The Cover Story

the Atlantic cover

This November, the Atlantic got the eighth thorough redesign of its 151 years. By returning to an image-free cover, at least for this first issue, the magazine continues its historic search for balance between visuals and its intelligent words.

When the Atlantic made its debut in 1857, known as the Atlantic Monthly then, the first issue came into the readers’ hands with a simply black and white cover and a small centered image of John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, inside an antique floral border.

It was an era that words ruled absolutely. Billing itself as a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts,” the Atlantic proved it was good at that game with an illustrious roster of writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell.

Images were ignored intentionally until November 1947 when the magazine’s 90th anniversary issue replaced the table of content they had used to put on the cover with a large illustration of Neptune and a unicorn. It was the first substantial redesign of the Atlantic, a sign of the magazine’s concession to images.

The Atlantic embraced the visual era, going on to win some 400 awards for illustration and design.

However, being a master in both fields also brought the editors new problems. During the seven redesigns, while the typefaces of the nameplate changed again and again, the trade-off between words and pictures on the covers continued throughout the years.

Now, the latest attempt of the magazine’s redesign, with a nameplate mimicking that of the 1930s and no picture but only bold yellow, black, and white words on a bright red background, seems to be an effort to recall the importance of its powerful words in a more modern way.

Frankly, I do not like the combination of the four colors. But the cover, very much like NewsMap, an experimental modern website that displays enormous amount of information in a “treemap” format, is a good balance between the old and new, bold and elegant.

As the most direct selling tool, covers sell magazines by tempting newsstand browsers to pick them up, and then open them, and then – we hope – buy.

Overwhelmed by tons of flamboyant cover images these days, I feel it more intriguing to pick up a magazine with a cover like this, which immediately arouses my curiosity of the stories inside.

As James Bennet, editor-in-chief, wrote in the November Editor’s Note, “The core of the Atlantic remains its wide-ranging feature stories. The redesign is intended to bring the rest of the magazine more in line with what the features have long been doing. ”

A magazine’s cover is more than simple decoration or packaging. It reflects the magazine’s very character. As for the Atlantic, I believe what the founders called “the American idea” exists in the power of words.

-Frances Wang


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