Take a look at your local newsstand and here's what you'll see: racks upon racks of magazines that look almost identical. Whether they focus on music, fashion, cigars, fitness, women, or men, most magazines typically feature a grinning celebrity on the cover peeking out from behind squadrons of coverlines. It wasn't always like this.

From the "golden age" of magazine popularity in the 1920s-'30s and on through to the early '60s, even the most mainstream of magazines tried to lure in readers with distinctive design, original typography, and striking artwork. The cover was considered a canvas–rather than merely a billboard–by groundbreaking art directors like Mehemed Fehmy Agha (Vogue, House & Garden, Vanity Fair), Alexey Brodovitch (Harper's Bazaar), and Eleanor Treacy and Francis Brennan (Fortune). These and other designers of that era transformed magazines into works of art in themselves. As Owen Edwards writes in The American Magazine, these designers and their magazines of the '30s "exerted a visual influence on Americans no less potent and persuasive than that of Hollywood." They commissioned covers by the finest artists, illustrators, and photographers of the day, such as Diego Rivera, Antonio Petruccelli, and Margaret Bourke-White (among many, many others). The design principle of that era seems simple enough: create the most ravishing covers possible. That was the way to distinguish your magazine from its competitors.

Today, the art of the magazine cover has been vanquished by celebrity worship and bad taste. Designers are simply fulfilling the dictates of their industry, not unlike the paint person on an auto assembly line. 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.

Why has the mainstream magazine publishing industry come to this artistic nadir? Publishers would tell you that the only way they can compete with television and the Internet is through the magic drawing-power of celebrities. When faced with a choice between an illustrated cover or Julia Roberts, consumers will pick Julia every time, they say. Publishers may be right–but why did uninspired shots of celebrities promoting their latest products become the only answer? Why did putting almost the entire contents page on the cover become required? What's worse about these simple-minded solutions is that not many designers or editors trouble themselves over the inherent esthetic failings–this is the only way they've ever known magazines to be, so how can they be any different?

Of course, there are magazines out there that make a point of flamboyant design, publishing slick variations on the celeb/supermodel-cover scriptures. Sadly, as sources of information or interesting reading, they are utter failures. Content-free periodicals like Flaunt, Clear, or Surface are little more than visual froth–they have no genuine editorial missions other than creating the appearance of importance. With little or no substance, these magazines' graphic gymnastics spring from very thin air indeed. The photos and illustrations, no matter how elaborate they may be, depict only a dearth of true ideas. The end products are soulless, lifeless wastes of paper. (Except, maybe, for the ads.)

The great magazines of the past combined strong editorial objectives with brilliant design. While such intentions can still be witnessed in magazines like Smithsonian or the New Yorker, they are rarities. 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.

But decide for yourself. Here are modern magazines contrasted with their namesake predecessors of some 60 years ago. Which would you pick up at the newsstand?

 Then & Now: A Magazine Cover Design Face-off

Further Reading:

Cover Story
The Art of American Magazine Covers
by Steven Heller and Louise Fili
(Chronicle, 1996)
The Art of Covering Business

(Gibbs Smith, 1999)
The American Magazine
by Amy Janello and Brennon Jones
(Abrams, 1991)
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