February 4, 1985 and September 15, 1997 Covers. Courtesy People Magazine.

This story was originally published in 2018 in the “Gossip” issue of Eye on Design magazine.

 

I’m watching shimmery pools of nail polish and smudges of eye shadow spin around a page like constellations circling a celestial object; in this case, it’s the bright, shining star, Emma Stone, who’s endorsing one of these products as among the season’s “20 Best Beauty Products.” There are artfully-cracked cakes of concealer, spurts of CC cream, and swipes of mascara all moving as if in a dance, choreographed by the cursor of one of the five art directors who work at People magazine. After consulting several mast heads for the weekly issues, the franchise issues, the special issues, the book-a-zines, and the digital properties, five is just my best guess. But depending on who you ask, the answer to a question as seemingly benign as, How big is the design department?, could be 10, or 16, or more than 36, if you count photo, digital, and video. Or the answer might be “Not nearly big enough,” or “I have no idea. See all these desks? I don’t know what department this even is.”

People is big. With one of the largest magazine readership in America, People has gamely laid the table for our insatiable appetite for the lives of others ever since it was founded in 1974. It’s a seductive, if not always stylish spread, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and to be devoured as quickly as our fingers can flick the pages. The layouts invite us to tuck in and take a bite without feeling too guilty about what we’re consuming. Advertisers are eating it up, too—annual ad revenues regularly top a billion dollars. At a time when print advertising is supposed to be dying a slow, silent death, how do they pull this off?

People is also the country’s oldest celebrity entertainment magazine, so it’s had a few decades to establish itself in the hearts and homes of its devoted readers. As someone who’s previously only thumbed through it at the nail salon (and only if it was the last thing on the rack, and only if no one was looking), People has never been in either my heart or my home. I lumped it in with the other happy, shiny covers at the supermarket checkout; the ones full of low-grade celebrity photos and exclamation points at the end of every headline. In the past few weeks, however, I’ve easily spent more time with the magazine than I have in my whole life combined. I have also gone to meet the people of People to observe them in their natural habitat, and I’ve discovered that I was wrong, that we were all wrong, and that there is a very clear reason why they are the biggest and the best-selling business in the print media game. I figured out how they do it, and I’m going to tell you, but you won’t like the answer: standards. Ethical standards. Moral standards. And yes, design standards.

I will soon learn that Ms. Stone’s immaculate complexion has not, in fact, been photoshopped, that neither her hair nor lip color will be altered in any way (a practice that’s more common than you might think) before this “20 Best” beauty page lands in the mailboxes of the magazine’s 3.5 million subscribers and reaches its total, worldwide, digital, social, and IRL audience of over 90. Million. People.

With great circulation comes great responsibility, and despite what its rainbow-bright color palette and excessive punctuation might imply, People takes that responsibility seriously. It doesn’t alter its photos. It doesn’t change the background or add fake ones. It doesn’t crop out bodies, rearrange them, or move them closer together to suggest relationships that don’t actually exist. It doesn’t slim anyone’s figure or remove anyone’s wrinkles. It’s very protective of children’s right to privacy, and it absolutely does not stand for stalkerazzi. Some readers are actually disappointed by how respectful People is. When other magazines go low—printing sensational rumors, half-truths, and outright lies—People sticks to the facts. Which makes designing it all the more challenging: How do you make facts go down like candy that tastes just as sweet to your retired grandpa, your single-and-lovin’-it gal pal, your working mom, your stay-at-home dad, and your celeb-obsessed 6th grader?

As the art director puts the finishing touches on the beauty page, I watch an assistant scurry over to alert us that executive creative director Andrea Dunham will see us now. This is the meeting I’ve been trying to nail down for weeks. Staffers have been skirting around me all morning trying to extract a few minutes from her schedule; they are consulting their calendars and whispering behind low cubicle walls, and though no one says anything outright, I get the sense that I should be feeling lucky indeed to get any face time at all with this very busy woman.

With great circulation comes great responsibility.

It seems that in pursuing this interview, I have made an odd request. For a magazine that says so much about the world, the world hasn’t had much to say about People. It’s said even less about its design, and less still about its designers. There are no “famous” art directors or design tastemakers on the masthead—for instance, ones with personal Instagram accounts just as popular as the brand’s own. I start to wonder if this isn’t symptomatic of an internal power struggle. At the lively morning pitch meetings, the editors banter like old college pals while the design team sits quietly taking notes. There is one designer, however, who has a seat at the table, and that’s Dunham.

The table where she’s seated at the big Wednesday morning pitch meeting is one of those comically long ones that exist only in the movies or in the boardrooms of banks or hedge funds or magazines owned by Time Inc. and Meredith, People’s parent company. Dunham seems extremely at ease there. She is one of those effortlessly chic women for whom I’ve been trying to think of a more clever nickname than “silver fox.” Her sleek, steel-gray mane cascades over louche layers of black (Mary Kate and Ashley, eat your hearts out), and I’m wondering if I’ll be stepping over some invisible line if I ask her where she got her buttery soft leather flats.

The roughly three dozen staffers who gather at this mega-pitch meeting look like an advertisement for diversity & inclusion in the workplace; every age, race, and gender seems to be equally represented. They laugh and joke as the meeting kicks off with a slideshow of their fave celeb pics of the week. The first photo is of two British royals eating cake, and someone notes how sweet they look; it’s so nice to see them getting along after their recent public spat. Then there is a picture of Angela Bassett celebrating her 60th birthday at the beach, looking bangin’ in a bikini. Someone admires her abs. Someone calls her their hero. Someone wonders just how she does it.

If you’re noticing a lack of negativity—and a lack of speculation about who’s doing what with whom behind who’s back—that’s because this is not a gossip magazine. It’s too true and too fact checked to be hearsay. This is People, people—a celebrity entertainment magazine where nice news is good news and actual reporting is the rule. The information they print often comes directly from the mouths of celebrities themselves, not “anonymous trusted sources.” When Hollywood picks up the phone, People is on the other end of the “party line,” congratulating them on their recent wedding, their new baby, their weight loss, their recovery, their three months sober. It’s a step above tacky tabloids, and a few steps below other weekly titles like New York Magazine—which turns out to be a very good place to be, indeed.

It’s honest-to-goodness kindness, not catiness, that gets People the direct celebrity access for which its known. They get exclusives. Actors, musicians, chefs, politicians, and reality TV contestants trust them, actually want to talk to them, because they know they’ll be handled with kid gloves. The exclusives may sometimes be puffy, like when a past U.S. president was asked about his “favorite family traditions” and what he puts in his girls’ Christmas stockings, but at a time when a major tabloid publisher is a key source for a federal investigation against the current commander-in-chief, it’s somehow comforting to know that there’s at least one mass market magazine that doesn’t have to skirt journalistic standards to chase sales.

The celebrity exclusives extend to photos, too. At one point in the meeting, during a discussion about what imagery will be used for a celebrity news story, a low-res, low-quality photo is projected on-screen, and a few editors get excited. It’s a candid shot of two stars that looks like it was taken in a rush. I can’t understand why anyone with eyes on their face would get so excited about a shitty iPhone photo, but I’ve apparently missed the whole point. This “shittiness” means the photo wasn’t art directed and staged and then disseminated by the celebrity couple’s PR to every media outlet, rendering it a nonexclusive, and therefore nearly worthless. It means it was passed along to People by an insider, and that People alone will get to run it.

I wonder how the design team is taking this. They’re the ones who’ll have to set this image in layout later today and make it look good. Or at least as good as they possibly can. They don’t betray much in the boardroom, but they’ll soon be opening up to me about things like shitty photos and shitty type and constricting page layouts.

There’s a hushed reverence when I finally file into Dunham’s office along with a handful of people from the design and photo teams she runs. The office is small and warmly lit, and I see immediately that I was wrong to be put off by the protective PR bubble that’s been built up around her. She is open, direct, well-spoken, and surprisingly funny—and a pro, who, like everyone she manages, arrived at People with design experience at massive pubs like New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Women’s Health.

I’m told that this gathering, which includes deputy design director Dean Markadakis, design director Phoebe Weekes, and deputy art director Elliot Stokes, is unusual. Not that they don’t all work together on a daily basis, but crowding around the boss’ desk and calmly, methodically discussing design—that just doesn’t happen. With the unforgiving pace of producing a weekly magazine, I get the sense that page approvals happen on-the-fly, desk-side. Which is not to say that this is a messy, unstructured operation—just the opposite. The People design process runs like a fast-moving, expertly-oiled machine. As such, their design choices are often based on practicality and efficiency over cleverness or beauty.

“Phoebe’s famous line is that we can never have anything nice.” Dunham laughs. She is kidding but also not kidding. “I do wish we had more flexibility with the covers,” says Weekes. “There are so many things you could do with them to make them more beautiful.” She’s referring to the template, which, rigid as it may be, has relaxed under the direction of Dunham, who’s more attuned to modern standards of editorial design. At the end of the day, however, the stories reign supreme, and it’s the editors who run the stories.

“Our editorial director is very good at saying, ‘Okay, if there’s too much stuff, then take it off,’” Weekes admits. “And we’ve had some big, beautiful covers, but mostly there’s just a lot of stuff on them. I find that hard. Sometimes you just want to do something that’s pretty.”

While Dunham is quick to clarify that the editors know good design when they see it, their primary concern is with readership, which is getting older and busier (40% of their readers are working women, and 40%—men and women—are raising children). That means anything “pretty” takes a backseat to clear, simple type and practical layouts. “Sometimes we fight back because we want a particular image that’s more beautiful, or we want a typographic treatment that’s a little more special, and we have to battle that,” says Dunham. Working at People, you have to know when to pick your battles. “From week to week you suffer the indignity of designing something you really like, and then an editor saying, ‘I don’t like that fancy type,’ which is anything that they find illegible in any way.”

“Or, ‘My daughter doesn’t like the color yellow,’ so we should never use it,” says Weekes.

“For the daily pages, they just want us to be intelligent storytellers,” Dunham concedes. “And we’re all journalists—that’s what sets us apart from the design and photo teams at any other place I’ve ever worked. It’s that investment we feel in telling the story. We have to get it right.” Not just right, but fast and flexible, with the ability to compress a story (if more ad pages are bought), or expand it (if an ad falls through), or turn it into a cover feature at the very last minute. “This team is very good at putting those puzzle pieces together,” she says. “This is a news magazine, and it functions like a daily. We’re constantly reorganizing and reworking the lineup.”

Weekes recalls the moment in 2014 when Robin Williams died. “We found out about it very late on a closed night and everybody stayed till 4:00 a.m. and redid an entire issue overnight. And that’s not unusual.” When Prince died in 2016, they pushed out a 138-page special issue with no ads, in just three-and-a-half days. A designer at the time reportedly commented, “I’ve never worked anywhere where I’ve seen people work this quickly and efficiently.”

Dunham pauses to recall the 2012 year-end issue, one of the most popular franchise issues, which requires a huge time investment from the entire team starting about six months out. “It was the day before we were about to ship,” she says. “We had Sandra Bullock on the cover, and then the Sandy Hook shooting happened. We were here in the office watching all those children dying in real time, and calling in photographs of them. My job was to put together a cover that represented all of the deaths, and we had to do that amidst tears and exhaustion and frustration. It was a brutal night, but we put together a beautiful tribute to the loss of all those children and teachers.”

Originally, breaking news didn’t make the cover of People without a celebrity connection, but that changed in 1979 when the nuclear near-calamity of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was too big not to talk about. It was swapped in as the cover story just before the issue went to print. “I always believed the heart of People was ordinary people going through extraordinary things, not vice versa,” said Jim Gaines, the assistant managing editor at the time. Local and international crime and human interest news stories are now a staple. Some readers have admitted to skipping over those sections; they tune into People to tune out, not to be “reminded of current events.” Still, the mix of local acts of kindness, national news coverage, and celebrity interest is the billion-dollar recipe that’s resonating with too many readers to tinker with.

Designing for an audience that puts equal weight on the breaking news of celebrity breakups, celebrity deaths, and school shootings is its own challenge. The added time constraints creates a pressure-cooker environment that does breed some innovative design solutions, but it also makes more significant design updates near impossible. Sections are updated incrementally, in fits and starts. Bigger, more visible changes don’t see the light of day without significant market testing.

The logo, which was designed by one of the magazine’s early design directors, Elton Robinson, has undergone only minor changes since it was first created in 1974. But after four years into her role, Dunham grew tired of “the tyranny of the strip,” the block of cover lines running down the left rail of the cover as dictated by the logo lockup. “Then one day,” she recalls, “I made it across the page and I was like, ‘Why don’t we do it large?’ And they resisted and resisted.” Until the market test results proved her right.

“Do we want to be more experimental, or do we want to work for the most successful magazine in the world?”

For the past six months, she and Weekes have undertaken a rigorous postmortem of every issue. “We’ve been working very hard on trying to bring the magazine into a more modern era. But we just don’t have the luxury to stop and take a deep breath and spend a few months doing a redesign.” From week to week, they’re just trying to get the magazine out the door. There are benefits to that. “If you don’t like something you’ve done, you have no time to grieve over it,” says Markadakis. “They’re reading it on the toilet,” nods Dunham. “So you just move on. You plug away, you have a thick skin.”

“You have to compromise a lot,” says Weekes, “but you’re never bored. You’re always challenged. Your skills skyrocket. Designing for a monthly magazine has a certain prestige, but you don’t understand how hard it is to work at a weekly—and then how fulfilling that becomes. I don’t know if I could ever go back to a monthly.”

“I came from a monthly magazine,” says Markadakis, who was the creative director of Fast Company for almost eight years. “The purpose of every feature that we designed was to win a design award, so you’re constantly pushing yourself. When I came here, it’s not that that drive went away, but I realized that the stories we’re doing here affect people. Readers really, really, really have a connection to this magazine.”

I can’t help but wonder what they’d change if they didn’t have the feedback of editors and publishers and readers to contend with, or if they had a little more time to work through some of their design ideas. What would a “more modern” People look like? As soon as I ask, their defenses drop and they reply eagerly.

“Less Kennedys!”

“More Kennedys!”

“Better paper, it’s too gray!”

“More space to run the photos bigger!”

“More white space—period.”

“And if the paper was better, it really would be white!”

“More pages for photojournalism stories!”

“Let’s get the type off the photos.”

“Less buttons!”

Buttons? Dunham clarifies: “It’s about real estate. I feel like we’re forced to share the real estate with the photography in ways that compromise the integrity of the shot,” she says. “We have to get a hed, a dek, a button, the beginning of the story, an exclusive, a this, a that, and by that time you’ve covered three-quarters of the fucking image, and you’re like really? Some real estate would be lovely.” She pauses, laughing, “So, if you can take all those notes and bring them to Meredith, that’d be great.”

Apparently, it’s not something they can bring up themselves. Don’t they ever feel like working someplace where they can make basic design requests, ones that might ultimately improve the quality and the storytelling? Don’t they ever want to do anything more expressive, or dare I say it, more experimental?

“Do we want to be more experimental, or do we want to work for the most successful magazine in the world?” Markadakis fires back.

“I think we all want to be paid,” says Dunham. “Not just be paid, but also have the most influence and the most reach.”

90 million is, indeed, a lot of reach. It’s a lot of buttons and bright fonts and compromises. It’s a lot of creative energy, too; it’s palpable. There’s an excitement in the room generated just by talking about ideas for the next issue. Our photographer who shot this article left wanting to know how he could get a job there.

People does seem like a good place to work. The staff is as friendly as the magazine they slave over each week. Good is relative, of course. Does more money, more staff, and more standards mean good? If that’s the winning business equation, does that also add up to good design?

Whether or not you care about celebrities, or think People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” is really the sexiest man living right now (FYI it’s Blake Shelton) is beside the point. By their own admission, the designers don’t care about everything they design. How could they? (Who can really, truly give a shit about the Kardashians?) But it’s undeniably powerful to create a magazine that everyone in the world knows and reads. Even if you don’t count yourself as a reader, trust me, you are a reader—in line at CVS, at your dentist’s office, at the hair stylist. You absorb the stories, the message, and the tone of voice immediately, don’t you? Like through osmosis. And the ability to communicate clearly and effectively—and fast—well, that’s just good design.