Cover Story

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Female Voiceover: Ideas from magazine design that will blow his mind. The best cover ever. Finally, our guide to what readers want.

Roman: You know the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Avery Trufelman: With magazines, it’s pretty much the opposite.

Roman: That’s Avery Trufelman, she works here.

Avery: You can and you should judge a magazine by its cover.

Female Voiceover: The story behind the cover that everyone is talking about.

Avery: They want you to.

Female Voiceover: Change your cover, change your life.

Avery: The cover of the magazine is the unified identity for a whole host of ideas and authors and designers who created the eclectic array of stories and articles and materials within each issue. And somewhat are you, this identity extends to the reader as well.

Andy Cowles: Magazine covers all, very potent. So if you’re holding a copy of Vogue in the moment that you’re seen with that either by yourself or by your peers, then you are a Vogue reader.

Avery: And this is different than being a Twilight reader or a Da Vinci Code reader.

Andy: A book is a fixed moment in time whereas a magazine is a constant source of ever-changing content.

Roman: And that’s why the design of a magazine, is so challenging.

Female Voiceover: Learn how this old publication got a fresh new look.

Avery: Magazine covers are a composition of text and visuals that are designed to express a specific identity, month after month.

Roman: Or week after week.

Andy: You got the logo, you got the photograph, you got color, you got words.

Female Voiceover: The secrets of magazine design, our expert reveals all.

Avery: This is Andy.

Andy: My name is Andy Cowles. I blog at which is a blog all about covers.

Avery: He also worked in creative at Marie Claire, Rolling Stone and a whole bunch of other magazines, both in the United States and England.

Roman: So he knows a thing or two about covers.

Avery: Starting from the top, literally, because that’s where the name of the magazine always is.

Andy: When you see a magazine, the first thing you’re asking the reader to do is just to identify the brand. That’s central. If that doesn’t happen, everything else fails.

Avery: And then you’ve got to show them that this is the new issue, the one they don’t have yet.

Andy: What I think the best way to do this, is with color. The reader might think, “Oh the last one, if I recall is green. This one is blue, so clearly it’s different.”

Avery: Then, the photograph.

Andy: The photograph is the thing that creates a really powerful emotional connection with the reader. You see somebody, you see the eye contact but you recognize this celebrity. It’s a very high level of engagement.

Roman: But the photograph wasn’t always part of the equation.

Andy: The early magazine covers were essentially illustrated and so you’re looking at, you know, Norman Rockwell. You’re looking at the amazing art that was on the cover of Vogue, Harpers. You’re looking at paintings and drawings.

Avery: And he had a few examples on hand, like this one.

Andy: Man’s Action, which has a red-headed woman in a short dress and what it is, the ripped bodies tied to some sort of Indian totem pole but these are paintings.

Roman: Illustrated, like old movie posters.

Andy: These are not celebrities. These are just paintings of scenes that might appear in the ’60s man’s fantasy.

Roman: Man of the ’60s were very imaginative.

Avery: And beyond the men’s magazines, a lot of major publications actually had cartoon mascots on the cover. Some of them persist today like the Playboy Bunny, Mad Magazines, Alfred E. Neuman and the mascot of the New Yorker, the monocled Eustace Tilley.

Roman: Even U.K. Vogue had an illustrated mascot, Ms. Exeter, an elegant 50-something woman who had an advice column about being a classy, classy dame. And Esquire had Esky, a mustachioed skirt-chaser in a fedora and a lot of Esquire covers featured him until George Lois came along.

Avery: George Lois was the pioneer in the industry.

Andy: He was the guy who made magazine covers sexy.

Avery: He revolutionized the cover of Esquire using big, bold, eye-catching photographs. You’ve probably seen some of these covers or at least homages to them.

Roman: He did one of a Richard Nixon getting makeup put on him. One of Ed Sullivan wearing a Beatles work. He did one of a beautiful shaving her face and a man putting on lipstick. For the ’60s, these were shocking.

Female Voiceover: Shocking.

Avery: No more cartoon covers.

Roman: The crazy thing was that Lois didn’t even work for Esquire.

George Lois: My name is George Lois and I never had a role at Esquire.

Roman: He was an ad man. He was behind a lot of the most famous ads of all time – iconic ’60s poster for American Airlines, Xerox and even political campaigns for candidates like Robert Kennedy and Ed Koch.

George: Many people who’ve written about the covers called me the Art Director of Esquire. I was never the Art Director of Esquire. I just did their covers.

Avery: In 1962, Harold Hayes, head editor of Esquire Magazine, asked Lois to do a cover for him. And as Lois tells the story, Hayes needed a cover from him in three days.

George: Yeah, he gave a description of 20 things in the magazine. Then he said, “Oh yeah, we’re doing a spread. We have a photograph of Floyd Patterson, a photograph of Sonny Liston.”

Roman: Floyd Patterson versus Sonny Liston, this was the upcoming heavyweight fight. The issue was going to come out before the fight and everyone was predicting that Patterson would win and Lois did a really gutsy thing.

George: Three days later, I delivered him a cover where I showed somebody look like Floyd Patterson laying flat on his back, dead in the ring, predicting that it was Floyd Patterson was predicted knocked out.

Avery: So there was a good chance that Esquire would be wrong, and this could make the magazine look really bad, so bad. Can you imagine a major publication that predicted the wrong outcome of a huge heavyweight fight? Oh my God, so embarrassing!

Roman: But Harold Hayes, the Editor of Esquire went along with it, and Lois actually called it.

George: So anyway, the point is, that Patterson got knocked out [inaudible] and everybody in America went crazy over it. They sold an extra 400,000 copies and 400,000 copies on a newsstand.

Roman: I think they would have sold 800,000. Had he got it wrong.

George: And I did covers for the next 19 years.

Avery: Lois went on to create a catalog of 92 Esquire covers. Most of them just as eye-catching and controversial as his first.

Andy: I think that because George Lois was, like, an ad guy, he was able to see the potential of the brand with the widest possible vision. I mean, it was he who ushered in this age of magazine covers building a sort of powerful presentation of an idea more than just what happened to be in the magazine.

Avery: One big stark image with little or no text, it looked almost like wall posters. And now, many of them are in the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Andy: It’s radical and amazing work and because he had a lot to deal with: The Vietnam War for starters and probably finishes. You know, his Muhammad Ali covers is one of the greatest magazine covers of all time.

Female Voiceover: Best cover ever.

Roman: If you’ve seen any of Lois’s covers or variations of his covers, it’s probably this one. The cover is almost completely white, with Muhammad Ali, shirtless, pierced all over his body with arrows like a martyr.

Andy: By refusing military service as a conscientious objector because of his new religion, he was sentenced to jail and then he was stripped of all his titles and he was condemned as a draft dodger and even a traitor. And so the idea of this cover was to suggest that he was a martyr to his religion. But the extraordinary thing about this image here is that the master they choose to model a photograph on is a Christian martyr.

Avery: Specifically Saint Sebastian as portrayed in oil paintings by Andrea del Castańo.

Roman: St. Sebastian by the way, is also the patron saint of sports.

Avery: And he recounts the story as George Lois described it in his book.

Andy: Muhammad Ali had to get on the phone with his religious leader, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali had to explain the painting in which this photograph would be based, in excruciating detail, because Muhammad Ali was concerned about the propriety of using a Christian source for the portrayal of his martyrdom. And finally, he put George Lois who’s a non-practicing Greek Orthodox on the phone.

Roman: After a lengthy theological discussion, Elijah Muhammad gave George Lois his okay.

Andy: George exhaled and shot this portrait of a deified man against the authorities.

Avery: That’s a hell of a lot of symbolism!

Female Voiceover: Change your cover, change your life.

Roman: And then, came Cosmo.

Avery. In 1965, Cosmopolitan ushered in the era of the cover line.

Andy: The cover line, yes.

Roman: Cover lines, the words.

Andy: 26 sex positions, we must try this weekend!

Roman: Cosmopolitan wasn’t the first to use text on the cover.

Andy: But they were the first to use it really provocatively.

Female Voiceover: 26 text positions, you must try this weekend.

Avery: And they set the standard template for what a newsstand magazine looks like today.

Andy: Girls straight through the middle, cover lines left and right. It’s the traditional donut.

Avery: Donut is not standard industry lingo or anything.

Andy: It’s not a widely used term but it’s the girl through the middle, you got the tight range left on one side and the tight range right on the other side. The master that crossed the top, perhaps a big line across the bottom.

Avery: Covers focused on words after the 1960s.

Andy: That’s when the cover line comes in, that’s where you start making very explicit promises to readers and you take the readers to trust in your brand that you can deliver them.

Avery: Promises like —

Andy: 14 things you can do tonight that will save your marriage.

Avery: Or —

Roman: 547 style ideas.

Avery: 621 ways to get the most out of your look.

Andy: 7 easy ways to beat stress.

Avery: Hook them in with the cover lines, located very strategically.

Andy: There’s tremendous debate amongst editors and art directors as to how to maximize the value of the key pieces of real estate of a magazine front cover.

Avery: And these key pieces of real estate vary depending on the kind of magazine. Celebrity weeklies always have their big cover lines splashed across the middle and it’s yellow. It’s always just — it’s yellow.

Andy: Because yellow pops on the newsstand and it’s got a very high color value, a very low tonal value. In fact, the whole weekly market relies on yellow. If you look at US Weekly, People, Life and Style, In Touch actually that’s not true. Life and Style have taken the yellow splash away and it now, the type is now just white because they’re trying to present themselves as a slightly more fashion-orientated, celebrity newsweekly.

Avery: And for the more lifestyle-oriented, the location of the most captivating cover lines is the so-called hot spot.

Andy: The hot spot, immediately underneath the logo on the left-hand side.

Avery: Or the right-hand side. Well, it depends on which country you’re in.

Andy: Much of these has to do with the way in which magazines are racked in the stands.

Avery: Magazines are very much designed around their racks.

Andy: Here in the U.K., a lot of the magazines are shuffled, only the left edges reveal.

Avery: So in England, you get most of your headlines on the left side, or “the leading left edge.”

Female Voiceover: British invasion, style from across the pond.

Andy: Whereas in the USA, then there you have a waterfall presentation where you only see the top third.

Avery: So we stick our best cover lines as high and close to the logo as we can on either side. U.S. publications have many more cover lines than those in the UK.

Andy: And that’s purely because of the way in which they’re stacked at retail.

Avery: So magazines that don’t rely on newsstand sales look very different from magazines that do.

Roman: Titles like The Atlantic, Bloomberg, TIME, the New Yorker, these mostly function on subscriber models.

Andy: News-orientated magazines don’t use the hot spot to the same extent because they’re not dependent on newsstand sale.

Roman: They are a little more Lois-esque, big photographs and pictures with not as much text. The New Yorker covers harken back to a pre-1960s illustration model.

Avery: Except when you encounter The New Yorker on the newsstand, in which case there’s a little flap on the leading left edge with a list of contents.

Female Voiceover: Finally, our guide to what readers want.

Avery: Big pictures by themselves just don’t sell like they used to. It’s about the volume of content.

Andy: Magazines are expensive on a newsstand. There’s a real job in reassuring readers that there’s plenty to read inside.

Roman: Hence the illegible cornucopia of cover lines on Esquire today.

Andy: Yeah, okay. Let’s have a look, Esquire 2013. No, there’s a very foxy picture here of Megan Fox. Check this. No, I like this cover. I like this cover by the fact that you can barely read the cover lines. They’re so tiny. They’re just saying, “Relax guys, there’s loads of stuff in here.”

Roman: That design is the work of David Curcurito.

Female Voiceover: Learn how this old publication got a fresh new look.

David Curcurito: My name is David Curcurito and I’m the design director for Esquire magazine.

Roman: The guy behind today’s Esquire covers, which look nothing like Lois’s.

David: I’m responsible for the look of the magazine from cover to cover. My job is to pick photographers, pick all the images, pick the typography, pick the sizes of the typography, pick the color of the typography.

Avery: The key word here is typography.

David: My choice in typography definitely sets the tone for the covers without a doubt, without a doubt.

Avery: Curcurito’s style is loaded with words.

Female Voiceover: New design, cover magazine, fresh, expert.

Avery: So overloaded that it explodes the “donut.”

Female Voiceover: Cover, everyone, life, readers, secret, dial.

Avery: Text is all over the cover – in front of the celebrity, behind the celebrity, handwritten, scroll them to sides, much of it just completely eligible.

David: A lot of text, yes. Yeah, in the sense that there’s an overwhelming amount of text to illustrate that we have a ton of material inside the magazine. So much material that we can’t possibly show it all to you on the cover even though we’ll try.

Avery: The text and the image weave in and out of each other in such a way that the words almost become the image.

David: What we’ve been doing is kind of overwhelming your senses with both the photography and the typography combined together. It’s been a radical kind of thing on the newsstand.

Roman: And this is Esquire’s way of standing out from all the other magazines on the rack. But they don’t stand out in the same way Lois’s covers did in the ’60s.

David: We’re a little more formulaic, but yeah, we don’t have the ability to do exactly what he did back in the day if that’s making any sense.

Roman: It’s hard to replicate designs from the ’60s because the audience is not from the ’60s.

David: I think people are less shocked today than they were in the past.

Andy: I think it’s much harder to shock people. I think we’ve become so desensitized to imagery. That is really hard but it can still be done.

David: I don’t know what’s shocking now, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West?

Avery: So Kim Kardashian and Kanye West it is, celebrities sell.

David: You know, celebrity nine out of ten times. I mean we’ve been with that model for a really long time.

Avery: Lois is not so certain that this is the way to get attention.

George: Magazines have always played it safe quote unquote by showing a famous person. Oh wow! That’s going to attract people, right? And, that kind of works if you’re only — if you’re the only magazine in the world but there’s 150 magazines trying to choose to study flavor of the month each month.

Roman: George Lois is not amused.

George: What these buffoons have done before and ever since. You know, what everybody’s done is — I mean, look, you don’t have to know anything about magazines or about anything. What you have to do is have a pair of eyes. Why? If you go to a newsstand and you take a glance at them, they’re all incredibly inspired by me and their work sucks.

Roman: And for George Lois, the solution is George Lois.

George: I mean, they should look like my covers!

Avery: But according to David Curcurito, there’s a reason they don’t.

David: There are certain rules to putting a magazine cover together. You want your logo at the top, a picture of a celebrity looking directly into the camera. You want to put your most important cover line, your words, on the upper left-hand side and the upper right-hand side. And to be quite honest, when everybody follows the same set of rules, everybody looks the same.

Avery: Curcurito has messed with the standard layout but he mostly sticks to the formula.

Roman: Because this formula works.

Avery: Or it has been working for a long time.

Andy: The fact remains right now is that people are not buying at newsstand like they used to, they really aren’t. You know, magazine sales on newsstand are falling. People are no longer in the habit or in — even have the need to wander into a newsagent on a random basis and just pick up a magazine.

Avery: They’ll click on a magazine.

Andy: You know George on — I have no doubt when he’s been on your radio show. He would be saying that all you have to do is put a really ass-tearing idea out there and a great photograph and really shock the socks off people and everything will be okay.

Avery: Yeah, it’s pretty much exactly what he said.

George: When you look at a magazine from 20-feet away, it should knock you on your ass. It’s the same cover. I mean, you know, if it’s not Clooney or it’s wannabe stars, it’s the star of the [inaudible] and they’re all surrounded with five or six or nine or ten blurbs, unreadable blurbs. But it wasn’t was terrible about the magazines, but the contents of the magazine. First of all, the layout, the design of every magazine these days, every page looks like a page from the internet. It’s jammed! It’s jammed with what young people think is information. It’s cheap. It’s [inaudible]….

[music background]

Roman: 99 Percent Invisible was [inaudible] by Avery Trufelman, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7, local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced are the offices of art sign, a brilliant architecture firm that takes special pride in their collaborative approach, located in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.



99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman spoke with design legend George LoisEsquire design director David Curcurito, and blogger and former Rolling Stone art director Andy Cowles. In this episode, Cowles reads from Lois’s book Covering The ’60s.


“Stride Instrumental” — Glue
“Sunlight” — OK Ikumi
“Nightlife” — Amon Tobin
”Bridge” — Amon Tobin
“Movement III: Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” — Sufjan Stevens
“Stoplight” — Keegan DeWitt
“Le Quart de Ton” — Chapelier Fou
“Blind (Frankie Knuckles Remix)” — Hercules and Love Affair
“Sweet Spring Come” — Hauschka
“Tint 2- Rosy Apples” — ISAN
“A Caint Stop” — Large Pro
“Biding Time” — Keegan DeWitt
“Main Titles” — Keegan DeWitt

  1. The information in this episode is great, and very interesting. However the whole ‘let’s be cute and make the segments sound like headlines’ makes me almost unable to listen to it. A few here and there are fine, to get an idea of what we are talking about, but this show is about magazine covers, it should be one itself. For example at 4 min in, Roman says ‘… these were shocking.’ Then there is an over-filtered voice saying the word ‘shocking’, because apparently we don’t understand what that word means? What is the point of that except to be annoying?

    Ever since Radiolab it seems public radio shows / and podcast are getting into the habit of being highly produced with effects and voices and music, and generally it’s fine. This episode however seems overproduced just for the sake of being overproduced, and not because it really adds anything to the story.

    Still a great show though, so I guess I’ll just deal with it.

    1. Kyle

      To be fair, this has been a part of 99% Invisible’s production style from the beginning. A similar technique was used in episode 20 – though I’ll grant that episode used the technique a lil bit better, since it was used as a way of listing off the various messages etched into concrete by Nikko.

      Love the episode – but does anyone else think that the Patterson/Liston fight cover wasn’t as dramatic as it was made out to be? Looking at the cover it’s kind of ambiguous who it’s meant to be, since the fighter is small and facing away from us. Nice shot though.

  2. Marco E. Graves

    Reverts to … not reverts back. Overly redundant, from the Department of Redundancy Department.

  3. Chris

    I enjoyed the episode. It felt like it ended rather abruptly. I didn’t get the impression like it was wrapping up and then it faded out and was done. Most episodes have some kind of punctuation at the end but this one I just thought “that’s it”? Maybe it was so good I just didn’t want it to be over yet!

    1. Steven Keller

      1. Personally, i liked the fade out on George Lois’ comments. An entertaining bit of editorial content.

      2. Nearly all of the comments on this episode are about how the episode was put together, not its content. I wonder how much that has to do with Kickstarter support. In a sense it makes us the producers as much as we are consumers.

    2. Chris

      I also liked the fade out on the rant. I just wasn’t expecting it to coincide with the end of the episode.

  4. Another great show. But Honestly as a fan of George Lois, I would have loved to listen to his full diatribe on magazines. Perhaps you can make a special segment out of just his interview?

  5. Bryan Shelton

    I was disappointed that George Lois was once again allowed to take sole credit for work that was collaborative. I realize that this was not germane to the piece as a whole but it is well documented (This American Life Episode 383: Origin Story) that his photographer, Carl Fischer, was instrumental to the creation of many of the Esquire covers and that Lois has a history of claiming work that he did not do. At the very least, the piece could have said George Lois and his creative team, or partners, or collaborators. I admit, he is damn entertaining. More entertaining than the truth, unfortunately.

    1. Jenny

      Totally agree with others saying George Lois should not have been allowed to repeat his untrue claims about being the sole creator of these iconic covers. The TAL story on this topic should be consulted: I am guessing it would have been hard to fit this in, but important that he not take credit for things he either didn’t do or didn’t do alone.

  6. I had never given magazine covers any thought, which is exactly what I love about this show; it makes me take notice. All through this episode I kept thinking how different these magazines are from Taproot, the only magazine I subscribe to. It comes out of New England and is only a couple years old. Each year they get a guest artist to do all the covers for the year. Take a look

  7. Roman, just wanted to say a) thanks to you & the team for continuing to create a great show, and b) thanks especially for the “Cover Story” episode. I’m teaching a university magazine publishing class this semester and that piece dropped just a couple weeks before our section on cover design—so, I created an illustrated powerpoint to accompany your episode and then played it for the class: over 100 slides illustrating every point, from images of George Lois at MoMA to a side-by-side comparison of Ali & St. Sebastien (etc). Made for a great class, and I’m sure created some new listeners as well.

    1. Alejandro Alonzo

      You should post your presentation on Slideshare, so we can see it! Please?

  8. Marsha Wynn

    Fantastic commentary ! I learned a lot from the facts ! Does someone know where my assistant might be able to grab a template DA 67-9-1 version to edit ?

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