Earlier this month, The Atlantic unveiled the cover for its December issue, titled “How to Stop a Civil War.” The cover art is simple and arresting, a single blue-and-red handprint in dripping paint against a crisp white background. Where the instantly recognizable italic wordmark of The Atlantic would normally appear across the top of the cover, there is only white space, instead replaced with a plummeting serif ‘A’ in the upper-right hand corner.
The ‘A’ as a metonym for the name of the publication is one of the many changes debuted in the newly redesigned Atlantic. The magazine’s last substantial redesign was in 2008; in the nearly 12 years since, the world of editorial design has seen the usual revolving door of trends, as well as more lasting shifts such as a renewed minimalist focus. Were The Atlantic a young publication embarking on its first ever redesign, it might have found itself torn between the influence of sans serif-heavy Swiss modernism that has characterized the past decade and the groovy, decadent typography and aesthetic that has seen a recent resurgence. Instead, The Atlantic’s design team turned to the magazine’s history for inspiration. The result is what feels like a deliberate step back from the norm of web-conscious print design, into an old-school aesthetic whose gravitas is buttressed by a print legacy of over 160 years.
“What we discovered in sifting through the trove of history at The Atlantic’s DC office in the Watergate was this immense collection of design,” says Oliver Munday, The Atlantic’s art director. “Peter [Mendelsund, creative director] said at one point that it was almost like looking at the history of American magazine design through this magazine…to consider that history and to have all of that behind you, that’s the challenge: How do you set the course from here on out, when this thing has existed for so long, and occupies this unique space in the American discourse?”
Along with the new ‘A’ logo, the year of the paper’s establishment, 1857, is now also featured on the cover. “It’s a virtue,” says Munday. “It signals so much, there are few magazines that can claim anywhere close to that kind of history, and to ignore that or conceal that at all, I think, is a mistake.” The ‘A’ was designed with the help of type designer Jeremy Mickel, who also created The Atlantic’s new custom typeface, Atlantic Condensed. In the new issue, the drama of the tall and weighty Atlantic Condensed is reserved for the features and section titles, while the front of the book uses a New Yorker-like serif typeface, and the back uses a modern serif typeface evocative of the pre-redesign aesthetic.
The December issue, much like earlier issues, features many large swaths of unbroken text. Still, there are moments in which a fair amount of white space creeps through, as the intentionally spare cover suggests. Punctuating the content throughout the issue is a series of provocative black-and-white photos— a crack marble bust of Abraham Lincoln with the face turned towards shadow, close-up shots capturing skepticism on the faces of participants in a cross-political affiliation group workshop. The Atlantic recently brought on its first director of photography, Luise Stauss, who has been tasked with elevating the role of photography in the magazine.
“For me as a photo director, redesigns are the most reinvigorating moment in the life of a publication,” says Stauss. “It’s a fantastic moment to come in as a photo director when there’s never been a photo department. It’s such a great departure for The Atlantic to commit to featuring meaningful photography.”
Stauss says she found herself returning to the core tenets of the publication while envisioning the direction photography would take at The Atlantic, focusing on its intellectual rigor and nonpartisanship. “With The Atlantic’s photography, we want to express a diversity of perspectives to support to stellar journalism that The Atlantic is already known for, and be reflective of different stories and voices of America. Photography wasn’t thought about as thoughtfully as we do now. All the magazines that I admire, it’s the conversations between text and image, it’s that tension, the juxtapositions, the text and image working together.”
Overall, the redesign serves not to catch up to modern tastes, but rather, to provide the The Atlantic’s readers with a constant visual reminder of the publication’s long and storied history, bringing the heft of legacy to each page. “Our goal was to make The Atlantic look more like what it actually was,” says Munday, “and to convey the spirit of the magazine. To do that, we needed to get closer to history, and to underline the historical weight that this magazine carries.”