The New Yorker at 90: The Art of Great Cover Art

It’s easy to love The New Yorker. Their editorials, criticism, opinion, reporting, poetry, and celebrated cartoons have consistently set a gold standard of excellence for publishing.  The venerable magazine is celebrating 90 years of groundbreaking, respected coverage of much more than the New York literary scene, and must be basking in the accolades from readers and critics. You know you’re pretty influential when bloggers take the time to praise and interpret the shape of just one letter in your masthead!

The New Yorker covers provide a master class in creative illustration and graphic design. Timely and often controversial cover art is a mainstay of the magazine as the New York Times notes the covers have taken a distinctive shift “from polite to provocative.” The editors seek out innovative artists who movingly capture the nation’s excitement, fear, contradictions or spirit in a graphic image that gets noticed, sells magazines and ultimately proves the enduring power of print.

Great graphic design brings order and meaning to a complex or hard-to-define subject – and The New Yorker covers excel at that. Wit and creativity are needed to illustrate a complex point of view or clash of points of view in a deceptively simple artwork. Some magazines rely on the excitement and buzz generated by a controversial cover image simply to get attention for attention’s sake – think Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue or the outlandish banner headlines of the tabloids. Conversely, The New Yorker covers do more than exploit an event’s moment in the mainstream spotlight – and they often make news in and of themselves.

Often a great cover image becomes indelibly linked in our minds to the events or topics they address. As the covers below prove, the creation of a great cover illustration also has a story behind the scenes that is equally interesting:

The New Yorker Covers
© The New Yorker

Sept. 24, 2001: read the story behind the uncredited cover commemorating the tragedy of 9/11.

Dec. 8, 2014: Bob Staake’s poignant illustration of the racial divisions in Ferguson, MO.

July 21, 2008: “The Politics of Fear” by Barry Blitt – one of the most satirically controversial covers in The New Yorker’s history.


The New Yorker Covers
© The New Yorker

July 8, 15, 2013: “Moment of Joy” by Jack Hunter, celebrating the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Jan. 19, 2015: “Solidarité” by Ana Juan, memorializing the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Dec. 16, 2013: “Madiba” by Kadir Nelson, for the passing of Nelson Mandela.


To show the importance of cover art to the magazine’s essence, The New Yorker decided to print not one but 9 different covers – one for each decade – for it’s special anniversary double issue. Each image seeks to bring the iconic cartoon dandy Eustace Tilley who appeared on the first cover in 1925 into the 21st century. And in order to ensure they stay as relevant and dynamic in the next 90 years as they have in the past, the magazine just hired ad agency SS+K to steer and coax it’s brand progression.




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