Good article over at Design Observer on The Final Decline and Total Collapse of the American Magazine Cover, with particular reference to the contrast between the stunning 'Esquire' covers of George Lois (e.g.) and the paucity of today's efforts. Michael Bierut makes the point that these weren't just great photographs and clever use of type, but a different kind of cover altogether:
"What art directors used to call the “Esquire cover” – a simple, sometimes surreal, image that somehow conceptually summarizes the most provocative point of one of the stories within..."
Bierut notes that this 'big idea' school of graphic design - often provocative visual puns - seems not just out of step with today's magazine covers but today's magazines themselves, in which the cover is often just an extension of a movie's marketing kit.
Allow me to mention a couple of further examples, one of which would seem to back up Bierut's point, whereas the other offers some hope for the cover, if not for the big idea.
Firstly, I just don't understand why 'The Economist' has such bad covers.
Beautifully designed inside (by the great Erik Spiekermann), there's such a disjunct with the often banal cover photos. The type and layout throughout the magazine is as clear, rational, and subtle as you'd imagine, and the charts and photos inside are generally high quality. Yet the cover photos or illustrations fail to cut it. Check this archive from last year. Agree?
[Looking for info here, I found this wonderful article on the design evolution of 'The Economist', heavily illustrated with layout/type examples from throughout its 160-year history. Includes this lovely aside from the editor of 'The Economist', introducing Spiekermann's design: "Good design, like good writing, should blend into the background; it should be the servant of editors and readers alike, not their master." Quite so.]
However, the covers are generally woeful, neither standing out at first glance amidst a crowded newsstand, or providing any lasting meaning. Often they rely on inadequate photography requiring masking. Or seem inspired by '80s video game covers. For example, couldn't the current edition have tried any harder than this rather random photo?
And just how bad is this cover?!
Many apologies to the designers concerned - I don't usually criticise in this way, as I know how difficult it is to produce compelling design with little or no time. I'm just surprised at the contrast, and this would seem to reiterate Bierut's point - this in a magazine which by its very nature would seem most at home with the 'big ideas', and whose written style often sparkles with subtle puns and sharp digs in the ribs.
By way of contrast, I thought I'd highlight my contender for the finest magazine cover design of the moment: The Independent On Sunday's London-only supplement, 'Talk Of The Town'. 'The Independent On Sunday' is consistently awarded 'best designed newspaper' prizes, and producing an unashamedly high-quality arts and culture supplement afforded them the opportunity to go even further. 'Talk Of The Town' is the kind of magazine that makes room for a 20-page interviews with Iain Sinclair and JG Ballard, reproductions of Vorticism, multipage extracts from Joe Sacco's latest, articles on women and roll-ups, a round up of the best books on alchemy, historical photos of London life a la Picture Post, speculations as to the connection between the Spitfire and the Krays, or as in today's edition, an 8-page extract from Sienese Painting on envisaging the medieval city of Siena. It's a quite wonderful thing. Sadly, there's nothing about it online.
The thing is, the covers outside live up to the magazine inside. Art directed by Carolyn Roberts and always illustrated by André Carillho, they have more in common with the Lois style - obliquely, subtley, and delicately representing a theme of each week's edition - than anything else around today. Though they don't trade in the pun or 'big idea' as such, but rely instead on simply and gracefully evoking an alluring image, almost in the style of Alexey Brodovitch's work for 'Harper's Bazaar'.
As there's nothing about it online (that I can find, anyway) I've scanned in a few choice examples of the covers below. Apologies for the shoddy reproductions - I think my scanner has a cold. Yes, they rely hugely on Carillho's gorgeous illustrations, but Roberts' restrained design not only enables them to step forward, it also provides a suitably classical setting for the ideas within, big and little. Respect to both for keeping the flag flying for magazine cover design.