What’s up with The Economist front covers?

Earlier this week a series of tweets criticised the latest front cover of The Economist (above). Erik Spiekermann, who redesigned the magazine in 2001, joined the exchange with links to his cover proposals from that time. Here, Andrew Losowsky takes a closer look at the covers.

There’s a lot to admire about The Economist. Its journalism is rigorous and informed; its page design, to a template established by Erik Spiekermann in 2001, is clean, readable and efficient; its digital strategy is targeted and forward-thinking. Even its photo captions are witty.

So why are its covers so bad? (And I’m not alone in thinking this.)

Let’s take a look at their cover strategy. I’ve identified four basic types of Economist covers from the past few years:

• A news-related photo
• A stock photo of something analogous to the current situation
• A hand-drawn illustration
• A badly Photoshopped mash up.

The last one is by far the worst – and also the most prevalent. Here’s a breakdown of their covers from the UK and USA since January 2012 (UK edition varies its cover from the US edition a few times a year):

The Economist covers

January 2012 – March 18th 2014
Bad mashup 60 (50)
News photo 24 (29)
Hand-drawn illustration 21 (26)
Stock photo as analogy 6 (7)

The mash ups dominate – and they look unprofessional, dated, one note. Satirical Terry Gilliam lite. Brant the physical cartoonist in print.

The cover of a news magazine is supposed to give the reader a sense of urgency and authority. The Economist’s badly realized cut-and-paste jobs snigger at the world with a sneering sense of superiority. These are world events belittled by bad Photoshop and sarcasm. As a satirical cartoon segment, that might be passable, but as the shop window for the publication’s world view, it reflects badly on them, and doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the magazine.
Back in 2001, Spiekermann’s redesign proposed a change in their cover philosophy. He’s kindly shared with us what he wrote (above – they rejected his idea), along with some low-res images of sample covers (below) – all stronger to my mind than a bad Photoshop parody.

In fact, the magazine has created some powerful, single-image, smirk-free covers of late.

But as the stats above show, these are exceptions.

Wit and economic coverage are no strangers in good cover design – just look at recent efforts by Bloomberg Businessweek and Brand Eins. For a more British-flavoured inspiration, Spiekermann also suggested to us via email that Pearce Marchbank’s wonderful Time Out covers could be used as inspiration.

I still admire what’s inside The Economist. But its blunt, badly designed cover attacks feel snide, and I wish that they were better.

(Oh, and whatever they might say, it’s a magazine.)

Andrew Losowsky is a regular contributor to magCulture and currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.



Comment on March 20, 2014 by Andrew Pemberton says:

Weekly news magazines often struggle with their covers. A lot of it is about the news cycle, which in London, generally refreshes Sunday and Tuesday. Depending on when you go to press, you are taking a gamble that the world’s gaze won’t have shifted by the time you come out with your hard hitting newsy cover, on say, Friday.

So a clear cut news story about Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is paradoxically good news for editors who can be confident it will still be on the news agenda going into the weekend.

Other weeks they are not so lucky. Hence the aggregate, themed covers of The Economist, The Week, even The House magazine (I title I worked at many years ago). It’s an attempt to stay relevant.

But that is an exception. Most times editors are forced into a theme which they simply can’t visualise.

I liked The Economists recent warning about Britain becoming “Little England” (a motorway sign on the cover).

I once mentioned to Felix Dennis that The Week was a great magazine with a terrible cover. He agreed. But still could not fix it.

Comment on March 21, 2014 by Dan H says:

I find the rule-flouting quite refreshing. It has an off-the-wall personality and creates an unusual contrast with some of the heavy content inside. Plus unashamedly crap photoshopping negates the need for good photoshopping…

The Economist and The Week are two of the only enduring success stories in news publishing. Maybe rubbish covers are the way forward.

Comment on March 22, 2014 by jeremy says:

Thanks Andy. Here’s that Little England cover. Nice simple idea avoiding the Photoshopping Andrew talks of.

Comment on March 23, 2014 by jeremy says:

Check out this archive of Economist covers. The Economist covers from the sixties stand up well against contemporary work by the mags Andrew mentions – BBW and Brands Eins. Here’s one example from that era which groups together a series of covers about PM Harold Wilson. The whole archive is worth a look, there are some fantastic, urgent news-story designs. And no Photoshop.

Comment on March 23, 2014 by Andy Cowles says:

This is all going to come down to ROI. If the Economists covers were better, would they sell more subs? (that being their business model)

With paid content at newsstand, the link between quality and sales is usually explicit, here it’s less clear. Great work requires investment, the likes of Mister Turley do not come cheap.

In my view, better covers would certainly give the Economist a strong marketing tool. The business would definitely benefit, but it would require work to establish the extra cash that higher quality covers generate.

Comment on March 24, 2014 by peter says:

This has been a fascinating discussion.

I don’t think one can dismiss its claims not to be a magazine – as anyone who saw the abominable Sun front cover of Cameron-Corden last week was reminded, crappy PhotoShop is a virtue in the news realm. Content not form ennit. If you want pretty pictures, elegant grids and no ultimate meaning, you buy Monocle.

It’s almost a political statement, isn’t it, when your drive for impact or message so evidently beats your urge to make some noodly lower-case tasteful mag cover that looks like all the others? I am sure it’s part of their comical aura of being more real about the world than all those silly fashion mag/Daily Mail readers.

Equally, Intelligent Life exists as an example to all of us of what kind of tonal and visual abomination would result if the Economist tried to apply its worldly newsy pretensions to the world of high-production-value magazines and celeb stories. (A bit like Vanity Fair, but without however many decades of people having adjusting to its unique potpourri newsy/shmoozy dual persona.)

To me, the Economist is a middlebrow mag that is always most ostentatiously brandished by those most keen to look clever. As such, like The News, it must fabricate editorial situations and moral opinions about the world so its readers feel informed and in the know. However, because it’s trying to make a splash, this means it goes “Invade totalitarian X” one week, “Stop mindless intervention another”; “Stop blaming capitalism” one week, mushroom cloud “There will be a revolution if capitalism stays this evil” the next.

Sometimes, when the Economist goes outside of its comfort zone and does some wacky cultural noodling, it’s laughable how fuddy-duddy they are, in the name of not being trend victims or non-rigorous. But again, this might be a virtue to the kind of weirdos who love the mag and its perspective on the world so. Reading it is like its editorials, it’s a classic man-extension, it says “I haven’t got time to worry about poncy design or woolly nuanced opinions, I’ve got a bidniss to run.”

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