When you work at a print publication, it’s easy to get fatigued by years of conversations about the death of print — from industry observers, “futurists,” nervous colleagues, your friends and family.
But nearly 30 years after David Carson’s The End of Print, a glance at the internet today would reveal an intriguing reality: magazine covers are wholly ubiquitous. And they just might have more visibility these days than ever.
We were curious about the changing role of the magazine cover in today’s hyperpolitical times, and what it’s like to create them in our relentless news cycle. So we brought together a cadre of the industry’s foremost minds to explore just that.
Here, in a wide-ranging discussion, they riff on the ever-evolving — and ultimately critical — role of the magazine cover today.
- Tom Alberty is design director of New York Magazine
- Jaap Biemans is an art director, designer, and the curator of Cover Junkie
- Edel Rodriguez is an artist and illustrator, who also served as an art director at TIME from 1994–2008
- Jody Quon is director of photography of New York Magazine
To start, what are some of the most memorable magazine covers you’ve seen over the past few years? What stands out in your mind?
Tom Alberty: Oh man.
Jody Quon: That’s a great question for Jaap. [Laughter.]
Jaap Biemans: The classic magazines, like you guys at New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, TIME’s covers from Edel with Trump — those are always the most remarkable ones, to be honest. But I saw a great Playboy cover last week, coming from Germany.
Quon: That was a phenomenal cover, so shocking.
Edel Rodriguez: I’ll chime in with New York Magazine [laughter] because I think in the industry, everyone’s kind of repeating things, and then New York Magazine comes in with this odd take on something. And you guys end up hiring a lot of artists that are not in this industry necessarily, like Barbara Kruger or other artists that just come at a cover from a different point of view, which I really like. It’s surprising. The New Yorker is nice, but The New Yorker is not going to insult that many people or create that much of a ruckus. And New York Magazine sometimes lands and it’s like, “Whoa!”
Quon: I will say that one thing we’re very fortunate about at New York — and there’s really only a handful of other magazines that have that same fortune — is that we don’t have to do a celebrity cover every week or every month. We’re not bound by advertising restrictions or constraints. We can put the best story forward and we have free range on what it is and how it is we want to express that cover visually. So that’s really important, because there are only a handful of magazines out there that can do that. And those are precisely the magazines that Jaap mentioned at the top of this conversation, which is TIME, The New York Times Magazine…
Rodriguez: What I like about New York Magazine, it fits more into my idea of what a magazine cover should be — which is a poster. It should be something that makes you become active, or think.
What do you all see as the role or purpose of the magazine cover in our current times?
Alberty: Instagram and social media seem to be really crucial now that a cover is like a brand extension as much as something that can be on newsstand. I feel like more people see covers on Instagram than they do in real life.
Quon: Also, we’re journalists at heart, right? We have an opportunity to spark a conversation. That’s really quite a privilege. And so when we’re thinking about our covers, it’s like an image alone has to carry so much weight. It has to be idea driven, and that has to work so succinctly with language. I mean, the rounds that we go through on figuring out the right language that goes with X image, or figuring out the right art that will go with the right language… they both are so crucial together, and I think if you can put a cover out there that will spark that conversation, that will move an idea forward, that’s the holy grail every time.
We don’t necessarily achieve that, but I will say, for instance, Edel, your covers for TIME were iconic. Those were probably the iconic Trump covers, and that’s pretty major. That’s like a moment in time.
Rodriguez: The thing that I noticed also, is people would actually take the magazines and hold them up at protests and things. So it changed the magazine from just being a magazine.
Biemans: Is a cover more like protesting now, or like social engagement than it used to be?
Rodriguez: Well, I think because of the whole social media thing, people take these covers and they put them as their icon or their profile picture, or they say, “Look what I’m reading.” So, social media has changed it from a thing at the newsstand that you look at from far away, to, “I’m owning this, look at this. This is what I stand for.” And the other thing that goes with that, is covers have become much more about image, at least to me. I’ve had covers that just ran as an image, with maybe a tiny little caption, because the internet is international; we have people that speak multiple languages sharing the same images, so my covers went from Brazil to Japan to Egypt. For an image to do that, you can’t have half a paragraph, or three sentences with a subhead — the typical kind of a cover. An international kind of image is generally nowadays what reverberates all over the media.
When did you all start noticing the phenomenon of covers being so prominent on social media?
Rodriguez: I would say 2014 or so was the first time for me that I noticed something like that.
I did one for Newsweek that was on harassment of women. That got on the “Today” show and was controversial.
I’m curious, from the art director side of things, has the phenomenon of these covers appearing on social media so prominently changed how you approach cover design at all?
Quon: I don’t think so. I feel like our [editorial] conversations are still the same. I’m pretty confident in that.
Biemans: Me neither.
If it did, then you couldn’t do any typographical covers anymore. Nobody likes those online [laughter]. I like them, but they don’t get as much [engagement] as other covers. New York Magazine had a typographical one a few weeks ago about abortion. I think it was the best cover ever, because of the moment in time.
Rodriguez: I think the question of whether it’s on a physical cover, or online or social media is the same — it’s something that reads in one, two seconds, and you get it. You understand it, it grabs you. I think if it takes any time beyond that, it becomes a bit too complex. So it’s this bold statement; it’s what George Lois from Esquire was doing in the 1960s, with the Muhammad Ali cover, the Campbell’s Soup cover. It’s just a pop culture image — “Bam.” You don’t need an explanation.
Alberty: And I think catching the right moment is a big part of it, too. That’s just luck… It’s like catching a wave: It’s the timing of the news coverage, the voice of whatever the point of view of the magazine cover is — the attitude and how it gets its particular take on a story — and what’s happening in the culture. It’s one of those things that’s so obvious, but it’s so random at the same time. I think it’s the weird alchemy of the universe, and then it happens to be the right words, the right image, the right moment.
Rodriguez: If you come in with something that was a big deal two weeks ago, nobody cares. The timing is even more important than the image. My work is, I’m watching Twitter and all these conversations, and I’m like, “I’ve got to say something about this.” And that’s actually what happened with me — I was putting stuff on my feeds, because I had felt like even a weekly magazine was too slow for what was going on. So I would put something up, and then Der Spiegel would grab it from my Twitter feed, and say, “Can we publish this?”
From a production standpoint, how have turnaround times and deadlines shifted with the perpetually spinning news cycle?
Quon: We’re much quicker now. I mean, the internet speeds everything up, there are no shipments, the world is your oyster. The world has become very small; you could be working with somebody in Germany, in China, in Japan, and you can still make your deadlines with great ease.
Rodriguez: And magazines have their own Twitter feeds, so they put the cover up before the magazine comes out. Der Spiegel doesn’t come out in print till Monday or Tuesday, but they put one of my covers up on Friday, and by Saturday morning people have printed out the cover and are holding it up at protests. There’s a whole industry of stuff happening before the actual magazine even comes out. So, I think social media has definitely changed a lot of things; it made me realize that I could harness social media and use it to get in the face of Tom Alberty and Jody Quon with ideas [laughter], and be like, “Look what I’m doing!” And then it helps influence what they might pick up, whereas before, maybe they wouldn’t have seen that.
Quon: You think also of The New York Times Magazine; they close their issue a whole week-and-a-half earlier than when it actually comes with your paper. And for a little while now they’ve been putting up their covers and cover stories early so that they can keep up with the pace of the news cycle.
I recall closing an issue the Friday following 9/11, and Adam Moss, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, made the decision to put the cover and all the contents up a full week and a day early. It was a huge decision and he had to move many mountains to do this, but he was like, “This content can’t wait.”
I remember at the time, we had to work a little differently to make sure that it could all get up online, but now that happens with such ease.
Is it ever emotionally taxing to be creating covers in the contemporary news cycle with pandemics, mass shootings, inept politicians, and all things beyond?
Quon: With the election and abortion, yes, I would say absolutely.
Rodriguez: School shootings are the ones that I’ve had the hardest time doing anything on. It’s just so disgusting, and I can’t even get emotionally into it. It’s just like you’re numb. I’ve got two kids, and I don’t even know how to talk to them about it. Trump, or these right-wing Republican politicians, they’re easy [to respond to in a piece of work], because you’re so angry, and you can really get into it. But when you have a topic that is just sad, you don’t feel like you can really comment on it…
Quon: But sad tragedies, those are all very opportunistic moments for us as journalists, right? That’s when actually you have a chance to make a cover that will resonate with people. And I also find those are also the moments when you can actually get all kinds of artists and illustrators and photographers to want to engage. And also, to drop everything and want to engage. While it’s emotionally taxing, the adrenaline is also such that you have an opportunity to speak to the people when they want to be spoken to.
With your covers appearing at protests and things like that, I have to imagine that in some way, it’s also empowering to be creating this art — a way to be proactive and have an opportunity to do something that could help people, or at least validate others?
Rodriguez: Yeah. I just feel like, I don’t know, I did a thing with WeTransfer on gun control, I’ve done I don’t know how many different things [on the subject], and at some point you just go, “Wow, it’s really not freaking doing anything. At all.” I don’t know what other images I can make to say, “Don’t shoot little kids.”
What makes for the most memorable or effective cover, based on either experience or observation?
Rodriguez: I think for me, it’s probably mischief — that thing that’s inappropriate, and you know people are going to be a little offended. Your mom might unfriend you on Facebook — which my mom has [laughter].
Quon: Shock is important.
Rodriguez: Shock, but not shock for shock’s sake, but sort of like mischief — you know people are thinking that, or want to say that, but they don’t want to because it’s inappropriate or whatever. That sort of inappropriateness. And also the other one is taking something that is recognizable already by the public, and doing a twist on it or changing it. So, Muhammad Ali with the arrows, that image comes from art history. The Campbell’s Soup, which everyone recognized. So that recognition, but just twisting it, is another key for a successful cover sometimes.
Biemans: I’m working on a list of the top 100 best covers ever made, chosen by designers. And the most voted ones are the ones with a scandal, or with a war, or with a president like Trump. It’s like the New York Magazine Bill Cosby cover. Off the top of my head, that’s in the top five, I think. Edel’s work with Trump is also in the top 10. I have this statement: A good cover is one that you want to lick, or that punches you in the face. But also it has to have a social thing behind it happening, a scandal.
Rodriguez: Also, the whole team has to be in on it. There were times where I thought, This is too much, I can’t do this. And I’d talk to my editor at Der Spiegel, or TIME, and they’d say, “Let me see it.” And then I’d show it to them, and they’re like, “That’s amazing. Let’s do it.”
You get a little bit more energy when you’re working together, rather than just on your own. Because at the end of the day, the magazines are the ones that have to go on television and defend this stuff.
Speaking of your list, Jaap, I’m curious — from the trends that you’ve seen over the past five to 10 years, do they give any indication about where you think cover design is headed?
Biemans: Well, I see more social engagements. But I don’t know if that’s true, because in the ’60s — we mentioned the Lois covers — they were also about social engagement. And the thing is, we are talking about 5% of the magazines on the newstands. The rest are all the same: fashion, dull stuff like everybody has been doing for 50 years. So we’re talking about 5% of the whole pile that is interesting.
I remember the ones Edel did for Der Spiegel. I couldn’t imagine a magazine running covers like that. I could not. The president as a beheaded Lady Liberty — I never thought I would see that on a cover. So they’re getting more extreme.
Quon: I have a question for you, Jaap. Do you feel there’s a difference in approach to covers between European, vis a vis American magazines? You’re mentioning Der Spiegel. I’m not sure that a cover like that would fly in America. Do you think that Europeans take more chances, or are more graphic?
Biemans: Well, Der Spiegel is taking more chances. I don’t know if you can say that about all of Europe. With The New Yorker, they also had Trump as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Who would’ve thought that you could picture the president of the United States as a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Ten years ago, you could not imagine that, right? But it happened.
Rodriguez: It’s just audience, I think. For example, TIME magazine has to know that their magazine is probably going to go to Oklahoma, or Nebraska somewhere, sit on someone’s coffee table, so that’s a thought: “What are we going to put on this magazine cover that’s going to go out to the Midwest?” Someone in Germany or France, they don’t care. They don’t have to. They’re not going to lose any subscribers. I’m actually shocked that TIME magazine published a lot of my covers, because of that.
Speaking of Trump, I’ve wondered if there was any correlation between the way he changed the presidency, and the way magazine covers have changed or adapted.
Quon: …I remember the week that Trump won the election, and we were putting out our next cover and we were all quite perplexed about how to handle that cover.
We had various sketches that Tom had laid out on the counter and we were discussing them, and I remember one of the editors was just saying something a little cheap about Trump, or saying something a bit crude about Trump. And then Adam Moss said, “We can’t talk about our president that way. He’s our president, whether we like it or not.” He wanted to be respectful of the president, even though he didn’t agree with that vote. But that all changed, of course, once Trump became president. And so the conversations changed radically about how to address this heinous man.
Rodriguez: I worked at TIME magazine for 13 years, so I was at all these meetings where we have to show this side and we have to talk about the other side, and bring in a quote from this angle… so you’re normalizing horrible behavior sometimes. We would do a George Bush cover, and the George Bush cover would be him at the presidential desk, and meanwhile, he’s attacking Iraq and all this stuff. But cover after cover, that normalized George Bush as a normal guy.
My thinking was, “No, we can’t do that with Trump.” There are some things that are just not negotiable, and he was non-negotiable. Abortion rights are non-negotiable. The killing of children in schools, it’s just not negotiable. There’s no other side.
That’s why magazines have become a bit more political or more with a point of view — they have to confront these things. We saw what happened with Trump when you say, “Well, they have a point of view and we have a point of view, let’s just show both sides.” I think it’s a horrible way to do things, I’m sorry. And I’m not a crazy left-wing person — I was born in Cuba, I left communism, I’m not a communist, I’m not a socialist, so I am in this middle ground, but there are some things that you just can’t equate and be neutral about.
How do you all see covers changing in the future?
Biemans: Well personally, I adore all the bold statements of magazines that want to reflect their voice. I adore that. And not choosing the easy way, so I hope I see that more.
Quon: Some of us were saying earlier that there’s really just a tiny handful of magazines that are making interesting covers. That’s a sign of the time, so dial this back 10 years — there were more. And 20 years ago, there were many more than that. So I just hope that the five that are out there now do not dwindle to any fewer, and that they do not have to succumb to advertising restraints, and start having to do celebrity covers. Which, as we all know, you can’t even do a great celebrity cover anymore. You cannot photograph somebody in an interesting way anymore, because the publicists that are all attached to these celebrities, who have no idea what a great image is, they’re just trying to control things to the nth degree, and you have no flexibility.
Biemans: That’s happening to you guys? No.
Quon: Absolutely. It’s horrible. That’s why, thank goodness, we don’t do so many of them.
Alberty: …I think we are witnessing the decline of America, and rights and freedoms are at stake. So I hope that we’re able to still do this the way the country’s going, and with all these fucking lunatics and right-wing yahoos that don’’ want criticism, that don’t want critical thinking, or whatever it is we do whenever we put stuff out there to the culture to keep conversations going.
In many ways, given the times that we’re living through, a lot of these covers that you all are working on will become historical documents. How aware of that, if at all, are you as you’re working?
Rodriguez: I’m aware of it.
Rodriguez: I actually do them for that. [Laughter.] I know that when evil happens, someone has to document it, so that’s what I wanted to do.
Does that make the creation process any more difficult?
Rodriguez: No, it’s just like the idea that you have to mark time and you have to keep a record of these things, even if it’s just a daily record. I had people email me all the time saying, “Oh my God, thanks for doing this. I thought I was imagining things. I thought it was just me and I saw your cover.” You’re just showing truth. Covers are truth. You’re putting it out there, and people have to confront it.
Biemans: You’re on a mission.
Rodriguez: Yes! I don’t want a cover to be decorative. I don’t look at decorative covers. It’s just not my thing. I want something that’s going to engage me. And that’s what I want to make.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.