11 April 2014

…a knockout cover story

Newsstand with a knockout Esquire cover
Times change but often simple truths remain. George Lois, that controversial copywriting art director raconteur creative magpie powerhouse of Manhattan's ad land enclave Madison Avenue - and on whom Mad Men's Donald Draper is supposedly based - was interviewed for the excellent 101 Episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. The topic of discussion was the fine art (or science) of magazine cover design. Nowadays we have rules based upon insight and metrics and eye tracking and user testing to help better understand consumer behaviour, in turn driving the decisions made about the design of covers which grab the attention of dawdling consumers loitering around newsstands like freshly shorn sheep standing stunned in a spring mist. Lois didn't have all this. What he did have, however, was an innate ability to understand consumer behaviour coupled with a third eye for impact.

Amid the gelatinous modern noise of physical magazine covers undulating before us at the train station, the corner shop and the supermarket, there's the unmistakable sound of a million digital devices being stroked and ogled in unison as the latest in digital written content is covetously absorbed.

The magazine is DEAD.

Or if it's not quite dead, it's DYING.

Or if it's not quite dying, the sun's setting and the vampires are waking up and brushing their teeth in their caves.

Their CAVES.

Or that's what we're lead to believe; that behaviour has been disrupted to such an extent that Eve can't put back the healthy bite she took from her Apple, Kindle or preferred digital device.

In the interview, Lois is adamant that "when you look at a magazine from twenty feet away it should knock you on your ass" which, given the rules to how a successful cover should work in 2014 (George Clooney looking you in the eye, a litany of blurbs, 100% yellow type, digital delivery) his rationale, you'd think, may not be so applicable. Even on the podcast they chose to fade out Lois mid-flow, editorially framing his opinion as the heated rant of an old guy out of sync with the zeitgeist. Love him or hate him - a bit harsh.

So on a trip to the supermarket I was pleased to feel a small pang of vindication for old George when across the lobby, betwixt the haranguing noise of ambient consumerism and the jostle of publications on the newsstand, Starburst Magazine popped out from twenty feet and pulled me over - simply by placing a big bold illustration of Kermit the Frog on the cover. However, for the record, I didn't fall over.

Starburst magazine pops on the newsstand

It could be argued that without those very same cover design rules which make one magazine blur into another, this particular edition of Starburst may not necessarily have stood out. But it did. So there you go. Times change but often simple truths remain. Whoever created it understands the same rules of creative design for which George Lois argued his case - and a very significant case it still is.