State of The Nation
by Jonathan Bell

One of America's most established political magazines, The Nation takes its cover design very seriously. Here, Jonathan Bell talks to Scott Stowell—the man responsible for creating every cover since 1998.

Imagine a magazine with a heritage that stretches back to 1865, the longest continuously-published weekly magazine in the United States. You’d think that such a venerable organ would be committed to a sober editorial line, weathering the ups and downs of nearly one and a half centuries of political storms by playing it safe. Not The Nation. Founded by a group of abolitionists, the magazine has presented a steadfastly alternative viewpoint to that expressed by the people in power. Today, at a time when the political fault lines in American society yawn ever wider, The Nation’s stance is all the more remarkable.

It’s not just the editorial line that sets it apart on the newsstands; this is a magazine with a strong visual agenda. New York-based design studio Open was the proud steward of The Nation’s public face from 1998 to 2003, one of the most tumultuous five-year periods in the magazine’s history. “It’s an old magazine,” says Open’s founder Scott Stowell. “It had an all-text cover until seven years ago.” The interior was given an overhaul by Milton Glaser back in the Seventies, and it was Glaser that the editorial board turned to when they finally decided to bring imagery to the cover. After two years or so, however, Glaser’s studio bowed out and in 1998 The Nation turned to Stowell for a bold new approach. Stowell is well versed in the art of politically infused presentation. Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked with Tibor Kalman, he art-directed Colors magazine in Rome. When his stint there ended, he freelanced for a while before starting Open (“It’s a word that’s part of the landscape—shop windows, doors, etc.—but it’s also an adjective and a verb. It had an arresting simplicity”), including creating editorial illustration work for the op-ed page of the New York Times. The Nation’s deadlines were even more rigorous. “On one hand it was great to have regular work, but then it turned into weekly deadlines for the next five years,” he recalls.

It was clear the magazine needed a new aesthetic direction. “It was important to freshen things up,” Stowell explains. “It's a very liberal magazine but also very visually conservative.” The obvious alternatives didn’t tempt him: “All too often political magazines just have funny drawings of Dick Cheney.” Instead, Stowell decided to use the covers as a series of rapid-fire experiments, ranging from simple typography to graphic parodies and stark photography but never losing a sense of the magazine’s identity over nearly 250 covers. Stowell describes his brief as to “not make it look like a pamphlet—to make it snappy and engaging.” The Nation is printed on newsprint, and the quick turnaround—covers are dispatched electronically on Wednesday morning and the finished magazine is delivered on Friday by the mailman—leaves no time for proofing (“We just keep our fingers crossed”). As a result, there are lots of flat colours and a simple use of process. “They’d actually been using four colous for a while but no one really noticed,” he adds.

In a culture where ‘liberal’ has become an increasingly dirty word, and where unothodox thinking has become, for some, synonymous with an unforgivable lack of ‘patriotism’, The Nation offers a welcome voice of dissent. Contributors to its mix of comment, reviews, poetry and essays include John Sweeney, Robert Fisk, Naomi Klein, Will Hutton and Christopher Hitchens. “I won’t deny that I have the same politics as the magazine,” says Stowell, who feels that the magazine’s editorial line is reflected in its simple graphic approach. “We took a no buillshit, totally direct approach...No Photoshop, no drop shadow—the idea is that here's an image, here’s some text.”

Sometimes, however, the simple approach has been the result of necessity rather than deliberate choice. The magazine’s iconic 1 October 2001 cover was created in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. A graphic image of the silhouetted towers is placed against a clear blue background, evoking the sky on that bright September day. “If anything got more attention than anything else, it’s that cover,” says Stowell. The attack came on a Tuesday, and the team had already finished work on that week’s cover. “We're about a kilometer from the World Trade Center—we heard it on the news and we went out and saw the whole thing happen,” Stowell recalls. Understandably, the issue that was ready for the press had to be largely scrapped. “I had to come back to the office and do that cover while the neighborhood was locked down by the military.” The illustration was created for pragmatic reasons: “There were no photos available—there were just no images.”

The aesthetic was revisited for the 23 September 2002 cover, with the stylized shadows of the WTC looming large over the word “Reverberations.” “Things changed afterwards,” Stowell notes toically, explaining how the design brief had to try to find new ways to tackle the same subjects as the War on Terror rolled onwards across the globe, and first Afghanistan, then Iraq, became the nation’s—and The Nation’s—focus. “In those periods we tended to rely on news photography, with much simpler typography,” he says. “By necessity the magazine is more strident now.” Stowell sounds understandably nostalgic about the state of the world when Open started creating Nation covers back in 1998, describing ongoing events as the gradual souring of a certain type of American dream. There’s rarely the opportunity for flippancy these days. A crecent cover story (1 September 2003) on California’s media-saturated gubernatorial elections mimicked the montage of headshots used on cinematic thriller posters, complete with a ‘clichéd’ arrangement of major and minor players, but the days when the magazine’s cover showed the obscured face of Monica Lewinsky—commenting, perhaps, on the national obsession with a stained dress and the paucity of real political debate—have long passed.

However, as Stowell points out, bad times equals good sales, and The Nation’s circulation has risen steadily as of late. Open’s no-nonsense presentation has conveyed authority and gravitas at a time of general suspicion at the perceived ‘liberal bias’ in the American media. Stowell believes that the mainstream American media are uniformly awful in their approach to graphics, whether it be print or screen. “I’m a voracious reader of news magazines,” he says, “and the respect for design seems to be better in Europe.” Open itself, now an eight-strong team, is moving into screen design, with extensive work for US cable network Trio, which Stowell describes as a “celebration of popular culture as seen through TV—its point of view is that there’s no such thing as high and low culture.” Other clients are more down-to-earth, literally. EarthAction is a small political organisation that aims to put like-minded activists in touch with each other, helping build a global network to raise consciousness about issues such as climate change and human rights.

As The Nation moves towards a more commercially minded presentation, Open is looking forward to being relieved of its weekly deadline. “Now we can focus on longer projects,” Stowell remarks. Nonetheless, working on The Nation not only proved a valuable experience for the studio (“it was like a testing ground—you do a bad cover once in a while and don’t worry about it”) but has resulted in a unique visual record of five years of global upheaval.

This article originally appeared in
Grafik Issue 111 (November 2003).

Note: a few factual errors in the published version of this article have been corrected here.