The Evolution of Magazine Covers

A look at how we’ve changed in the past 100 years


Cosmopolitan

Woah.

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Cosmopolitan covers started out with women dressed conservatively. Then they started showing some skin. Then more skin. Finally, they started posing in sexy positions.

As women have earned more rights throughout the years, they’ve also earned the right to wear whatever they damn well please. Or maybe that just sells more magazines?

Seventeen

No bikini-clad teens here. It’s still pretty wholesome.

The Seventeen logo has stayed the same, but almost everything else about the design has changed. There was a time when the cover was delightfully simple. Then things just got more and more cluttered.

The magazine cover’s job is to sell the magazine — it has to stand out in a rack full of other magazines. So the design starts to get louder and louder.

When doing research for this article, I kept getting headaches whenever I looked at Seventeen covers for too long. Google image search “Seventeen Magazine” and you’ll see what I mean:

Ow. My eyes.

Vogue

These are our new role models.

Ah, the Kardashians. Whether you love them, or love to hate them — there’s no disputing they’re wicked talented at monetizing their fame.

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Vogue has had some gorgeous covers throughout the years. Like every other magazine, they’ve added more text on their covers to lure the readers in. But unlike Seventeen, they’ve done a good job of keeping the design classy and uncluttered.

For a more scientific look, check out Robots Reading Vogue, which compiled visual averages for all of the past covers of Vogue. (Thanks to Redditor othfilms for the find).

Robots Reading Vogue is a joint project by Lindsay King (Haas Arts Library) and Peter Leonard (Digital Humanities Lab)

Time

A walk down history, as seen through Time covers:

Left to right: Charlie Chaplin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Grace Kelly, Martin Luther King, John Travolta, Michael Jackson, Ellen Degeneres, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg

Time has done a great job branding its recognizable red border. The design has remained mostly consistent — except for a brief logo change in the 70's and 80's, which they quickly realized was a bad idea.

Time continues to feature America’s icons year after year — from presidents to pop stars. Who will be our icons in the next 100 years?

National Geographic

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It surprised me that National Geographic’s covers were so text-heavy for most of its existence. This is a magazine that is perhaps best known for its beautiful full-bleed photography — yet they didn’t adopt this style until the 1960's. In contrast, magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan were were way ahead of the curve, featuring full-page illustrations as early as the 1900s.

Like Time, National Geographic has done an excellent job of branding its recognizable yellow border.

GQ

“Hey, we can sell more magazines with women in bikinis instead!”

— GQ’s marketing strategy

For a long time, every cover of GQ was pretty much the same. A white man in a suit. It’s a wonder it took them until 1990 to figure out that they might be able to sell more magazines by putting women on the cover instead.

GQ has gotten racy, sure — but also delightfully creative.

Damn, girl! This isn’t your average topless photoshoot.

GQ actually got in quite a bit of trouble for depicting Amy Schumer sexually with Star Wars characters. They didn’t get permission from Disney (who undoubtedly wouldn’t have granted it), and many Star Wars fans found it offensive. But Amy Schumer loved it, and said she would do it again.

The New Yorker

Remarkably, The New Yorker hasn’t changed one bit.

The cover on the right is a special 90th anniversary issue, a clever recreation of the very first New Yorker cover on the left.

Compare the covers from decade to decade:

Viewing this on your phone? Pinch to zoom in.

Pick out any cover at random, and it isn’t immediately obvious what time period it belongs to. With everything else that’s changed around us, The New Yorker has been remarkably consistent.

Their logo has endured 90 years. They continue to charm us with their hand-drawn illustrations. And unlike every other magazine, they haven’t been pressured into adding a bunch of text on the cover.

All magazines experiment with their design and learn what sells. And most other magazines — Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Vogue, Time, GQ — have pretty much converged to the same design: a photo of a person, usually an attractive female, prominently featuring her face and body — with text headlines designed to get you to want to read what’s inside. This is the formula that sells their magazines.

Survival of the fittest, capitalism edition.

But not The New Yorker. It takes discipline to zig when everyone else is zagging.

You do you, New Yorker.

Vanity Fair

What 100 years of progress looks like:

Vanity Fair was out of print from 1936–1983

What makes Caitlyn’s cover special is not just the subject matter, but the style as well. Let’s compare Caitlyn Jenner’s cover with every other cover in 2015:

The other covers are littered with mounds of text. Not this issue.

Call me Caitlyn. Just three words.

They didn’t need to sell the other stories. This issue was all about her. Vanity Fair nailed it.

You go, Caitlyn!


Together, these magazine covers reveal a peek into our history. Sure, we’ve gotten more sexualized. More superficial. We read less. We have shorter attention spans.

But we’ve also gotten more open-minded. At each step along the way, society has pushed the limits of what’s considered acceptable.

Not so long ago, black people couldn’t vote. Though they still face significant discrimination, they are also now idolized on magazine covers. As women have earned more rights over the years, they now take control of their sexuality. And Vanity Fair’s most iconic cover this year is a woman who used to identify as a man.

We’ve come a long way in 100 years.


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Created By

Karen X. Cheng

Karen makes viral videos and explainer videos for startups. Follow her on Medium, Facebook or Instagram.

Jerry Gabra

Jerry is product design consultant in San Francisco. Check out his portfolio.


Media Requests

Feel free to quote and embed the pictures on your publication. Please credit and link back: Karen X. Cheng and Jerry Gabra. Magazine covers are copyright by their respective publications. Comparison images created by Karen X. Cheng and Jerry Gabra. If you have questions, email karenxcheng (at) gmail (dot) com

Thanks

Thanks to Orion Hombrebueno for research help. Thanks to Adam Lee, Oliver Emberton, Ketan Anjaria, Sam Brewczynski, Lynn Tao, Brooks Hassig and Rachman Blake for helpful feedback on drafts of this article.