Left: Everybody's Poultry Magazine, January 1952. Right: Dairy Today, January 2008, designed by D.J. Stout, Pentagram
A magazine is that rare publication in which you're actually expected to judge a book by its cover. This explains why a good magazine cover like a good book jacket or, say, a poster benefits enormously from a great, central, visual idea, which is one reason why portraits are so ideally suited to covers. This is perhaps particularly true of fashion and lifestyle magazines things like Vanity Fair and Vogue publications that typically enlist a celebrity's likeness to help sell magazines.
With such an unbeaten formula for success, clearly the barnyard is the next logical step.
Or is it? Unlike their consumer counterparts, trade magazines aren't obliged to sell themselves in quite the same full-frontal manner. They're not competing for the same kind of attention in a dense visual marketplace. Their circulation is mail-driven not newsstand-driven but does this mean they don't deserve the same attention to scale, drama, impact? D.J. Stout's recent redesign for Dairy Today reminds us that a good magazine cover depends less on a magazine's circulation and content, and perhaps more on the art director's imagination and skill.
But you're nothing without a star.
Some years ago, I wrote an essay on the uncredited art directors of trade magazines, in which I went to great lengths to learn more about of all things poultry farming. When I saw the new and improved "Dairy" I wondered: beyond the white background and the big nameplate and that exquisite bovine mug, what was so different from those magazines of long ago?
Initially, many trade periodicals resembled newspapers: black and white and photography-free, they often sported sketches of animals in lieu of more realistic portraits. Ornamental flourishes and decorative typography further completed the picture.
Left: The Poultry World, April 1879. Right: The Feather, January 1900
By 1912, most trade magazines in the poultry industry looked like this:
Left: Poultry Success, April 1912. Right: The Farm and Poultry Monthly, February 1912
Over the years, with advances in printing and increased budgets, two-color lithography was gradually introduced, resulting in covers that essentially retained the same basic ingredients. While a bit more playful, they still resembled scholarly journals, right down to the scotch rules framing the art.
American Poultry Advocate, assorted covers, 1907-1910
Nevertheless, cover portraits persisted. Some clung to more classic, representative models evoking, for example, the pastoral ideals of a painting by Turner or Constable. Others were more ambiguous as in this cover showing a hen being speared by an inverted pyramid of triangular typography. Profit, indeed!
Left: Portrait of a Cochin Hen. Right: Feeding Poultry for Profit, early 20th century
By the 1920s, the basic cell divided, as single portraits gave way to twins, often as seen here in these early issues of Poultry Tribune shown deep in conversation.
Poultry Tribune, May 1926 and December 1929
And then, sometime between the early years of the great depression and the endless years of the cold war wham! there's this astonishing formal shift. Where there once were flourishes, there's now a kind of Art Deco geometry, a brief but unmistakable flirtation with Constructivism, and a predisposition for the holy trinity of black, red and white. We've entered the new century with a vengeance and the fowl have never looked lovelier.
Left: Poultry Tribune, March 1937. Right: Grain and Feed Journals, January 1951
You might think, by now, that this relatively enlightened approach to cover design might reveal itself in more profound ways leading eventually to hens and chicks rendered with greater degrees of abstraction, heightened minimalism, gestures befitting of the many newly modern ways of interpreting form.
But infact, no.
Everybody's Poultry Magazine, November 1935 and February 1952
Inventive expression is soon trumped by the safer, less objectionable and more crowd-pleasing choice to return to you guessed it the portrait. (Aspiring forensic poultry experts I know you're out there might deduce that the choice to show birds featured deep-in-conversation was, in fact, merely a staged re-enactment of the mating dance that led to the baby chicks featured on this February 1952 cover of Everybody's Poultry Magazine.) But wait: who gave birth to that new logo?
Everybody's Poultry Magazine, March and October 1952
That same year, 1952, Everybody's Poultry introduced at least three new visual interpretations of their logo. But they managed to retain consistency by including portraits, not of poultry, mind you, but of, well, women.
Left: Dairy Today, January 2008, designed by D.J. Stout, Pentagram. Right: Good, March/April, 2008, designed by Scott Stowell, Open
By reviving the animal portrait on the cover of Dairy Today, Stout's redesign nods to a distinguished history of obscure trade magazines whose largely unnamed art directors tried to do justice to material many of us would characterize as, well, mundane. Like his brethren in the poultry press, Stout's readership will benefit from an elevated sense of formal attention paid to a non-newsstand offering. At least that was my supposition until opening my mail a few days ago, when I saw the most recent issue of Good magazine. Side by side, these cows almost look like they could be engaged in conversation. Or, for that matter, a mating dance.
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