On “Legendary Magazine Covers Get Their Own Spread”

CNN staff. (2008). “Legendary magazine covers get their own spread.” CNN. Retrieved on April 27, 2008. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/books/04/25/esquire.coverart.ap/index.html

CNN publishes a eulogy of George Lois as his work for the Esquire magazine is going to be exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Reviewing some of the magazine covers, the journalist highlights what made the designer’s shots iconic. In this respect, two main arguments come up.

First, the journalist lays an emphasis on the power of the images. Describing Muhammad Ali posing as Saint Sebastian, he shows to what degree it stroke people’s memory. In fact, in Lois’ point of view, the photograph has to make a powerful statement to push the viewer to look at the article inside. Not only did he succeed in doing that but he also stroke people’s memory to such an extent that they still remember where they first saw this cover at the time. His photographs gave polemical statements on political, cultural but also social issues and triggered heavy debate in the society. They became iconic through their simplicity of evocation and their ability to instill a tinge of provocation about contemporary issues. The Vietnam covers are telltale when it comes to affecting the people. Lt. William Calley (the man responsible for ordering and participating in the murder of hundreds of women and children at My Lai), is pictured smiling in uniform surrounded by four Vietnamese children. Such images used shock to trigger reaction and sales.

Secondly, his work is depicted as an artistic achievement as it is put in exhibit at the MoMA. Such advertising is evoked in a nostalgic fashion. George Lois did try to instill this sense of provocation in the advertising when he had his own agency but he failed in doing so as advertising evolved. However, having it in an exhibit is establishing Lois’ work on another level as a masterpiece and a landmark not only in advertising but also in art. Whether one agrees with what is said in the article or not, it is obvious that the journalist did a great PR job!

Conceptual design

When it comes to interface, shock is a common way of increasing sales. The main goal of a magazine cover has always been to sell the magazine better by appealing to the reader in many varied ways. George Lois built a whole new definition of magazine covers at the time. He used the wave of provocation and protest in advertising. It was about simplicity and provocation. He distinguished himself from the competition by bringing in new elements. There may have been a symbiotic relation between the designer and his editor corroborated by an absence of tricks and erroneous effects (or so it seems) – as the journalist pointed out – but the expectations of the market considering magazines and covers are changing. Today, people do not expect a polemical photograph as much as they want written information. Looking at fashion magazines such as Vogue or even music magazines such as Rolling Stones, the emphasis has been put on the importance of words. The photography reveals a polemical statement through a persona and the polemic rises in the words. Photographs are not any more worth a thousand words. More than shock the photographer focuses on appealing not to say pleasing the reader even when it is controversial.

Interaction Design

On the interaction, shock has always worked to awaken people’s curiosity. As Stendhal (a French 19th century author said it at the time) seduction comes of surprise and shattering of emotions and expectations. However, expectations from shock have changed. The viewer of the cover wants to identify with the photograph. It is not as much about making a polemical statement as it is about making feel to the viewer that this statement can be from him. In this respect the way people relate to controversial images is evolving when it comes to magazine covers. Love fashion magazine, for instance, had a cover with nude Beth Ditto and a hand written list of “icons of our generation” the first being Beth herself. NME, Rolling Stone, Attitude, all did the same thing. Lady Gaga appeared naked on Rolling Stone magazine cover. The point is that shocking has become part of the western culture when it comes to magazines.

Today, Vogue magazine even makes colonialism and slavery fashionable and chic after the trend of porno chic. Such a thing is possible because people relate to photography as a work of art with the rise of exhibitions of several magazine covers or the rising of photography magazine promoting avant-garde fashion photographers for example. People do not look at magazine covers the same way as before. And to respond to the evolution of society’s expectations, Esquire managed to find a middle ground between their sense of provocative simplicity of evocation and people’s need to find written information on the cover.

Interface design

Talking about interface, it is hard to appeal to every person especially when choosing to shock. Esquire magazine managed to appeal to their audience in a clever way. They clearly claim themselves as being a magazine for affluent and successful men. Their messages are targeted to this particular audience. Therefore, when using polemical statements on the cover at the time and distinguishing themselves from all other magazine covers they created a cunning sense of exclusivity and microcosm which awakened people’s curiosity.

Today, they fuel this sense of exclusivity by keeping a tinge of calculated provocation and respond to the need of information by a cleverly calculated balance. When looking at their covers today, it appears clearly that the image is still more prominent and the written is in lighter color and adapts itself to the image which is superimposed on the text. Therefore, it is not about regretting a time of iconic cover making. Society evolves and so do covers. Esquire is a relevant example of that. They found a way to adapt their covers to the market.

The notion of celebrating magazine covers as work of art is also interesting in this respect. This article reminded me of two exhibitions: one of the Vogue magazine covers at the bottom of the Champs-Elysees in November 2009 where all the covers since today were displayed; the second one was showcasing the work of several music magazine photographers in the Colette shop in Paris during April 2010, both showing the evolution of the art of cover making. To me, this has an impact on how people see the magazine covers in general. Attention is less on the magazine than on the cover itself. It pushes advertisers to find new ways to appeal to the viewer and makes it harder to catch his/her eye. In fact, what was shocking in the 1960’s or1970s is not anymore seen as such today. Let’s take the example of the October 1971 cover of Playboy that showed Darine Stern naked on a Playboy chair. She was the first Afro-American woman on the cover of the magazine. Such a thing does not shock anymore. However, themes such as colonization – which did not shock at the time – are still shocking today. Vogue magazine ventured into making photo-shoots around the theme of slavery and colonization in France. This created a shock in the readership and increased the sales of the magazine. Before looking at how to shock it is important to find what would shock people. In this respect, George Lois did great at his time. He is to be admired for his work and how he managed to get people’s attention wittily tackling contemporary subject matters. Seduction still comes of surprise. But it’s effects have to remain under control: either by a niche targeting or by a strong sense of identification with the viewer.