I was working on my upcoming post How To Come Up With Eye-Catching Titles, browsing some popular magazine covers to see how do they come up with sensational headlines. I stumbled upon an article on Cosmopolitan magazine on Wikipedia. My eyes were immediately drawn to the cover of the 1936 June issue that looked like a work of art, so strikingly different from the June 2001 issue.

I was so amazed by the contrast, not only in images but also in the absence of all those catchy headlines on the old magazine cover. That’s when I became very curious to see how other magazine covers evolved over time. When and how did our perceptions and values change? How was the branding developed? When did we start promote magazines, books, websites, blogs differently? What’s with our obsession with writing the eye-catching titles, when did that become so important?

1. Time

If you look at my collage above with the Time magazine covers, you’ll get some answers to those questions. On the very first issue of the first weekly news magazine in US you’ll notice the absence of the iconic red border on the March 1923 cover, which instead featured an ornate border with a black&white drawing of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. It will take almost 4 years for Time publishers to finally come up with the unique branding feature of the magazine, although the January 1927 issue still kept the ornate border, that would soon disappear from future editions.

In April 1966 Time magazine used a type only cover for the first time in its controversial issue questioning “Is God Dead?”. Until 1970s the covers were always featuring one topic, unlike most magazine covers today where readers are bombarded with intriguing titles. The shift towards featuring more than one topic can be seen on the December 1980 cover dedicated to John Lennon – the top right corner appears folded out, revealing another story: “Poland: The Test of Wills”. Finally, the modern issues of TIME magazine are devoting the top section of the cover to three additional topics besides the one in the main area.

2. Cosmopolitan


Over a century old, originally Cosmopolitan was launched as a family magazine in 1886. The changes in owners over the years were obviously reflecting its style and content. Did you know that George Bernard Shaw was writing for the early issues of Cosmopolitan?

Compare the cover of March 1894 issue with the May 1896 edition, and then December 1929 issue with the June 2007 – almost a century later. What a mind-boggling difference, wouldn’t you agree? The first issues of Cosmo looked more like journals with the book-like content structure on the cover and were not that aesthetically pleasant as the future editions. If look closely, you’ll notice that already in 1894 Cosmopolitan tried accentuating two of the magazine articles in Big headlines at the top.

However, it will take a few more decades for Cosmo creators to learn how to lure readers with the shocking headlines like “13 Ways To Feminine Satisfaction”, which were cleverly targeting not only women but also men, especially with headlines like these: “Wives Who Cheat – the surprising facts most men couldn’t imagine” or “My Husband Taught Me To Drive (right up the wall!)”.

3. Vogue


Vogue was established as a fashion society magazine in 1892, and considered by many as the “most influential fashion magazine”. Note the modifications in the choice of the typeface for the title, style and illustrations from September 1916 to January 1926 to the modern days.
Check out the August 1940 cover where the title was spelled out by the model in different positions. Once again, no multiple headlines were popping at Vogue readers until decades later.

4. Vanity Fair


Vanity Fair was successfully launched in 1914. Already in 1915 it featured more pages of ads than any other US magazines. It however “died” in 1936 only to be “resurrected” in 1983. Today the magazine is well known for its controversial photography, covers and articles, including the May 2006 edition that revealed the identity of Deep Throat, who was the source of all the scoop on the Watergate scandal.

Perhaps we can discover the secret of its success by following the growth of the magazine from its inaugural issue of 1914 to caricature illustrations of 1930s to the provocative 1991 cover with pregnant Demi Moore by famous celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz to the modern editions.

5. Rolling Stone


Who would’ve thought that the first issue of the world’s most famous music magazine was only a newspaper, but the one that stood out amongst other underground newspapers from the very beginning. Jann Wenner, one of the magazine founders who is still its editor and publisher, wrote that Rolling Stone “is not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.”

The amazing thing about the Rolling Stone’s metamorphosis from a newspaper to magazine is the fact that, unlike many other famous publications, it kept practically the same typeface and style for the title logo from its birth in 1967 all the way to the XXI century.

“In 1970, with the arrival of Annie Leibovitz, an art student in San Francisco, the cover of Rolling Stone went from spontaneous to specially crafted”, reflected Jann Wenner in the 1000th issue of the magazine with a very expensive 3D cover that featured 154 of Wenner’s celebrity friends. (If anyone who reads this post owns that collector’s issue, would you please ship it to me for free? ;-))

Rolling Stone’s 1981 cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was proclaimed to be the best magazine cover of the last 40 years by American Society Of Magazine Editors. That photograph was taken by Leibovitz just hours before Lennon was shot in December 1980.

6. National Geographic


National Geographic Magazine published its first issue in 1888 as the official journal of the National Geographic Society (later the word “Magazine” was dropped from the title).

Check out the magazine’s cover transformation from the issue of January 1915 to July 1969 to April 2007. For almost a century every cover of the magazine is framed with the distinctive yellow border, that makes National Geographic branding instantly recognizable.

The magazine has earned the world’s recognition with its book-like quality and the high-caliber photojournalism. The 1985 cover photo by Steve McCurry has eternalized the image of the 13-year old Afghan refuge Sharbat Gula and became one of the most widely reproduced photos in the world.

7. Fortune


Fortune magazine was founded by the media tycoon Henry Luce in February 1930, only four months after the Wall Street crash in 1929. The magazine indeed cost a “fortune” – $1 at a time when New York Times was only 5 cents. Was it the craziest ever move in the publishing industry? You be the judge – today the magazine is the Technorati version in the world of business with its ranked list of Fortune 500.

I was quite surprised to discover such artistic and creative covers of the early editions of Fortune magazine: from the illustration on the cover of August 1930 issue to the original presentation of Fortune’s business directory on the cover of July 1957.

8. Esquire


Esquire was founded in 1933 as a magazine for men, and also thrived during the Depression era. The early editions became very popular due to the contributions of such renowned writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Just like with Rolling Stone, Esquire’s title typeface and style didn’t have substantial changes, except the type got thicker – take a look at the cover of October 1933 all the way to the present days using the handy search tool in the Esquire cover archive.

Sure, writing arresting headlines will help you to get the readers attention, but when you combine them with a killer art, such as the cover of May 1969 issue with Art Director George Lois’s production of the drowning Andy Warhol in its own iconic art creation, can of Campbell Soup, you get a bomb exploding in people’s heads when reading the shocking headline: “The final decline and total collapse of the American avant-garde” and looking at the screaming for help celebrity.

And sometimes all you need is a picture to deliver the message and get the expected reaction. George Lois definitely knew how to achieve that when he designed the cover of April 1968, with a depiction of Muhhamad Ali pierced with six arrows as St. Sebastian. Everyone immediately associated that cover with Muhammad Ali’s indictment for refusing to fight in the Vietnam war: “I Ain’t Got No Quarrel With The VietCong…”

I’m also very impressed by the Esquire cover designs in 2007, where Type is used not only for presenting headlines, but also cleverly integrated with the design itself and becoming an essential part of the overall image of the magazine.


So when exactly and WHO started the trend of luring readers with numerous catchy headlines, screaming from the magazine covers to be picked up, read and even purchased or subscribed to? Looks like from the middle of the twentieth century headlines started playing an essential role in magazine covers.

Hopefully, this article has inspired you to be more creative when coming up with the striking titles and meaningful images for your blogs.

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7 Insightful Bits in response to “8 Bits Of Evolution In Perception, Promotion And Values”

  1. Thanks for digging up all these covers, it’s fascinating to see how they’ve evolved over time. I suspect the emergence of headline dominated covers is a result of the magazine market becoming VERY overcrowded. The magazine market is one of the most competitive markets to crack and lots of magazines go under… I guess when you’re deciding which magazine to spend your money on this week, you wanna know what you’re going to read.

    It’s also interesting to compare the covers of modern day magazines aimed at different demographics. For instance your Times and your Fortunes, which are aimed at a more AB1 demographic, rely a lot less on headlines and focus quite strongly on a main feature article. Compare that to your Esquires and Cosmopolitans, which are a little less upmarket, and which bombard the buyer with headlines.

    It’s fascinating stuff. Great post.

  2. What an interesting post Vivien. It’s really interesting to see how the covers have changed over time.

  3. Great Post

    My first thought was todays magazines use the shotgun approach. If we don’t get you with this message how about this one, or that one in the corner.

    It seems the older covers relied on their brand and focus of the issue to sell instead of trying to hit everyones hot button.

  4. Vivien

    Thanks, Aaron. I think it’s not so much that the magazine market is too saturated these days (although, it is true as well), but it’s the overall change in people’s expectations and values. I would prefer to see a magazine cover with one featured story, and then I would open and read its content to see if there are any other articles that would interest me. But looks like we’re too lazy to do that, and the marketers don’t waste a split of second to bombard us with as many headlines as they can fit on one cover.

    Just like Joey said – “shotgun approach” – that’s exactly what’s happening with them. Glad you liked the post, Joey. I really enjoyed the time I spent researching the magazines and digging up all those covers.

    Thanks, Randa. I’m planning on publishing another article on magazines, but with a different twist to the story. So stay tuned :-)

  5. Sure, I think buyers are a little bit lazy. I think another factor is that magazine buyers are less loyal than they used to be. So where a someone used to buy a magazine because that was the ‘brand’ they enjoyed reading, now – with much more choice – buyers pick and chose from month to month based on a much more immediate impact that the cover has on them.

  6. I agree, Vivien, I would love to see just one article featured on the cover. It would be far more elegant and that would make it stand out amongst the “shotgun” headline magazines.

    I used to subscribe to Communication Arts. I loved their covers. But then, they are a magazine by designers for designers, so they understand what we want. Each magazine was such a prize! It came in a thick cardboard case, which protected the $8 – $16 masterpiece (regular editions are $8, the four annuals are $16). Each magazine was really more like a book than a magazine. It’s worth it to subscribe just to get the annuals. I especially loved the photography annual.

  7. Vivien

    Communication Arts is a pretty expensive magazine, but I agree, it’s worth the money. I still like going back to my old issues of C.A. and always find something interesting and inspirational.

    I agree, Aaron, consumers are less loyal now, especially with the magazines that cover similar areas, so the one with the most scandals usually wins.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on