The power of the front page: designers on illustrating a time of global crisis
From The New York Times to The New Yorker to The Economist, Time and The Big Issue, The Drum talks to the print designers using this unique period in history to show that the pen can be mightier than the sword when it comes to social commentary.
While the Covid-19 outbreak has caused some physical editions to cease, leaving airports and train stations deserted and newspaper stands shuttered, the current news cycle keeping it alive, ushering in a new era of creativity for print.
“Most people see the cover of Time now digitally,“ explains DW Pine, the title’s creative director. “That certainly wasn't the case for the first 90 years of our existence. It’s become a massive audience that way, and they wait for Time to weigh in on a topic.“ The fact is, people no longer need to buy a physical copy to admire a front cover.
With demand for magazine subs skyrocketing under lockdown by virtue of increased time at home, screen fatigue and an e-commerce boom, designers from the New York Times to The Big Issue are seizing this moment to make their front covers the most relevant they’ve been in decades.
“It is in demand that we turn up the volume,” declares chief creative officer Tom Bodkin, as he discusses how things have heated up at the NYT since the coronavirus took hold.
“We’ve done a lot of dramatic pages throughout the last few months. And, as a designer, I have an obligation to do something on the front page that’s a bit out of the normal, because these aren’t normal times."
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On the 27 March, nestled on the front page of The New York Times, sat a graph documenting job losses from the millennium until now. And the way it was executed caused a deafening thud as jaws simultaneously dropped to the ground.
The fact is, job losses in the US as a result of the pandemic are so staggering that the design team required the entire right-hand column to accommodate the spike.
“We needed to give people a sense of the scale – that this isn’t just a whole lot of unemployment, but that it is an unbelievable amount,” explains Bodkin. “I wanted people to absorb it in all its enormity, and a good way to do that is through visualisation.”
While statistics were used in this case to great effect, the New York Times took a different direction in May when it needed to mark the unwelcome news that the US had hit 100,000 coronavirus deaths.
Reflecting on how easy it is to lose sense of reality when deaths becomes mere statistics on a news reading, the idea was to show that behind every death registered is a life, a family left behind. “We wanted to get across that these are not just statistics, but real people with real lives,“ says Bodkin. “These things are a little bit controversial internally because you’re breaking conventions.”
To humanise the death toll, on 24 May, for the first time in recent history, the NYT did not feature a photograph on its front page, covering it instead with death notices of Covid-19 victims from across the US. Next to the headline ‘US deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss’ the sub-heading read ‘They were not simply names on a list. They were us.’
“People consume the front page in a progressive series of interactions,“ Bodkin explains. “Something catches their eye, enticing them to pick it up off the newspaper stand. I want them to consume as much as possible – there’s a primary impression I want to give, and then a whole bunch of more impressions asking people stay with me... stay with the page.“
“The strength of The New Yorker is that it has a century-long process of letting the artist set the tone,“ muses Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art director since 1993.
Mouly was originally brought in to stage a renaissance and pull The New Yorker out of its dark ages, during which it had picked up a stolid, conservative image. Mouly proposed it return to its roots by having artists as featured contributors, harking back to the days of founder Harold Ross. Circulation has since doubled.
“If you’re Time magazine, Newsweek, a news publication – you can’t tolerate ambiguity,“ Mouly says, insisting that at The New Yorker it is different.
“It doesn’t need to say, ’oh look, the world is upside down because of Covid-19’. You don’t need to spell it out. There’s something very pleasurable to have a literate audience that is willing to extend its brain cells to the image.“
Back in March, when its offices shut and the world as we knew it took a lengthy hiatus, editor David Remnick told Mouly she needed to consult her network of artists to find the right image, just like she did for 9/11.
“To me it was clear, this was not going to be one image. It’s not like 9/11. This event is happening every single day. It’s a realignment of the planet, that is evolving over time.“ So, on 30 March, the first in a series of pandemic covers came to life, a piece by Eric Drooker featuring an unrecognizable Grand Central Station, empty of all human presence except for a lone cleaner.
Since then, 10 more covers have materialised, each addressing a world infected by the pandemic. “For the most part it’s cartooning, in that it has to be succinct in a minute,“ Mouly adds. “Someone told me they were impressed with how I worked out all the covers like it was a comic strip. That wasn’t my plan, but it worked out that way because the artists are reflecting communally.“
When it came to responding to the Black Lives Matter protests, Mouly was certain that it should feature the artwork of Kadir Nelson. "I told him to give it some thought," she recalls. "I said specifically to him - 'I'm not asking other artists right now, you're the priority.' That is something I don't usually do."
The finished result was 'Say Their Names' - an image that commands its viewer to contemplate the violence inflicted against African Americans, across centuries. From George Floyd, who's body holds the narrative together, the faces of black people killed at the hands of police appear next to victims of slavery and figures from the civil rights movement. And while the painting doesn't identify the faces by name, there is a close-up examination of the cover of on The New Yorker's website.
"It was Kadir's intention to expand it beyond specific victims of police brutality," Mouly says, admitting that when she began reading the background stories it was "humbling to realise how much I didn't know."
Of the most iconic covers of all time, Time magazine has designed a few. Mounted in its distinguishable red frame, Time curates images that can pack a punch.
“The cover needs to be clear, engaging, graphic and simple,” says DW Pine, Time’s creative director, decisively listing off required attributes. “That’s the blueprint on how to make an impactful cover.”
While Pine’s tenure at Time spans 23 years (10 of those as creative director), he confesses that the current news cycle has elevated front covers to a whole new level. “Our readers expect us to weigh in on the biggest news of our times... they look to us to do that. In 97 years, we’ve always played that role, but I would say it is even more so today.”
He adds that this can be a lot of responsibility. “You can imagine how much time it takes to fine-tune every single pixel of this 8 x 10.5 inch frame.”
But what tangible impact can a front cover have? “It breaks through,” Pine insists. “People are thirsty for trust. Whether it’s a photo or an illustration, it still goes beyond an ‘image is worth 1000 words’. This has the power to cut through all the tweets, the 24/7 news operation, all the competing voices.” A convincing argument when it comes from the mouth of the designer who put: ’Warning: We are not ready for the next pandemic’ on the front cover in 2017.
Looking back on the last 10 weeks, Time has worked with big names in oil painting, photography and installation art. “Not only do we get to work with the world’s best journalists, but we also get to hire some of the best photographers and illustrators. In just this 10 week period, we’ve worked with the French artist JR and Titus Kaphar.“
While excited to work with big names, Pine is aware of the need to offer Time’s global platform to unknown black artists. “We try not to just hire the most prominent artists and photographers, but to give a platform to those who are aspiring,“ he admits.
Back in 2015, Devin Allen took an iconic shot during the Baltimore riots. Drawing parallels to America in 1968, the front cover scribbled out the date to make the viewer confront the similarities.
“Paul Moakley, one of our photo editors, found Allen on Instagram when he was documenting the protests that were happening in Baltimore. So we did a cover and it got a lot of attention. He wasn’t even a professional photographer. He was just kind of out there,“ Pine remembers. Last week (11 June), Time revisited Allen again.
The photograph captured protests in Baltimore yet again, five years on. Allen captured the shot on 5 June at a protest organized by demonstrators representing the city’s black transgender community.
More so than any other publication, The Big Issue has been faced the biggest distribution change as a result of coronavirus. While the premise of the street mag is to offer homeless people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income, at a time where people are being advised to stay safely distanced, the social business couldn’t put its news vendors in danger.
People can support The Big Issue by downloading the app to subscribe, while copies of the magazine will also be available to buy supermarkets across the UK.
When the UK Government updating its messaging back in May, the reaction was unanimously exasperated. “It was completely meaningless, it didn’t have any direction,“ Ross Lesley-Bayne, the Big Issue’s art director explains.
Mimicking the ‘stay alert’ messaging was a last minute change, he says. “We had a feature looking at how 500,000 people would be at risk of homelessness due to coronavirus. And while it felt that the Government messaging was off target, in this context it would have a meaning – it’s something we should stay alert to.“
For its 11 June issue, Lesley-Bayne says it did entertain thoughts of doing an illustrated cover to represent the Black Lives Matter movement. “But that felt a bit exploitative, like we were cashing in on the riots.“
Although unintended, the issue included a feature with American film director and prominent activist Spike Lee, which felt perfectly timely. So the creative team decided to keep things simple – just Lee and a poignant quote from the interview: ‘We can learn from history if we wake up.’
“We put Lee and his voice on the cover. He can talk about this a lot better than we can.“
For Graeme James, cover designer at The Economist, the situation is ”unprecedented in our lifetime”.
”From a design point of view, it is the closest to the financial crisis of 2007/8, in the sense that, week-in week-out, one news subject dominates the cover.” And it has already far exceeded the number of weeks a single news event has dominated its coverage, he says.
Considering The Economist is a weekly magazine, finding inspiration to dissect the same issue time and time again is not a burden. “I actually enjoy the challenge,” James claims. “It gives you a narrative akin to chapter headings in a book.”
“The cover is a poster in my mind, and as such it can act as a powerful visual tool that hopefully conveys the content within and the quality of the journalism. It has to stand up to that quality and be a proud bearer of our brand.”
While the past few months have put print to the test, it has also highlighted the expansive power of the digital cover. And will we might not know what else 2020 has to throw at mankind, we can be rest assured that the world‘s top designers have got it covered.