover of Organic Gardening showcases a very different approach for a gardening and lifestyle magazine. The cover is completely illustrated by Peter Donnelly, right down to a redrawing of the logotype. With its simple, bold colors and whimsical style, the illustrated cover feels more like something from a children's book than a gardening magazine, but that's just fine with me. I think it's a bright, bold and forward-looking statement, a design that sets the magazine apart as distinctive and original. Its style feels homespun and yes, organic, and just right for a magazine that has cover lines about bees, honey and sustainable wearables. I can imagine that this strikes a positive note with potential readers when they see it in the checkout aisles at Whole Foods or their local health food store or food co-op.
Still, I have to ask: What's going on here? Has Organic Gardening decided that it's the natural lifestyle version of The New Yorker? I love the magazine's recent cover illustrations, and they do remind me of some of the beautiful New Yorker covers from the 1960s and 70s, before their covers got much cooler and more topical. The past two Organic Gardening overs are so striking that they should be turned into posters.
Organic Gardening started running illustrated covers with their April/May 2013 issue. They've done a couple more since then, most recently on the June/July 2014 cover, which featured a beautiful illustration of a woman holding a bowl of fruit, created by Denise Hilton Campbell. That illustration was delicate and lyrical, with floating butterflies and a good deal of the logo obscured by the woman's head and tree leaves. Magazine art director Susan Eugster has shown considerable skill at assigning the art for these recent covers and designing them in a very elegant format. I score these last two Organic Gardening covers as two of the best and most original American magazine covers this year.
However, let's hope the magazine's creative team sticks with this new illustrated format. For the past year, Organic Gardening swung wildly between varieties of cover designs. Those covers have gone from full-page photographs to illustrations to a chock-a-block grid of images. And they rotate between putting all the cover lines above the logo (which I like a lot) and running one main headline more prominently. All of these covers individually are very well done and quite beautiful in their execution. But together it's a jumble, and looks like a magazine in search of an identity (or struggling for newsstand sales). It may be that we've been watching a magazine go through a challenging and experimental phase to reach what is a very holistic cover design approach.
With the exception of the New Yorker, these days it's rare to find a magazine that will use illustration on the cover this aggressively. Politically oriented publications like Mother Jones and The Nation, and even occasionally Time use cover illustrations, but they tend to be caricatures or portraits. You have to reach back to the old Reader's Digest covers pre-1970 to find something this beautiful. Of course, there was a time from the 1920s-50s that magazines almost always featured sophisticatedly illustrated covers. This latest Organic Gardening cover is a throwback to that time, although the style of the artwork is highly contemporary.
And that might be the key to this current Organic Gardening look. It feels classic, old school, rooted in tradition, and as noted before, very organic in its presentation. Yet the style of the design and artwork is very contemporary, so it doesn't feel nostalgic or retro. There's a blog on the Organic Gardening website by Maria Rodale, who is chairman and CEO of the magazine's parent company. Her blog's mission statement includes "instilling a sense of responsibility about making the world a better place, respecting nature, and doing it all with a good strong dose of love." This could very well be a mission statement for Organic Gardening, and their new illustrated cover design advances it perfectly.
Michelle Obama has become a top magazine cover celebrity, arguably the top celebrity in terms of breadth and frequency of appearance. I can't think of anyone else who makes such a stylish splash every time she appears on a cover, and who also appears on so many different types of covers. I'm sure Baby Boomers who still adore Jackie Kennedy will disagree, but for my money Obama is by far the all-time leading First Lady in terms of iconic magazine cover appearances.
The August 2014 cover of Essence features Obama on what is her fifth cover for the magazine. The photograph is by Kwaku Alston, who has shot a number of her covers for various magazines, including the October 2011 issue of Essence, which is one of my favorites of the First Lady. On this cover, designed by Essence creative director Erika Perry, Obama is wearing a dress by the young American designer Azede Jean-Pierre. Alston's experience photographing Obama shows; she is relaxed, engaging and her smile jumps off the cover. Magazines struggle to get the kind of relaxed intimacy from celebrities that Obama consistently exudes in her cover shoots. And this cover exemplifies that.
I was part of a team that photographed her for the cover of Reader's Digest back in 2011. I've talked with a number of art directors who have photographed her for covers, and their experience seems to be universal. You get the option of setting up in a handful of rooms in the White House, including the First Lady's office. There's no advance notice of what she is going to wear, and her personal team handles her styling and makeup. No one gets more than a half hour with her (and often less). In fact, during the Reader's Digest shoot I kept a stopwatch running on my phone that I kept flashing at her assistant every time they tried to wrap up the shoot before our promised half hour. Still, within those parameters she's a gracious, cooperative subject who definitely knows how to work the camera and create brilliant cover images. That's one of the big reasons she's had so many smart and diverse magazine cover shoots. Obama's list of magazine covers in the past five years includes Vogue (twice), People, Reader's Digest, Parade, Parents, Good Housekeeping, AARP, CondÃ© Nast Traveler, More, Glamour, Ladies' Home Journal, Prevention, Ebony and Better Homes and Gardens. The list is nearly endless. She's even been illustrated on the cover of The New Yorker. And she rarely seems to repeat the same clothing designer, which is quite a feat!The most challenging part of the Essence cover is that it was shot in front of a brightly backlit window. The result, as anyone who has worked in this kind of situation knows, is uneven lighting, false colors and shadows in the wrong places. On this cover the photo ends up with an oddly faded-out section on Obama's lower arms and handsâ€“just compare them to the rich color and texture of her upper arms. That said, while the blown-out background does not help Obama, it provides the perfect backdrop for a set of nicely articulated cover lines, all of which work to good effect. The editors and creative director manage to cram in a healthy amount of cover lines without overwhelming the photo. Arguably the very elegant thinness of the type in the "Head to Toe Skin Care Guide!" circle is a little too delicate for its usage here, and I would have avoided the unfortunate collision created where the "Education Special" pink nugget that appears to be poking the First Lady in the back and creating unnecessary visual tension. Still, those are minor quibbles. This is a tight, bold, modern, engaging-looking cover that works well both on newsstand (I bought a copy) and online (where it first grabbed my attention). Like its subject, this cover has an incredible sense of style.
Essence deserves credit for referencing children so directly on this cover. Cover lines about children are rare on women's magazines. When I was the creative director at Real Simple we had a guiding principle that children were rarely mentioned and pictured, and certainly never on the cover. I think the feeling was that it would take away from the escapist and aspirational aspects of the magazine. I haven't done a scientific survey of contemporary women's magazines on this subject, but my casual surveillance at the newsstand this week corroborates this.
Obama has mastered the art of creating iconic magazine cover images. There's not another person in politics who conveys such a sense of power, style, grace, beauty, intelligence and sex appeal, except of course, her husband Barack. While Barack Obama, as with other Presidents, has aged considerably with the job, Michelle looks even better and more energetic than she did in 2008. I would go so far as to say that I don't see any celebrities of any kind who have been able to create such a powerful set of cover images in such a short period of time.
Obama has dozens of solo magazine covers to her credit, and that doesn't even include the ones she's been on with Barack, or teamed up with other people, including her mother and Jill Biden. Even more impressive is that this unbroken string of successful covers has come during a time of fierce and heated political opposition to the politics of the Obama Administration, and by extension, to Michelle Obama. This cover shows, once again, that no one commands a magazine cover like Michelle Obama.
When I was just starting out in publication design, I worked at a small monthly left-wing newspaper in Washington, D.C. We used to joke that we wanted the paper to be the National Enquirer of progressive politics, and even designed a tabloid-style logo. Years later in the early 1990s, when I became art director at The Village Voice, I played those ideas out further, using big screaming headlines, loud primary colors and graphic photo treatments. So it warmed my heart when I saw the July/August cover of Mother Jones, which gives a jagged, shouting tabloid treatment to a story about right-wing bogeymen the Koch Brothers.
The parody, designed by creative director Ivylise Simones, is spot on, with just the right mix of funkiness and visual chaos. The design holds nothing back, right down to the Mother Jones logo, which was redesigned for this issue to reflect a tabloid feel. The result is a cover that is fun, engaging, provocative and viral-ready. It takes a strong partnership between the editors and the visual team to create this kind of high-level, sophisticated cover design and it works brilliantly, crafting a set of images that work on so many levels.
Conventional wisdom is that a magazine's logo is sacrosanct, a critical part of the brand that should never be messed with, and I'm sure the Mother Jones logo change will confuse a few readers. Yet, what the magazine gains is a dynamic, comprehensive graphic approach that not only jumps off the page, but is destined to work quite effectively online and across the magazine's multiple platforms. Apparently altering logos to fit stylized covers has become a trend, because it's been done recently to great effect by both Bloomberg Businessweek (who have done it at least three times over the past year) and The New Republic.
For a recent cover story on Jeopardy TV host Alex Trebek, The New Republic designed itself to look like the famous Jeopardy game board, altering its logo to mimic the show's distinctive trademark. In early June, Bloomberg Businessweek published a story on progressive economist-of-the-moment Thomas Piketty designed to look like a teen fan magazine, complete with a bubble gum logo and small photos of both Justin Bieber and Karl Marx. Both covers take complicated, unsexy topics, but with graphic stylization they turned them into dynamic, pulsating covers, and the same is true with this Mother Jones cover. Of course, there's a long history of magazines designing covers to look like LP covers, posters, books, product packaging and more. It's very exciting that magazines that cover topics that are generally not considered flashy and cool (politics and business) are creating some of the liveliest, hip and memorable covers.
Lately there has been a true renaissance of cover design at some of the most notable liberal magazines. In addition to Mother Jones, The New Republic (creative director Dirk Barnett) and The Nation (creative director Robert Best) have all been turning out exceptional covers. Each have their own unique style: Mother Jones is polished and provocative, perfectly designed to be spread around on the internet; The New Republic is thoughtful, stylish, cutting edge, and very contemporary; The Nation, with its limited budget and weekly publishing schedule, has a funky, homemade, gonzo feel like many of the altweekly newspapers. There's a powerful energy and passion that runs through all three designs.
That raises this question: Why do liberal magazine covers look so much better and smarter than their conservative counterparts? While many liberal mags are having a design renaissance, two of the most prominent conservative publications, the National Review and The Weekly Standard, look dated and uninspired. The lefties have enthusiastically embraced a wide array of graphic techniques, modern illustration and typography and just flat out coolness, whereas the conservative magazines tend towards very crude and sophomoric illustrationsâ€“stuff that often looks one step above what you would see in a college newspaper (and sometimes not even that good!). The design of the National Review and The Weekly Standard covers looks straight out of the 1980s. Given that both publications wax nostalgic for the days when Ronald Reagan was President, there's certain logic to their resistance to enter the 21st Century in terms of cover design. The irony is that the National Review created brilliant covers in the 1960s and 70s; smart, edgy, graphic, nicely illustrated and very cool for their time. Also, given the fact that the National Review has a very vibrant, up-to-the-minute website and social media presence, their lack of a modern cover design is even more baffling.
Good cover design does not stem inherently from any particular political ideology, although I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of art directors, illustrators and creative magazine makers in the New York/Washington publishing scene lean to the left. Still, there are several conservative publications (most notably The American Conservative) that have crafted some smart looking covers. (Full disclosure: I helped create the initial design of The American Conservative when it launched in 2002). Political blogger Andrew Sullivan has popularized the concept of epistemic closure to describe the bubble that the right-wing media and many of its supporters operate within, shielded from other opinions and data-based facts that might upset their belief system. What's notable about the Mother Jones tabloid-styled cover is that's it's an attempt to expand the magazine's voice and reach beyond its traditional readership, and also an acknowledgement that there's a place for modern approaches in cover design for political publications.
The Spring 2014 cover of Lucky Peach magazine is a tasty, illustrated concoction that highlights its "All You Can Eat" issue. It's a very unusual and very creative cover with a 3D illustration by Jordan Speer that looks straight out of an old Gumby claymation cartoon. I think this is a brilliant cover, very different and unique compared to most other food magazines. And it's simply one of the most fun covers I've seen this year. Not only did this delightful cover illustration convince me to buy the magazine, but everyone who has seen my copy has grabbed it away and started reading.
"I was a chef for 10 years," says Caysey Welton, associate editor at Folio:. "So I'm bored by a lot of food covers these days. But this one is fresh and cool." He is spot on with his analysis. At my local Whole Foods, this cover jumped out at me, amidst a wall of food and health magazines, all of them featuring beautiful, sensual, refined photographs, very sophisticated and well-polished in their design and styling. By comparison, Lucky Peach looks like a funky homemade dish that cares less about being perfect and pristine in its presentation, but with a much greater sense of passion, delight and soul.Lucky Peach is the quarterly food and eating magazine brainchild of Momofuku restaurant owner and chef David Chang. Originally published in partnership with McSweeney's, Lucky Peach ended the relationship late last year; this is the second issue published as a completely independent operation.
This cover, art directed by Walter Green, is a big departure from Lucky Peach's first few independent issues. Those covers were raw, punky, graphic and somewhat off-putting, with photographs of big slabs of raw meat, knives, and burly tattooed arms and hands. The typography and headlines were aggressive, and the overall feel was very masculine and almost fatally hip. Honestly, I didn't like it and thought it was the wrong approach, although it was certainly effective in getting attention.
After six or seven issues, the Lucky Peach cover direction changed dramatically. Recent covers have boasted colorful, playful illustrations, like something you'd see in a children's book. Headlines have been minimized and, the original hand-drawn logo remains, which in the context of the lighter illustrations looks charming and homespun. The covers are now accurate reflections of the inside pages of the magazine, which are a lush, visual treat. It's a rich, diverse, multi-textured look, with very little of the "food porn" photography that fills most epicurean magazines these days.
Fun is really the key to this cover, and that's what makes it so unique. It's rare to see a magazine cover that looks like it was actually fun to make, while also keeping it representative of the richness and quality of the material inside. For a sense of what Lucky Peach looks like, visit their Tumblr page, which is an explosion of exciting graphics and visual inspiration.
Lucky Peach is somewhat of a throwback to the illustrated Gourmet magazine covers of the 1940s and 50s. Those covers were artful but zany and quirky. Often illustrated by Henry Stahlhut, the illustrated Gourmet covers were the total opposite of the perfectly styled plates of food and gourmet dishes on magazine covers today. The "All You Can Eat" cover reminds me of Bloomberg Businessweek, with its pure disregard for any of the standard operating techniques of its genre.
I took my daughter to the Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village of New York City over the past weekend to celebrate her 14th birthday. She's a big fan of the Momofuku Milk Bar on the Upper West Side, where she favors strawberry milkshakes and pork buns. At the Noodle Bar she ordered Momofuku Ramen, while I gave up my meatless diet for a bowl of Spicy Miso Ramen (with chicken and pork broth). The food was hearty and delicious, and sitting in the restaurant at one of the long communal tables, I was reminded why the Lucky Peach cover is so perfect. It's a lot like the Momofuku restaurants: funky, uncompromising, hip (but not hipster), downhome and totally delightful and tasty. Like any great cover, it engages the readers in a visual conversation and invites them inside to discover a world of wonders, while at the same time maintaining the essence of its brand.
"What were they smoking?" is a common joking criticism used by editors and art directors when referring to badly executed magazine covers. Well, in the case of the June 2014 cover of High Times, we know exactly what they were smoking. But the herb definitely helped with some wonderful creativity, because this is one of my favorite magazine covers of the year. I think a few more magazines could use what High Times is smoking; this cover is powerful, engaging, memorable and just plain fun (and funny).
The "Mount Kushmore" cover of High Times features a photo illustration of four top hip-hop artists, Snoop (Lion these days?), B-Real, Redman, and Method Man, all of whom are well-known weed enthusiasts. For FOLIO: readers who don't fully get the reference of the headline, the Urban Dictionary describes "kush" as "a high-grade strain of marijuana."
This is a gonzo cover that reminds me of some of the best altweekly newspaper covers, with an image that is very high conceptually, and somewhat funky (in a good way) in execution. But the idea and the passion behind it are what gives this cover such a great buzz and makes it a standout. Editor Chris Simunek explains that the idea originated with Snoop, who has been a regular cover subjectâ€“most notably as 2007's "Stoner of the Year." The original idea was to have the four heads carved out of hash. When that didn't work out (for obvious reasons), photographer Mark Mann was called in, along with creative director Bianca Barnhill, who organized the entire session. Additional tweaks to the cover came from art directors Roxanna Allen and Frank Max.
Speaking of Snoop, back in the 1990s I worked as the design director of Vibe. We were all hard at work one afternoon when a buzz went through the office because Snoop had arrived for an interview and was in the upstairs conference room. Within five minutes of his arrival, the sweet sticky smell of the most potent weed imaginable came drifting through the walls and floors. Needles to say, there wasn't any more work done that day (although the interview turned out great!).
This cover of High Times feels like it was crafted by people who love making magazines and who have an intimate connection with their readers . As editor Simunek says, "We definitely enjoyed doing this cover!" It's bright and refreshing, and the image mixes perfectly with the bold cover lines. The cover headlines are all winners: "40 Best Stoner Movies," "Pot in the NFL," and "Growing for Maximum Flavor." It's also a change from the regular High Times covers, which tend to feature beautifully photographed exotic strains of pot or a still life of a bong.
High Times has a rich history of cover design, stretching back to its launch in the early 1970s. Over the years they've had a series of talented art directors, and while the magazine has had its ups and downs, it's overall design has never been stronger than it is under the guidance of art director Frank Max, who has given it a structured, lively format with strong, engaging imagery and, of course, lots of beautiful weed pictorials.
When I was in college in the 70s, my friends and I would get High Times from the local head shop every month and rush home to read the heady (to us) mix of dope, rock â€˜n' roll, politics and counterculture news. We would scour the Trans High Market drug price quotations every month, hoping to find our little town in the list (it never was) and marveling at what was available for purchase in other locations.
Years later I visited a friend who was working at the High Times office in New York City. After getting through an elaborate multi-lock security system (it was the 80s), I was ushered into a dark, heavily smoke-filled room. This was the office of the legendary High Times typesetter, who banged out endless galleys of type surrounded by piles of the most potent herb I had ever "seen." Perhaps it goes without saying, but I don't remember much else about my visit.
Those days are long gone, though, and High Times today is a much more professional operation. The magazine's ads are booming thanks to medical marijuana and the movement to legalize or decriminalize pot smoking. Celebrities like Oliver Stone have been on the cover, celebrating their sticky love. And the editorial content is a potent and polished blend of service, news and strong opinion.
I was worried that I was being too uncritical about this cover, so I reached out for a second opinion from Dan Zedek, a former High Times art director (in the mid-80s), and now the design director of the Boston Globe. He confirmed my opinion of it: "Two words for this cover: not shy," he said. "It has attitude to spare! It helps that the illustration is a little crude, the type colors a little loud. It's a perfect match for the subject matter: fun, noisy, and a bit bratty. For a magazine about not working hard, this cover works hard in the right ways."
So, I guess the obvious question here is: What was I smoking when I wrote this review? This answer is: nothing, or it wouldn't have been finished! Still, I hope High Times invites me to their next cover shoot.
I first saw this Politico cover the way it was meant to be seen: in a tweet that teased one of the inside features, "How to Lose $100 Million: The Undoing of Tina Brown." You can bet that I read that story, but it was the very cool, all-type cover that initially hooked me.
All-type covers are a tricky business. They work best with a provocative message like "Is God Dead?" or "You Idiots!" But as Politico creative director Janet Michaud explains, the magazine covers politics and Washington "in a non-partisan, non-ideological way." That means that they don't have a mandate to craft a headline that is going to antagonize or provoke readers.
Politico did the next best thing, which was to craft a solid, label-like headline into an engaging, stylish image--a perfect fusion of text and graphics. With its stop sign-like white logo on red, and a headline made up of letters taken from major newspapers and media outlets, this is a seamless graphic delight that works on multiple levels. It's the perfect cover image to propel the extensive hype that Politico has received for the stories in this issue.
I like the simple, unadorned design of this cover a lot. It's stripped down the basics: red, black, and white color (why does this seem to be the color scheme of choice for all-type covers?), with understated secondary cover lines under the main heading. The headline type, by Post Typography, is bold and refined and is obsessively engaging. Once you realize that the letters are taken from actual newspaper, magazine, and TV logos, it becomes a puzzle to figure out where they came from (you can play along; we've included the source logos for all the letters below).
I was actually disappointed with the first two Politico covers (The Media Issue is the third; it's published on a bi-monthly schedule). They were nice enough, but somewhat generic, without a sense of immediacy and failing to fully reflect the dynamic content inside. That disconnect is even more apparent when you view the interior page designs, which are powerful, elegant and very distinctive. However, this new cover changes all that. Part newsweekly, part opinion journal, part poster, the type channels covers of New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Time, with a nod to the 1950s Blue Note LP cover design of Reid Miles that Michaud cites as an influence.
There's a hip, stark, modern feel to this cover that I think eludes many other political magazines and journals. A lot of publications would have taken a more involved, illustrative approach to the topic (and according to Michaud, Politico tried a number of those approaches but weren't satisfied with any of them); the spare, graphic treatment here is what makes it so unique and effective. I feel like this is the issue (and cover) of Politico where the magazine has been fully realized for the first time and we truly get a sense of the potential of this publishing project.
Michaud came to Politico after a stint as design director at the Washington Post, and an earlier stretch as an art director at Time. She describes the overall look of the magazine as "visually confident, bold and surprising, simple and classic." She goes on to say, "We're not on the newsstand, but we're competing for the reader's attention. With the cover, we want to grab as much of that attention (and time) as possible." The Media Issue cover of Politico accomplishes that task brilliantly. I hope we see more creative covers like this in the future from the Politico team!
You wouldn't expect something as simple as the April 26, 2014 cover of Billboard to be groundbreaking and envelope pushing, but that's exactly what it is. The cover features a cool photograph of singer Enrique Iglesias, sleek, minimal cover typography and a bold, poster-like logo; it's highly original, extremely artful and a crowd-pleaser all at the same time (I know because I checked with my 13-year-old daughter who is a big Enrique fan).
Most magazine covers, and especially trade publications, tend towards a standard formula with lots of typographic and graphic devices to grab the readers' attention, and crisp, sharp photographs with riveting eye contact. This cover has none of that; it even flaunts a big green logo in stark contradiction to the magazine urban legend that "green is death on the newsstand."
Since their cover redesign earlier this year, led by creative director Shanti Marlar, Billboard has been aggressively pursuing more creative photography, with very sensual color tones and poster-like framings. This is their eighth cover since the format change, the second under new design director Rob Hewitt and, to my eye, it's the strongest to date.
The photograph of Iglesisas by David Needleman is dark and moody, with his face in shadow and his eyes looking down away from the reader. It's a powerful portrait, intimate and sexy. And the cover typography is very sparse and understated, letting the strength of the overall design rest on the photograph and the graphic logo.
Just 10 years ago, Billboard still lived up to its trade magazine reputation on the cover, with a newspaper-like design that was occassionally broken up with special large photo designs. For much of the time since then, the covers have featured creative, aggressive, rock â€˜n' roll design, with a heavy nod to the look of magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. The design exploded off the pages, bursting with distorted typography and huge amounts of cover lines. They were pop, and they popped! A cover redesign in early 2013 led by then-art director Andrew Horton eliminated the classic, multi-colored logo for a new, smaller treatment, combined with more subdued cover typography and sophisticated photography.
See examples of those covers here.
When the vertical Billboard logo was introduced earlier this year I was dubious about its long-term status. My first reaction was that it was a nice gimmick that wouldn't last. Plenty of magazines have added nontraditional tilts and positionings to their logos, and about 99.99 percent of them revert back to "normal" in short order after readers, marketers and subscription mavens amply complain. But now, I love it. The logo frames the cover like a poster; it's an acknowledgement that for a magazine like Billboard, the image on the cover is most importantâ€“especially as it travels across multiple platforms. The concept of newsstand sales as the driver for the cover design is no longer valid; the most effective covers work as images on Twitter, iPads, Facebook, etc. And the new Billboard logo, its very modern and distinctive design along with its photography are perfectly suited for this new cover paradigm.
I watched this cover get pushed on Twitter over the past weekend and noone cared that the logo was sideways or that there weren't a lot of cover lines. It was a memorable cover of Enrique Iglesias, fans loved it, and that's what sent it flying around the internet. It's great publicity and drives interest and traffic to the brand, as opposed to selling a couple extra copies on a newsstand.
What this cover and the overall Billboard design strategy says is that the old school approach to cover making, where tiny bits of magazine material are shoehorned into every corner of the cover, stuffing it to overflowing with photos and teasers, is no longer applicable. This is a cover design that recognizes the multiplatform, viral, instantaneous nature of the times, and that's what makes it so successful and so exciting. Other magazines should take note: an original, distinctive, contemporary cover design is the best way to visually revitalize your brand. There was a time back in the 1950s, when trade magazines were art directed by some of the most talented folks in the business (Walter Allner and Bradbury Thompson are just two), who approached the publication covers as part of the overall corporate packaging branding and design. This new set of Billboard covers is firmly in that tradition.
My enthusiasm for the big-picture aspects of the Billboard design should not obscure the good work that went into this particular cover, both in terms of the crafting and creation of the photograph and the detailing of the typography. It's a refreshing and energizing graphic step forward, and as my daughter Lillian says, "it looks so cool!"
UPDATE: Thanks to art director/illustrator Andrew Skwish for pointing out the similarities in overall tone between the current Billboard cover and covers of The Face in the 1980s, when it was designed by Neville Brody. The Face even had a short-lived experiment with a vertical logo! This era of The Face (the cover pictured is from 1985) was one of my favorites, and a huge influence on me and many other art directors. This makes me like the new Billboard design even more.Â
The April/May 2014 cover of Petersen's Hunting magazine is a big departure for the popular outdoor publication. It features a striking photograph by Lee Thomas Kjos that is a sleek, graphic image of a raw slab of game meat stuck with a hunting knife, held by a manly, blood-covered hand. There's so much testosterone on this cover that I can feel the hair growing on my chest (and other places). I love it! For added graphic effect the meat is dripping blood, and the hand is covered with hair from the kill. I have to admit upfront that I don't eat meat, so the cover holds no emotional or tasty appeal for me. But it certainly is one of the more memorable, provocative and ground-breaking outdoor magazine covers in recent memory.
The cover headline is "Join the Meat Eater Revolution," with a smart and effective underline that highlights a very interesting story about how foodies, chefs and TV food shows are expanding hunting to a new, younger audience. Like the story inside, the cover seems designed to expand Hunting's reach to a new group of readers. Traditional Hunting covers fall into three categories: 1. a portrait of a high-tech hunting rifle; 2. a photo of a wild animal, generally a buck, bear or wolf; 3. a rugged dude with a gun and dead game. In fact, as I looked back at past issues, I couldn't find another cover of Hunting that didn't feature a gun or an animal.
The April/May cover created by art director Tim Neher is very modern and artful, the kind of design and image one would expect to see on one of the "intellectual foodie" magazines that are mentioned in the cover story, or even someplace like New York magazine. The white background, the shiny, high-detail photograph, and the sophisticated typography all combine for an arresting cover that jumps off every platform. I do question to what extent the bulk of Hunting's readers will appreciate this very contemporary design. My own experience with enthusiast magazines is that their readers tend towards very traditional approaches to content and imagery. I assume that the guns and game style of previous Hunting magazines is popular with their readers, and I'll be very curious to hear the response to this cover.
I have a couple criticisms of the cover typography. First and foremost, Hunting has an unorthodox habit of using the cover image to obscure a good chunk of their cover headlines. They do it here, and have done it previously on the March 2014 "Predator Rifle" and September 2013 "Big Game Forecast" issues. Now, I'm all for pushing the envelope on covers, but I tend to want to see the headlines full and complete for the most effective reading. I also have some beef with one of the secondary headlines, "Grilling Skills That Will Kill in Camp." Generally I think it's never a good idea to reference cooked meat and dying in the same thought, but a bigger problem is that the story is actually a gear guide, with the much funnier and better headline inside "Grills Gone Wild." There may be a grilling tip or two, but to be accurate, as the editors say in the story's subhead, they "field-tested the hottest grills on the market."
More importantly, I think that the typography and design on the cover, separate from the brilliant image, is a little too delicate and under-baked. The light, thin type seems at odds with the overall message of the magazine. I'd prefer to see some bolder, huskier, aggressive typography to match the cover photograph. For that matter, I really miss the old Hunting logo, which was replaced by the current one several years ago. It was very distinctive, had a lot of character and it bounded off the cover. The new logo looks out of place and to my eye would fit better on one of those "intellectual foodie" magazines.
Interestingly, recent covers from competitors also feature close-up still life photographs. The April 2014 Field & Stream shows a huge fish head ("Catch Giant Fish" is the cover headline), and the May 2014 Outdoor Life features a large ax, accompanied by a headline that reads "Great Blade Skills." Both covers have a nice mix of headline styles, color and supporting graphics that are much more energetic and engaging that those on the Hunting cover.
All that said, I really like this cover a lot, and congratulate the editors and visual team for creating such a smart, remarkable departure from their previous work. Regardless of any flaws, this cover is imaginative and graphic, and shows a passion both for rugged magazine-making and the content inside.
Regular readers of Face Up know that I'm obsessed by old school magazine design. Any discussion of outdoors and hunting magazines would not be complete without a mention of the covers of Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Field & Stream and others from the early days of the 1900s up to about 1960. During that time the covers of those magazines usually featured beautiful, elegant illustrations, done in a suitable-for-framing style. And then there were the men's adventure magazines, which featured heart-stopping images of real men battling nature. There are numerous websites out there now that display these vintage covers, and offer reproductions for sale. Two that I spend way too much time visiting are Magazine Art and Classic Outdoor Magazines.
March 31 is opening day for Major League Baseball, so I thought it would be appropriate to review the cover of a baseball magazine. And there isn't a better publication to look at than Who's Who in Baseball. It's a thick, 360-page digest-sized annual. It describes itself as "a handy reference guide to batting & pitching stats," and the inside is packed with obsessive line-by-line and team-by-team listings of over 775 major league players.
I may be stretching the definition of a magazine cover this time around, since Who's Who in Baseball is really more of a bookazine, given that it's an annual publication sold at newsstands and bookstores. Like a mini-phonebook, it's printed on cheap newsprint, but the cover paper stock is slick, glossy and heavy. First appearing in 1912, and every year since 1916, this year it will celebrate its 99th anniversary.
Many years ago I worked at Harris Publications, the magazine factory that publishes Who's Who in Baseball. I was given free access to help myself to back issues, and delighted my baseball friends by giving them a series of presents of those very-collectible vintage copies. Ever since, I've been aware of the strong affinity baseball fans have for this little publication, and how it evokes both a passionate love for the game and the heart-tugs of nostalgia.
And nostalgia is the most important component of the Who's Who in Baseball cover design. The basic format of red cover background and black type has been used since the 1940s and the current logo is an iteration of one developed in the early 50s. The present cover design has been static for at least 20 years, save for a little tightening of the logo. In fact, the only basic difference between this year's cover and the 2013 edition are the pictures of the players. The format is so recognizable to readers that the editors feel comfortable covering up most of the word BASEBALL in the logo.
That said, this cover design is clean and well balanced, with a highly efficient organization of material, instantly identifiable photos, and a pop-off-the-newsstand graphic sensibility. There are a lot of lessons here for small (and not-so-small) publications that are looking to develop a consistent graphic brand on a limited budget. One could describe this cover as retro, or a more critical analysis might call it old fashioned. Still, I think it's brilliant and I never get tired of looking at it (they got my $9.95, I might add!).
Nevertheless, as much as we love a good retro cover design, this is a publication begging for a visual branding update. Perhaps Who's Who in Baseball could draw some inspiration from their extensive archives, which are a treasure trove of baseball graphic delights. A little more playfulness, a diversity of graphic elements and a small nod to the 21st Century might not be a bad thing for this cover.
And speaking of nostalgia, Tom Hoffarth at the Farther off the Wall blog smartly pointed out that the current Who's Who in Baseball cover mirrors another cover the publication did 50 years ago, in 1964. The 2014 cover features Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, while the 1964 cover highlighted Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, another Dodgers pitching star and Cy Young winner. Of course as a New York Yankees fan, I would have rather seen Derek Jeter and Tony Kubek on those covers!
Fans of classic baseball visuals will also enjoy these vintage covers of Baseball Digest, another obsessive sports publication that has been in existence since the 1940s. Actually, there might also be some inspiration there for the editors of Who's Who in Baseball as they gear up to design the cover for the 100th anniversary issue.
Tuesday, December 09, 2014 -- Join this upcoming Folio: Webinar to discuss the survey findings, and to learn
how one publisher, Advanstar, streamlined their process to intensify the focus
on audience engagement strategies.