With the Right Design, Magazines Can Compete With the Web

With the Right Design, Magazines Can Compete With the Web

With the Right Design, Magazines Can Compete With the Web 450 576 Mr. Egghead

GREAT MAGAZINE COVERS once held pride of place in the home—certainly in my home. They were social and intellectual status symbols. And among them, 92 covers that George Lois created for Esquire from 1962 to 1972 stand above almost all others.

Lois, one of advertising’s “creative revolutionaries,” was the sole magazine cover designer for one of the most influential publications at a time when the public relied almost exclusively on magazines for news and views. A strikingEsquire cover would be as talked about over lunch or dinner as a segment of Last Week Tonight might be now. Covers critiqued and defined the cultural and political moment—and were usually ahead of that moment. Even in the Internet age, Lois’s work still has much to teach us.


Two of his most well-known covers are courageous and, therefore, unforgettable for the baby boomer generation. Both featured prize fighters: Sonny Liston as Santa Claus for the Christmas issue in 1963, and Muhammad Ali as the martyr St. Sebastian five years later. Both were charged commentaries: They addressed common fears that many white Americans felt toward black men, 100 years after the Civil War. Yet the incredibly ironic way in which Lois presented them—one as a lily-white holiday icon, the other as a martyr to his belief that the Vietnam war was unjust—forced people to reassess the consequences of racial prejudice in the US. Readers of the liberal-leaning magazine anticipated Lois’s brash commentaries, and those of us maturing into adulthood received them as an anti-establishment rebuke of the mainstream. Even now, as they hang in the MoMA design gallery, these oversized magazine graphics still provoke a sense of unease.

Just recently, Lois found a long-lost cover for the November, 1970 issue that was rejected prior to publication by his editor, who feared an advertiser backlash should Esquirepublish it. It featured Aunt Jemima, the famous grinning product mascot, wearing a Black Panther beret, threateningly holding a meat cleaver under the headline “Lord love de Panthers!” The cleaver was a reference to Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party leader, who would in 1978 write Soul on Ice, capturing the interest of black and white radicals. Aunt Jemima, of course, was at the time the friendly mascot for the servile antebellum black woman.

In light of the racial struggles going on today, the power of these covers’ persuasion serves as a model for how magazines should be conceived and designed today. Unorthodox cover designs are even more important to the survival of traditional print magazines now that digital platforms and products are pushing them into the margins. As long as print magazines are still viable—and if the magazine racks can be believed, they are—Lois insists that “bold, visually defined Big Idea magazine covers are essential to leap out and grab you by the throat.” He says the continual barrage of images on our devices means print magazine covers should be “economic in form, big in idea, and understood at a glance” to compete with digital publications. “Most are not,” he notes.


Bold, visually defined Big Idea magazine covers are essential to leap out and grab you by the throat. – GEORGE LOIS

The lemming-esque cover designs today make it hard to discern one magazine from another, and even one genre from another. Among the common eyesores are those pesky coverlines announcing a magazine’s contents. Like kudzu vines, coverlines climb, coil and strangle cover art, reducing the main image to a backdrop. This is not design. It’s stuffing a package with a packing manifest in an attempt to be relevant to new readers who might otherwise spend their mag-reading time online. Perhaps it has to do with attention deficit disorder, but more likely it is the publishers’ insecurity owing to intense competition for time and attention. They don’t know how to grab their reader, so they promote everything and hope something sticks.

Lois’s covers underscore an era when magazine covers could actually influence the public’s mind in the same way startling wartime posters could. Even though Esquirerejected the Aunt Jemima cover, the fact he felt confident presenting it is indicative of more courageous times.

Lois’ cover probably would be published today, almost certainly online and almost certainly not by Esquire, whose covers long ago moved from social commentary to entertainment and fashion. With few exceptions, most print covers now do little more than billboard a publication’s contents. Other than The New Yorker, which continues to reject coverlines for a single, sometimes acerbic illustration, only indie magazines avoid junking up their fronts. The majority of digital magazine covers are basically homepages with links to features. Now magazines attempt to “sell” all content just in case there might be one or two themes that will attract a buyer.

Big Ideas, Writ Large

Although the presumed uproar over Lois’s lost cover (inspired by a fiery James Baldwin article on black revolution) never had a chance to materialize, its is clear from the image that sparks wouldsonny-liston have flown. And its persuasive power would have had as much to do with its large-scale format as its big idea. Magazines were bigger in size and heft than today, and as mini-posters on the
newsstand and coffee table, these covers had palpable allure. Even magazines that were not overtly political—likeHoliday, Show, Vogue, Fortune, Look, and Life—sported startling graphics, typography, and photography.

There is little comparable in the digital space to Lois’s historic magazine covers. Screens are getting smaller, and more individual than public. Magazines make a virtue of catering to personal tastes, so that even an argument about the cover is less possible. Digital media is all about reduction, and so many once-fertile design platforms, including record covers and book jackets, have shrunk to one-inch icons.

Screens are getting smaller, and are becoming more individual than public.

I am not suggesting that analog magazines do not stand a chance over the next decade. Publishers trying to combine print and digital continue to grapple with how to retain integrity between media, while investing in brand consistency. Digital and analog may have the same basic content, but their approaches are inevitably different. The fact that digital magazines, including covers, can be animated in any number of ways allows for myriad applications of type and image, color and sound.

But let’s stick with print magazines here, as one segment of popular messaging. Part of the beauty of great magazine covers, like great cartoons by Goya, Grosz, and Steadman, is they outlast the relevance of the related content. Readers still want to take pride in their magazines, and having consistently striking covers is part of the calculus for success. In addition to the overt message, covers like Lois’s tacitly signal confident exuberance, authority, and uniqueness. If more magazines adopted these qualities, they might just give the new tech a run for the money—at least for a while.

Source: Steven Heller, Wired