Barack Obama, Rolling Stone, and the secret of one great magazine cover
I’m a student of magazine covers. I’m a hardcore Loisite, and I’ve spent decades exploring the best way to mix words and images so people cannot ignore the cover and must grab the magazine.
I’ve had the great pleasure of spending much of my career editing and writing for magazines. Those reading this who know me know that I love magazines. As a reader, I spend way too much time at newsstands. I love the immediacy of magazines. As an editor, I love getting words and pictures to tell stories together. I love trying to fill infinite content into a severely finite space. I even love the disposability of magazines: after this issue is done, I get to work on another one!
Some disclosure: I voted for Barack Obama in the Massachusetts primary and intend to vote for him in November, but I am not among his more enthusiastic supporters. I wrote more than 100 reviews and articles for Rolling Stone during the ’80s, but I lost interest with it during the ’90s and receive it now only because it came as a free offer when I bought a DVD earlier this year. The text of the recent issue is full of both cliches and factual errors (sample of the latter: the Kinman Brothers will be surprised to learn that Alejandro Escovedo “fronted” Rank and File), so I’ll stop receiving the magazine as soon as they stop sending me free copies. That noted, I believe the cover of the new issue of the magazine, featuring Obama, is the most arresting magazine cover I’ve seen in years.
Magazines are about words and images working together, although sometimes words can detract from an image. Is there anything that the cover image of Obama doesn’t say to the reader? It tells you who it’s about and what Rolling Stone thinks about him: everything about content and approach is embedded in the bold image. The smile is 1,000-watt, the (digitally enhanced?) wrinkles coming out of his eyes convey that this guy isn’t too young for the job he wants, and the American flag lapel pin wouldn’t pop more unless the cover was 3-D. And how important does Rolling Stone think Obama is? Important enough to cover half the words in the name of the magazine. That’s an old trick, but it’s especially powerful here.
This cover is particularly powerful when you compare it to this recent one that tried to accomplish something similar with its design (although, of course, the politicians and their predicaments are far different):
The Rolling Stone cover makes a starker impact because the designer went 100% of the way: no words. The New York cover cheats. The “<-Brain” thing works because it’s as much a pure graphic element as a word with an arrow, but the words in the top left of the page are a waste. They distract. “The Governor’s Fall” reads the headline. Please. When that cover appeared, mere days after Spitzer and his power evaporated, did anyone in the New York reading public not know who Eliot Spitzer was or what he had done? (The subhead, with its pointless navigation, adds to the offense.) The cover, a step away from brilliant, loses its way because the committee that vetted it didn’t trust the arresting image at its core. Words are important. But sometimes words get in the way, too.