PPA Cover of the Century

On Monday night the PPA kicked off their 100th anniversary year with the launch of their Cover of the Century competition. In his welcome speech, CEO Barry McIlheney explained how hard it had been to whittle the selection down to a ten magazine shortlist, and headed off the inevitable criticism of the shortlist. Don’t worry if you’re magazine isn’t on the list, was the message, the overall selection shows how strong the industry was and is.

Then the gathered great and good of the UK magazine industry were ushered through to see the 10 anointed covers; the criticism began.

These are the best covers of the century?

It’s a crazy idea, of course. Ten front covers from 100 years of publishing? Such lists are always open to challenge and argument, but I can’t begin to imagine the number of covers available for selection here. Details of how the final decision was arrived at remain vague: PPA member companies were asked to submit front covers and an ‘industry panel’ sorted the final list. I couldn’t find anyone at the launch willing to own up to being on that panel; there were plenty wished they had been.

Anyhow… let’s have a look.

The earliest magazine included is this 1916 cover of Women’s Weekly, attributed to IPC Media as they now own the magazine. This is a great start – a mainstream weekly sharing not just its own history but the industry’s history. A single colour illustrated cover with delightful title typography, plus the one cover line, ‘Keep him worthy of his fathers sacrifice’. Another era in every sense (see the current edition here) and a good context for the others.
Publisher: IPC Media

We jump 25 years to the next cover – this second world war era (1941) Harper’s Bazaar. A curiosity, really, not only because I didn’t realise fashion monthlies continued to be published during the war, but because of the way it combines fashion and the war so explicitly in the artwork (which, incidentally, is by Heinrich Fritz Kohn, a German émigré using the English name Henrion). The graphic style is very much of its time, but I can’t help feeling there are similar but better covers out there.
Current publisher: Hearst Magazines.

The selection then leapfrogs the entire sixties, surely one of the most important eras of magazine publishing, to reach the third cover. This is a landmark – the 1972 launch issue of Cosmopolitan. With its trademark long-length model shot, simple, strong colour palette and blunt cover lines (‘How to turn a man on when he’s having problems in bed’, ‘Michael Parkinson talks about his vasectomy – the most beautiful thing a man can do for a woman’) this was a sea change in British publishing. A close up look at the type is entertaining – the Letraset characters are all over the place.
Current publisher: Hearst Magazines.

Thanksfully, one of Pearce Marchbank’s designs for Time Out is included, and this 1974 cover is typically strong and based on a typically contrary editorial line (anti-Churchill on his 100th anniversary). It’s better known as a listings magazine now, but for the first decade or so it was a very political read, and Marchbank’s covers reflected that. It’s almost impossible to reconcile the approach above with today’s free edition. Rumour has it the PPA wanted a less controversial TO cover, so the publishers are to be congratulated on sticking to their guns if that’s the case (though a shame they didn’t do so with their recent London Sex front cover). Marchbank was at the event, and it was a pleasure to meet him, although his view of current magazine design was a depressing one. I hope I persuaded him to look again.
Publisher: Time Out.

New Scientist has a fine history of illustrated covers, but I’m not sure this example from 1987 is its finest moment. Richard Parent’s illustration is strong but the magazine has always dealt in explanatory/concept covers – pro-science, if you like. This is unusually emotional, and that flash promising a ‘Free AIDS Poster’ is surely unique!
Publisher: Reed Business.

From here the selection falls apart as it panders to populism – not in terms of magazine sales, in terms of winning the competition vote. I could continue to describe the covers but this post would get really depressing. Here they are…

The Beano, 1999, DC Thompson

Vogue, 2001, Condé Nast

Radio Times, 2005, Immediate Media (ex-BBC)

Empire, 2005 (makes a Darth Vader breathing noise when you open it), Bauer Media
(apologies for the blurry shot)

MacUser, 2012, Dennis Publishing

There you have them – the best ten British covers according to the PPA.

It was obviously politically necessary to include all the big PPA member publishers, with only Time Out and MacUser being vaguely independent. Different entries seem to work to different criteria. Some – Women’s WeeklyCosmo and Time Out – seem to genuinely want to reflect their part in publishing history and show a good understanding of that history and the way magazines reflect their times. Others seem to be appealing to the populist vote in a desire to win the competition, which misses the whole point of celebrating magazines. Are you voting for Dr Who or Radio Times? Star Wars or Empire? It’s the collection of ten that counts, not the single winner.

All lists exist to encourage discussion – it’s a classic editorial device. ‘What would YOU include?’ is the unspoken question. A good number of what I might have included are magazines that are no longer around: the original Man About Town, Liliput, Oz, The Face, Nova, Arena, City Limits all come to mind not only for strong covers but as important markers in magazine history. Ignoring the sixties altogether is ridiculous, while without The Face where would we be now? One of the few magazines to have crossed from publishing to a broader cultural position as part of the Design Museum collection, ignoring The Face is unforgiveable. But I guess ‘dead’ magazines send the wrong PR signal.

The Face founder/editor Nick Logan was at the launch and was deeply unimpressed, ‘It’s an uninspiring choice selected by a flawed methodology. Only publishers aligned to the PPA were asked to put forward covers, and why would they nominate defunct magazines? Hence no Arena, Smash Hits, Loaded, The Face. But also no Pop, Love, Dazed, i-D on long or short list. Nova, contrarily, was on the long list but inexplicably overlooked for the short list – that would have been my winner. But there must be hundreds of great covers that were never even in consideration because of the methodology employed.’

i-D is still around and it’s its covers that have carried it this far; Scott King-era Sleazenation would have shown a sense of humour; a Little White Lies would have livened things up. Back in the mainstream, Loaded is regarded with embarrassment now but in its heyday produced some great covers; I don’t particularly like The Week covers, but that magazine is a modern phenomenon, and Private Eye would add a uniquely British touch. Free magazines, customer magazines and newspaper supplements are all ignored, as are independents (not PPA members?).

Far from reflecting well on our industry, this inward-looking, political fudge makes a poor case for what we do. Which is sad, as I’m sure the PPA put a ton of effort into the competition. 100th anniversaries can appear as wakes, and the event branding with its plus sign and positive ‘Our first 100 years’ line makes all the right noises. At a time when our industry in on the back foot it would have been thrilling to see the anniversary campaign backed up by a braver selection of covers that really did show how exciting and relevant magazines have been and can be.

UPDATE: Andy Cowles shares his thoughts on the competition. Nova wins again!

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Matt Potter says:

So wait: the magazine publishers’ body has a chance to do something worthwhile and memorable, and settles instead for the equivalent of a hurriedly thrown together list feature? How many attendees were stretchered out to be treated for that lethal self-awareness underdose?

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Paul Keers says:

You used the word “British” during your post, Jeremy – but it’s not a word used in the title of the list. Which makes it all the more unforgiveable (and parochial)that covers from Esquire, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, which have been among the most powerful of the last 100 years, are not included.

Their criteria are never explained. How are these covers being acknowledged, as opposed to the magazines themselves? Are these supposed to be examples of great cover design? Social influence? Influence on the industry? It’s hard to imagine some of them qualifying on any of those grounds.

Definitely not a way in which to parade the significance of magazines as a medium.

Comment on February 28, 2013 by jeremy says:

Nice comparison – a magazine made with this poor degree of care and attention wouldn’t make it to its first birthday let alone 100th.

Comment on February 28, 2013 by jeremy says:

I think we can assume it’s a British-only remit, Paul, although you’re right to point out this isn’t explicit in the PPA campaign. The PPA are UK-only, right?

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Paul Keers says:

Well, if it IS a British-only remit, then it should surely be in the title – as, indeed, if it’s a PPA-only remit.

(Although, of course, the UK publishers of Esquire and Vanity Fair ARE in the UK PPA…)

Comment on February 28, 2013 by jeremy says:

Let’s call it the ‘Ten Best British Covers from Magazines Still Being Published by PPA Members from the Past Century Except for the Sixties’.

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Paul Keers says:

You’re on!!

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Jon says:

It seems geared towards current publishers booking tables at the event. The omission of freesheets (discounting Time Out) is glaring, Stylist and Sport have had some fantastic covers over the past couple of years, surprised neither have made the cut after the close run contest last year.

The biggest omissions for me are some of the iconic Face and Loaded covers, but who is going to book a table for those?

That awful Dalek cover will most likely win.

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Shem Law says:

Here we go again…
Covers are very subjective things that mean different things to different people. They existing in separate dimensions, as each magazine is appealing to a particular market and readership. What the PPA has done, by very definition is going to be flawed. I shouldn’t think anyone there would say otherwise. Please read Andy Cowles sensible post about the subject…He gets it. But he also acknowledges that these wouldn’t be his ten covers, just as they wouldn’t be mine. (Various covers from Man About Town magazine (long gone) would probably be all of my top three.) (http://www.magforum.com/mat/man_about_town_covers.htm).

It’s a good subject to debate… But, I will take ‘Jon’ to task about ‘That awful Dalek cover’. Yes, I art direct Radio Times, and yes it might well win, as the general public like popular things… But nobody here on the art desk has the hubris to believe it would truly be the cover of the century… But even if I say so myself it’s a pretty good cover nevertheless, and I challenge the po-faced Jon (and any other like minded ‘design elitists’ out there) to come up with a better idea that combines a general election with the start of a popular children’s sci-fi based drama and that sells a million copies… (Some of us have children and bills to pay…)

Comment on February 28, 2013 by Newsstand says:

Our favourite covers of the last year or so would appear to have more going for them – I can’t speak for my own taste – of course, but at Newsstand we are considering opening up our 50k plus covers of the last 3 years to a public vote? This was offered to the PPA for their cover of the year last year, but for reasons you have gone into above, was not considered.


Interested to know what you think.

Comment on February 28, 2013 by LondonLee says:

The Dalek cover is perfectly OK but it’s silly (and a testament to the internet voting power of geeks) that it keeps appearing in these things.

No ‘Nova’ covers is ridiculous, those are about the only UK mag covers that are the equal to ‘Esquire’ of the era.

Comment on March 1, 2013 by Mat says:

There must be a mistake. These are not the best covers of past 100 years. This nonsense must have something to do with April fools day. Very funny.

Comment on March 2, 2013 by Jon says:

Shem, please don’t take it personally, I’m a fan of your work. I just find the choice of the Dakek cover very cynical. During your tenure you’ve produced much better covers. My issue is that the choice was made to garner the geek vote (ditto Empire). You cannot seriously tell me that the Dalek cover from 2005 is better than some of the beautifully illustrated covers from your archive? Covers by Grimwood and Brookes spring to mind.

Comment on March 4, 2013 by Shem Law says:

Don’t worry, I don’t take it personally. If it had been down to me I would have my had my own favourite RT cover (Link below) to represent this fine and august magazine. But when you take into account what this poll is about and the criteria (whether hidden or not)that appear to have shaped the choices, then the ‘Dalek’ cover is no more cynical than the Dennis the Menace one or Vogue’s Kate Moss looking ‘regally alluring’…

I guess if you asked people what ‘the best painting in the world is’ in all history. The Mona Lisa would be up there, is it the best painting in the world ever? Arguably not.

What is popular and sells and what is deemed aesthetically good are usually two completely different things. Occasionally that’s not the case, and something transcends it all, but that is rare. We in the consumer magazine art directing racket, look at the sort of covers that appear on the mag-culture website and think hat’s off to them, we’d love to do things in an understated or blatantly ‘anti-commercial’ way. But we have to sell copies, that doesn’t make those independent magazine covers any better or worse than what we do in the commercial sector, they are for different markets. It’s an age old argument that I have on a regular basis with design snobs. So thank you for the complement…


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