The Fashion of Politics

Reviews by Michael Bierut
1 082 words6 min read

I have been asked to review the design of George. Like everyone else on earth, I had heard about the idea of George for months before I laid my eyes on an actual copy of George. As a result, I knew a lot about George already. I knew that it was being published by two people, one of whom was John F. Kennedy Jr., and another one who wasn’t John F. Kennedy Jr. I had read that Kennedy, after having finally passed his bar exam, and after having worked capably in the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, had decided instead to devote his life to publishing a magazine about politics. Or more specifically about politics “as” something else: politics as theater, politics as entertainment, politics as fashion. The magazine would be called George, as in George Washington.

As a graphic designer, I found myself interested in the physical appearance of the magazine. Kennedy and his partner (who it now occurs to me has one of the most thankless jobs in publishing, that of Designated Invisible Man) talked to a lot of people. Names flew about. In Esquire, it was reported that advertising legend George Lois, universally admired for his design of hard hitting, often political covers for Esquire in the 1960s had designed a logo and some covers for George. That didn’t work out. “If you want a safe magazine, you’ve got the wrong guy,” were Lois’s parting words. The would-be publishers also talked to—among other people—Roger Black (Esquire’s current design director) and (in the interests of full disclosure) my partner Paula Scher.


I have vivid memories of the day John Kennedy Jr. came to our office, although inevitably whether or not he brought anyone along with him is a bit less vivid. Kennedy’s arrival sent a physical shock through the entire place. If I wasn’t sure what was meant by the word charismatic then, I know now. Kennedy met with Paula in a conference room that featured a glass wall facing a hallway at one end. Nearly every person in the office found occasion to walk down that hallway once, if not several times, during the course of that meeting. The delivery of coffee into the conference room required as many participants as the delivery of a baby does in a large urban hospital. I gave up trying to be soigne and finally called my wife Dorothy on the phone from the room adjacent to the conference room. “Guess who I’m looking at with my own eyes at this very minute?” I asked her. Nothing ever came of this meeting. For her part, Paula said John Kennedy Jr. seemed like a nice enough guy who seemed interested in magazines.

Months passed. Kennedy connected with Hachette Filipatcchi, who also publish Elle, Elle Decor, Metropolitan Home, and Car and Driver. Finally, at the end of this past summer, advertisements began to appear around Manhattan announcing George’s arrival. Although many people reported it was hard to get, I was walking through an airport when I saw the thing itself displayed in the windows of a newsstand. The cover of the first issue, as is well-known by now, featured supermodel Cindy Crawford wearing an outfit meant to make her look like a cross between George Washington and Boy George.

After buying a copy, I learned that a copy of George is a potent conversation piece. Boarding the plane with the magazine under my arm, I noticed people nudging each other and furtively pointing at it. Someone asked, “Is there anything about Daryl Hannah in it?” I was to be asked this same question many times by people who noticed me with George. Actually, John F. Kennedy Jr. has broken up with Daryl Hannah and is dating someone else. There is nothing about Daryl Hannah in the advertising-bloated first issue of George. There are mentions of Madonna, Julia Roberts, Isaac Mizrahi, Sharon Stone, Uma Thurman, Brad Pitt, and among many other politicians, Sonny Bono.


That brings us to the magazine’s design. Usually, one of the satisfactions of discussing design for an informed audience is uncovering hidden visual agendas, exposing connections to remote sources, and deciphering the submerged cues that reside in every physical artifact. George requires no such analysis. George is simple: it looks just like a fashion magazine. Admittedly, not just any fashion magazine, but a fashion magazine in a bizarre parallel universe where approximately 3 out of every 5 gorgeous supermodels have been mysteriously transformed into relatively unattractive white guys in suits. The breathlessness of the jumbled typefaces, the masses of collaged pictures, even the cute little silhouette of a prancing Dick Lugar all make no attempt to disguise their source. The overall intention is obvious, even to laypeople. “This looks just like Elle,” said the layperson I’m married to as she flipped through it. “Where’s the part about Daryl Hannah?”

There are points I could make about the details of the design of George, about whether Helvetica Inserat and Avenir and Letter Gothic really were made to go together, or about how much the typeface Antique Olive reminds me of fingernail clippings, but in the end a design must be suited to its purpose, and by that criterion Hachette creative director Matt Berman has done an admirable job. George looks the way it has to look. Unfortunately, the way it has to look is embarrassing.

There is no inherent virtue in dullness, and politics, filled as it is with liveliness and drama, doesn’t have to look as understated as it does in the pages of The Nation. Indeed, as the George’s best pages (I’m thinking of the stunning black and white Herb Ritts portraits of George Wallace that accompany Kennedy’s interview with him) amply demonstrate, it is possible to combine powerful visual journalism with a vaguely dangerous sense of glamour. But such moments are rare in the first issue of George. The overall effect is that of an object lesson in the media’s trivialization of American public life. But Americans are starved for charisma. As pundits in election years say, “Each society gets the leaders it deserves.” It will be interesting to see if we think we deserve George.