Celebrities killed graphic design.
September 20, 2002 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Celebrities killed graphic design. The sad and discouraging decline of magazine covers. With before and after pics. You have been warmed.
posted by magullo (50 comments total)
You have been warmed.

Thanks. It was getting a little chilly in here!
posted by tr33hggr at 11:56 AM on September 20, 2002

Ouch. At least other aspects of graphical design have improved greatly since then (newspaper design especially - witness the SF Chronicle, El Pais and, I'll be killed for this one, The USA Today).
posted by Kevs at 11:56 AM on September 20, 2002

Ohymigod, is that Justin Chair on the cover of "House and Garden"?! Check out his cushions!!

I've heard a similar lament about movie posters, many of which used to be illustrated. The handpainted poster for Phantom Menace was regarded, in some quarters, as its only redeeming quality.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 11:56 AM on September 20, 2002

- not celebrities. Marketing professionals killed graphic design.
posted by disgruntled at 11:57 AM on September 20, 2002

USA Today is noteworthy because it has a unique look. When it's to the point where you can't tell Good Housekeeping from Cosmo, it's gotten pretty bad.

And don't get me started on "O".
posted by wigu at 11:58 AM on September 20, 2002

Those dastardly marketing professionals, figuring out what people want to buy and then giving it to them...
posted by websavvy at 11:59 AM on September 20, 2002

Thi.ngs change. I changed wives, why not cover types? And The New Yorker?
posted by Postroad at 12:02 PM on September 20, 2002

it's our fault. they only design what we buy.
posted by mcsweetie at 12:04 PM on September 20, 2002

...Yes, Websavvy, but the problem comes when the marketing professionals all decide that everyone wants to buy the same thing. If their research shows that J. Random Buyer is attracted to (read: will pick up first) a magazine featuring a celebrity in the middle surrounded by a bunch of headlines, then they're going to suggest that exact design to the cover-layout people, and you end up with this exact kind of uniform sludge, regardless of the content or theme of the magazine itself.
It seems increasingly like the only magazine with original cover art is Games.
posted by wanderingmind at 12:06 PM on September 20, 2002

It is sad how homogenous magazines are, but I guess thats an outgrowth of how desperate the magazine business is -- some kind of endangered species herd instinct.

An industry in better shape might have marketing folks a little more willing to experiment, instead of advising every magazine to become Maxim.
posted by malphigian at 12:06 PM on September 20, 2002

You still see a lot of illustration on graphic design magazines, which I think shows that if the decisions were left to the designers, there'd be a lot less celebrity photography. I wouldn't mind seeing a mix of photos and illustrations on covers for variety.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:07 PM on September 20, 2002

I blame Maxim. For everything.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:08 PM on September 20, 2002

I'm also sure that the development of superior photography and printing techniques has nothing to do with the fact that Vogue can use a photo of a model (not exactly a shocking move for a, you know, fashion magazine) on their cover rather than a drawing.
posted by padraigin at 12:08 PM on September 20, 2002

I blame David Carson. For everything.
posted by luriete at 12:10 PM on September 20, 2002

I'm just disappointed the Rosie O'Donnell's magazine is no more, after December. Such fascinating reading, what a waste.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:13 PM on September 20, 2002

not "the", but "that"
posted by eyeballkid at 12:13 PM on September 20, 2002

I'm surprised they don't have rolling stone in there, that cover with the vines proclaiming 'Rock is Back' was so unappealing it actually made me cringe.
posted by bobo123 at 12:20 PM on September 20, 2002

Marketing professionals don't really know what people want to buy regardless of how much research and focus groups are conducted. In 1985, Coke introduced a new formula after conducting taste tests with over 190,000 consumers. Needles to say it was a dismal failure. I recently watched an interview on Charlie Rose with the NBC president. He said hit shows on television happen by accident and he makes his decisions based on a gut instinct and doesn't pay much attention to research. In my opinion marketing professionals are incapable of original thinking and just produce bland imitation based on a formula: putting celebrities on magazine covers. Graphic Design is about originality, creativity, presenting information in a unique and intriguing way. By the way, the Nike logo was designed for $35 by a graphic designer named Carol Donaldson. Nobody liked it when it first came out. I doubt any marketing or branding professional would know it would become one of the most recognized logos around the world. She probably had a good feeling about it though.
posted by disgruntled at 12:25 PM on September 20, 2002

re: giving people what they want:

Most and Least Wanted Paintings

posted by gwint at 12:26 PM on September 20, 2002

Indeed postroad, what about the New Yorker?

Perhaps the only publication that's kept it's priorities straight over the years, one can count on an interesting cover each week. And the content? Wonderful. Like NPR on paper.

Of course, one shouldn't read the magazine for its cover art. Still, I'm grateful that while reading the New Yorker on the train, I'm not blinding my fellow passengers with the gleaming teeth of the latest sex symbol.
posted by aladfar at 12:27 PM on September 20, 2002

Sometimes "interesting design" is a bad thing.
posted by ColdChef at 12:32 PM on September 20, 2002

FWIW, I love the covers of "The New Yorker", too. "Esquire", though, might as well be "GQ".

"Wired" used to do some good covers, but, alas...
posted by ColdChef at 12:34 PM on September 20, 2002

Of course, we don't want marketing to work, and we all don't want to admit that it works on *us*. But it's definitely working on quite a few people.

Another thing to consider is that the "look" of a magazine is something that can be tinkered with over time, to a far greater extent than the formula of a soft drink or a new television show.
posted by websavvy at 12:37 PM on September 20, 2002

Wow, great link.

You know, if a magazine were to go back to inventive cover art today, I doubt that it would be labeled "retro." It would be viewed as a nonconformist breakthrough. What goes around, comes around (one can only hope).
posted by Galvatron at 12:53 PM on September 20, 2002

I'll go a bit farther and note that graphic design has been demolished by the cheap and ready availability of stock photography. Rather than thinking in terms of blocks of color, abstract shapes, illustration or typography, 90% of graphic designers now just choose generic lifestyle-y images of the advertiser's demographic and stick a line or two in whatever typeface is acceptable at the moment. Some of the greatest advertising artwork was done as nearly-abstract illustrations; no more.
posted by argybarg at 12:58 PM on September 20, 2002

The "before" cover of Fortune would have made me leap for it on the shelves. Who wants another close-up of Bill Gates's gawky face?

Speaking of terrible magazines, though, don't forget to follow the article's link to utter failures [linked here for your convenience]. "Science couture?" Dear lord.
posted by me3dia at 1:08 PM on September 20, 2002

it's to the point where you can't tell Good Housekeeping from Cosmo

They do still put the name of the magazine on the cover, don't they?
posted by kindall at 1:13 PM on September 20, 2002

Like The New Yorker, Harper's monthly has done a pretty good job of resisting current marketing trends in its cover art. I like how they've kept the picture to a small portion of the front cover and devoted most of the space to words. It's a classy-looking magazine through and through in my humble opinion.
posted by smrtsch at 1:24 PM on September 20, 2002

It's not just the look. Check out the words. I'm halfway through this week's New Yorker and I've read an lengthy piece on how Hollywood publicists treat journalists (with copious name dropping: Quentin Tarantino and Tony Kaye are quoted), "Gutter Mouth," which deals with how the Professional Bowlers Association has taken a WWF approach (which wouldn't have been so bad had the piece gone for an elegiac or sociological approach instead of the silent endorsement of the lowest common denominator that bowling has become) and a longass article on Free Willy's Keiko. Sure, there's a W.H. Auden profile. But in each of these cases, you'd be hard-pressed to see any similarity between Wiliam Shawn's New Yorker and David Remnick's, which seems to be moving more into the gimmicky territory that everyone condemned Tina Brown for.

New Yorker contributor John Seabrook wrote a book called No Brow, which dealt with how marketing mentality has shaped our culture to the point where there is no distinction between the two. While dwelling upon some ostensible examples, his chapter on a Star Wars article illustrated how even the New Yorker was susceptible to the same kind of Joseph Campbell bullshit that Lucas handed off to Bill Moyers when he was promoting The Phantom Menace and how loath most journalists were to question it -- indeed, how willing journalists were to accept it.

If this wa a simple matter of giving the people what they want, it would be a catastrophe. But the dwindling quality of magazines goes far beyond that. Today's writers and graphic artists are willing accomplices to the murder of muckraking, meticulous probing of the issues and, in this case, graphic design.

Perhaps it's the dumbing down of content that's encouraging the downturn in design.
posted by ed at 1:26 PM on September 20, 2002

The sad and discouraging decline of magazine covers...

...mirrors the sad and discouraging decline of magazine content.

Mind you, Private Eye always has a celeb on the cover.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 1:39 PM on September 20, 2002

I think that there are still some decent magazine covers to be found out there. Other than the New Yorker, The Sun and The Utne Reader still do some pretty good covers. I also like Adbusters and I think that The Atlantic is pretty good most of the time (cover-wise). Also, while many of our old, familiar magazines may have seen some deterioration in content, I still think there are a lot of newer one filling the gap with interesting, thought-provoking articles.

Great link.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:50 PM on September 20, 2002

Adbusters does make some pretty good covers. The problem is that the entire magazine sometimes appears to be nothing but cover art. As a result most issues are less "The Journal of the Mental Environment" than "Look at the pretty angst-ridden art of the month."

Political mags right and left are more willing to use the cover to display political cartoons although in the case of The Limbaugh Letter this is more likely to have unintentional results. (For those who don't see it, The Limbaugh Letter cover features Rush in whatever drag or costume matches the issue of the week. (Rush is perhaps the worst spokesperson for conservatism in print but that is another story.))

Actually putting celebs on the cover makes sense for magazines that are anchored by the interview although Andy Warhol's Interview usually has better cover photography. Martha Stewart's Living actually was not bad because although every cover had Martha it at least matched the theme in contrast to Rosie and Oprah which just have the star with the celeberty of the issue. I don't notice when a new issue of these mags come out but I don't notice when Rolling Stone comes out either because the cover is so bland.

And while we are an the topic, what is the deal with Photo mags and B&W female nudes? Of all the photographic genres why should that get exclusive cover attention?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on September 20, 2002

if by "graphic design" you mean "illustrated magazine covers," and by "celebrities" you mean "photographs," and you also mean "a selection of the worst contemporary magazine covers killed a selection of the best classic magazine covers," then yeah, I agree with you.

if you're trying to use 9 decidedly slanted examples to make any broader statement than that, I don't.
posted by chrisege at 3:46 PM on September 20, 2002

It's about sales....it's also one of the biggest reasons why Oprah got 1/2 the financing for her own mag...she was the largest-selling cover subject for every mag that featured her for years (Diana used to have that power too--still does for People mag)

and then there are people who are poison--Leeza Gibbons and what's her name from X-files didn't sell at all for women's mags...so you tend to see the same few people on covers--i'm sure it's true for business mags too...

also, 9 times out of 10, the interviews are write-arounds (cobbled together from other interviews already published elsewhere--so you get sentences that start with, "Kelly has said that she values...")
posted by amberglow at 3:58 PM on September 20, 2002

Captive, and an audience dulled out of their heads by canned NBC maybe, but United Airlines Hemispheres magazine seems to maintain admirable level of art direction.
posted by marvin at 4:18 PM on September 20, 2002

Incidentally, Martha Stewart Living does not feature Martha on the cover--I believe it did at the beginning, but not in the several years I've been subscribing. They stick to still lifes.
posted by padraigin at 4:33 PM on September 20, 2002

to be honest, most of those art-deco, muted covers of old are pretty dull.

And some of the chicks today are pretty hot.

I realize they had limited printing capablity back then though, which is probably why they didn't run photos on the covers.

If anything photo quality printing killed the magazine cover art.
posted by delmoi at 4:49 PM on September 20, 2002

I'm so put off by celebrities that the only magazines that come to this house are Games (mentioned above) and The Big Takeover (small indie music rag). Oh, I admit to picking up The Weekly World News...but that is only so I can check on Bat boy-- I am so concerned for him!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:55 PM on September 20, 2002

Secret, invite BatBoy over and show him "57 secret spots that drive men wild!" ; >
posted by amberglow at 4:58 PM on September 20, 2002

The state of Art in general aside, some magazine covers are so visually offensive they claw at my insides like a thousand beetles hatching from their wretched eggs. Bah. Exhibit A: Time's sept 09, 2002 cover. Just thinking about it makes me shudder with disgust.
It's. so. ugly.
posted by statisticalpurposes at 5:21 PM on September 20, 2002

I, for one, welcome our new attractive celebrity women magazine cover overlords.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:31 PM on September 20, 2002

I am living proof that the newer ones are more "successful".

I looked at the sets and my eyes immediately wanted to zoom towards the interesting fleshy creature grinning at me every time.
posted by omniSprinter at 6:34 PM on September 20, 2002

It's a crying shame to see the art of cover design demoted to V.I.P. head-shots, but I also agree that it's not all bad.

While still conforming to the usual celebrity shots, Wired and ESPN Magazine generally have striking cover photos that aren't so boring. And whereas the covers of editorial magazines will often have illustrative covers, it's usually the general interest/lifestyle magazines that are often dropping the ball on creative design.
posted by Down10 at 9:09 PM on September 20, 2002

Some have suggested that magazines provide their readers with a "sense of community" and reflect key aspects of the group they hope to be identified with. The design of most magazine covers, therefore, cannot risk subtlety, so all cover elements are honed to reinforce these identifying factors. It's not surprising, then, that most covers advertise beauty, fame and success as embodied by a popular star, and it's not surprising that magazines such as Harper's and The New Yorker choose differently.

Here's an interesting article called "Semiotic Analysis of Teenage Magazine Front Covers" that addresses, among other things, one reason why so many covers seem to look alike:

(These magazines) attempt to attract their readers by placing a female character in the centre of the cover. This is a particularly interesting characteristic if we are to consider that corresponding male magazines similarly adopt central female models, either posing seductively or like the typical 'girl-next-door', on their covers. It could indeed be argued that one could successfully (and with minimal disruption) take the models from the covers of (these teen magazines) and place them on a magazine such as FHM that adheres to its own set of generic codes and conventions and encourages very different interpretations from its reader. According to Bignell, the images of beautiful women on the covers of female magazines are "iconic signs which represent the better self which every woman desires to become". The figure thus represents the self for the reader, a future image that is attainable for her if she continues reading and learning from the magazine. On a male magazine however the same figure would represent a sexual image, an object to be attained by the male reader.
posted by taz at 5:55 AM on September 21, 2002

And some of the chicks today are pretty hot.

Well, if the old wives' tales are to believed, it's only a matter of time before you won't be able to see them at all.
posted by riviera at 6:40 AM on September 21, 2002

This was sadly also noticeable in the gallery of Popular Mechanics covers discussed here some time back.
posted by rory at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2002

(The move to boring photographic covers, I mean, not the use of celebs in that case.)
posted by rory at 7:39 AM on September 21, 2002

riviera: I can see it now-- Maxim 2010--a skeleton with two plastic sacs and a cheap wig, in a bikini!
posted by amberglow at 8:34 AM on September 21, 2002

Amberglow's post is not that far off base. The scramble of the media empires for the consumer's attention and money (amidst a glut of competing options, that were, hertofore not in place in the days when magazines could experiment with graphically arty covers, etc.) will always rely on the most reliable and surefire method to guarantee interest (sales): Sex, followed by scandal and then, when all else fails: gore (wigged skeletons in bikinis). Celebrity culture is actually celebrity sexuality culture -- in that the aura of sexuality, desirability, babe-ability, hunk-ability is the base criteria with which one might enter the great pantheon of contemporary American Stardom. God forbid a talented actor, singer/songwriter or performer be anything less than gorgeous today -- as they'd no chance at a career that would be deemed successful and with any sort of longevity. And should mainstream avenues be closed to them due to bad timing, bad karma or bad talent -- there's always porn. Carina Chocano's hilarious essay on the recent American Idol fiasco describes exactly where all of the talent and flesh hawking is heading -- while on route to that 2010 Maxim cover.
posted by zenpop at 12:37 PM on September 21, 2002

I do believe that riviera was referring to this old wives' tale.
posted by MUD at 4:08 PM on September 21, 2002

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