Donald Trump cover creators on why he's the gift that keeps on giving for print design
After a spate of magazine covers inspired by Donald Trump, The Drum asks the designers and publishers behind them if the president is ushering in a new era of creativity for print design.
It will take you more than a few minutes, maybe longer, to digest the visual feast that is last weekend’s New York Times Magazine cover. Titled ‘Trumplandia’, it depicts a chaotic scene set against the backdrop of Capitol Hill.
UK-based illustrator Andrew Rae was behind the front-page splash. Painted in a simple hand rendered-style, his depiction of president Trump’s America features, among other characters, right-wing meme and anthropomorphic frog Pepe; dozens of Twitter birds flocking from the roof of the White House; a very sweaty looking cartoon version of Infowars host Alex Jones; a swamp creature and women of the resistance clad in pink woolly ‘pussy hats’.
Trump himself is notably absent from the panorama, which took Rae two weeks to complete, but the cover is only the latest in a series inspired by the leader of the free world. While it’s hardly surprising the president is gracing the front pages of everything from Time to Der Spiegel, the Atlantic to Tapas (a Spanish gastronomy and lifestyle title), what is interesting is the new wave of creativity his election to office appears to have ignited in newsrooms, and on production desks, across the world.
Trump’s fraught relationship with the press is widely documented and since taking the helm in February he has been accused of cherry picking the titles his administration affords access to, as well as bypassing traditional outlets by taking stories straight to Twitter. He’s taken aim at BuzzFeed (“a failing pile of garbage”) and the New York Times (“fake news”) but print titles are biting back by sending a message that the pen is mightier than the sword. Over the past few months, magazines and newspapers alike have sent to press a series of striking images, making the front page more relevant than it’s been for decades.
Fear and Loathing
For Rae, such a shift doesn’t represent a new wave of creativity so much as a change in the way front pages are resonating with people. He thinks this is down to the subject matter being “so shocking, frightening and frankly bizarre.”
When he was briefed by the New York Times Magazine design director Gail Bichler to create ‘Trumplandia’ she described the concept to him as "a profile of the Capital during what has been an incredibly tumultuous period. Fear and Loathing in the time of Trump".
The illustrator, who has worked with the Times on previous projects, had a “pretty clear” image in his head as to how he wanted it to look, and spent half a month only “drawing and eating” until the final version was completed, but says it was worth the hard labour: “I’ve had a great response to the cover. I think the image allows you to look at a scary subject and laugh about it. People need a release and the laughter holds back the tears.”
It’s not just the New York Times Magazine using art to channel collective frustrations about the commander in chief, Time magazine is also getting in on the action. Having named Trump ‘Person of the Year’ for 2017 the title’s iconic red-bordered front splash has featured several depictions of the president and allusions to his policies since he got the keys to the White House.
It's most recent cover references Donald Trump Jr’s email scandal, overlaying a black and white shot of the young mogul with the contents of incriminating emails sent by him to Russian government staffers. A front page from February, meanwhile, shows the president sitting at his desk amid a storm as papers blow around the Oval Office. Designed by illustrator Tim O’Brien – a regular Time contributing artist – the cover attracted a lot of attention online, coming amid a controversial order Trump signed within days of entering the White House which temporarily barred refugees and people from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the US.
Time’s creative director D.W Pine says O’Brien’s imaginative style and gift for detail made him the right choice to create a portrait of the disruption going on in the Oval Office. “I talked to Tim about the idea of a storm engulfing the administration – tornadoes, hurricanes, etc,” he says, adding that the artist came back with several sketches, including one with the Oval Office ravaged by a rainstorm.
“What I love about that image – and the reaction it received – was that both sides held it up as an example proving their argument. Trump opponents held it up to show the chaotic storm he had created, while Trump supporters saw it as a strong, resolute leader in the face of the storms around him. I think when you can create an image where both sides take something away, that’s a good place to be.”
Brimming with material
O’Brien has designed over a dozen covers for Time since 1989, and while he doesn’t think Trump should be credited entirely for a creative renaissance in the print publishing industry, he acknowledges that certain situations beg for commentary. Barack Obama’s presidency was relatively scandal-free, and his status as the first African American president, O’Brien says, made photographic images suitable for covers; the incumbent president, however, is a different story.
“Trump is a rolling set of conflicts, Shakespearean scandals, lies, and so on,” says O’Brien. “Illustrators are brimming with material to work with. Secondarily, we’ve hit a high mark of social connection via smartphones. This means that the quick image, the meme is the bumper sticker of the moment. So, in a funny way, digital media, the assumed killer of print, is making covers more important than they have been in years.”
This is a sentiment being incorporated editorial strategies across the US, with Time’s Pine asserting that most people now see the magazine’s cover digitally – whether it’s through the title’s animated Instagram covers, on Facebook or on Time’s site. “Because of that, I’ve had to adjust the amount and size of type and placed even more emphasis on simplicity. We try to create more of a poster each week,” he adds.
The ability to share classic ink and paper covers with millions of people online is undoubtedly having a material impact on the industry. In May the New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson thanked Trump for a record quarter in digital subscriber growth, while the New Yorker – which unveiled a damming and dark John W. Tomac's illustration titled ‘Liberty’s Flameout’ post-election – is also among those enjoying a ‘Trump bump’. The classic magazine sold 100,000 subscriptions in January this year, marking a 300% increase on the same time period in 2016 with circulation currently sitting at 1.1 million, the highest it has ever been.
The Atlantic, meanwhile, has grown its newsstand share by 19% over the last year. Speaking to The Drum a few months ago, its president Bob Cohn said: “Certainly our coverage of Trump has helped audience growth and it’s helped circulation growth and it’s helped newsstand sales when we write about politics right now.
“Trump’s a good story, and good stories are good for journalists. The danger would be if the economy gets destabilised and it’s bad for business. There seems no doubt it’s going to be good for journalism. I’m trying to avoid whether it’s good for the world or not. If we have a period of instability and that affects the business environment that would be bad. Right now we’re not seeing that. So the story is just fascinating.”
The gift that keeps on giving
A simple, digital-first approach is one also being employed by UK-based anti-Brexit newspaper, The New European, which garnered attention online earlier this year after publishing a front page which used creative placement of the humble barcode to draw comparisons between Trump and Adolf Hitler; an idea its editor, Matt Kelly, admits was aped from an edition of Canadian magazine Adbusters.
Kelly says he was nervous about the cover because it was “such an extreme thing to suggest,” but that the supporting piece, which asked, ‘Is Trump a Facist?’ was intellectually sound enough for the splash to run. The issue was one of the paper’s most read, with Kelly saying: “It’s still the cover that people talk to me about, it’s the one they remember – especially newsagents because they’re the ones who had to scan it.”
Kelly admits it is getting harder and harder to come up with original Trump covers in the current climate, and thinks some titles like Germany’s Der Speigel – which printed an illustration of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty – have struck the wrong chord.
“I just thought that went a little bit too far and was a little bit too provocative, it didn’t have the subtle touch,” he asserts, adding that even though the New European is known as anti-Brexit paper most of the cartoon submissions it currently receives are Trump themed. “I think if he was just a little more boring then we wouldn’t see half of this creativity, but he certainly, certainly isn’t.”
Rae says it is “too easy” to focus on Trump. “You only have to wait a day or two and he’ll do some new, ridiculous thing,” he notes. O’Brien agrees: “Trump’s story is an every-changing tale and every day someone says something, does something or trips over something that sparks a whole new set of images and ideas. The Trump administration is the gift that keeps giving.”
Given the president’s proclivity for slamming “fake news,” and growing unrest among the mainstream titles at accusations from Trump’s recent assertions that the industry is “destroying democracy,” it doesn’t look like the creatives’ focus on the president will shift anytime soon.
“People are eager for news and information that they can trust,” says Time’s Pine. “We’ve been been a reliable source for readers throughout history’s most important moments for nearly a century. And this president’s complicated relationship with the media makes that mission even more critical today.”