A couple things you’re sure to find a lot of at the magazine rack: celebrity photos and screamingly awful typography. It takes a detective to find covers that are simple, compelling and actually showcase an idea – like the elegant George Lois covers for Esquire or the iconic beauty of early Playboy faces. This is the topic of discussion here at Design Observer.
But that was then. Today, you’d search in vain for a magazine that commissions covers like those. The best-designed mass circulation American magazines today – Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and, yes, Esquire – usually feature a really good photograph by a really good photographer of someone who has a new movie out, surrounded by handsome, often inventive typography. The worst magazines have a crummy picture of someone who has just been through some kind of scandal, surrounded by really awful typography.
What art directors used to call the “Esquire cover” – a simple, sometimes surreal, image that somehow conceptually summarizes the most provocative point of one of the stories within – never found many imitators outside of Esquire even at its peak. Certainly few editors, then or now, were willing to imitate Esquire’s Harold Hayes, who gave Lois the freedom to devise covers from nothing more than a table of contents.
And it’s important to remember that Esquire was famous then not only for its covers but as the place for great writing, a place where Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and John Sack helped invent the New Journalism. Indeed, it was Sack’s profile of Lt. William Calley, accused of leading a massacre of women and children in a Vietnamese village, that inspired one of the magazine’s most powerful covers. I doubt that Lois at his peak could do one tenth as much with a vapid puff piece on Cameron Diaz.