Magazines design and format has evolved significantly since the first commercial produced publication, which is considered to be The Gentleman's Magazine. This magazine was first published in 1731 and covered a wide range of topics, including news, literature, essays, and various articles of interest. The magazine's success helped establish the concept of periodical publications for a broader audience and paved the way for the development of the modern magazine industry.
Early magazine covers do not resemble the colourful and artistic covers we see on modern magazines. They were often simpler and focused more on providing information about the publication's content rather than featuring eye-catching visuals.
Determining the most iconic covers in magazine publishing history can be extremely subjective and will vary widely depending on individual perspectives. However, the following magazine covers are often recognised for their significant impact on the print magazine industry, popular culture, and historical relevance.
National Geographic, June 1985.
Shot by Steve McCurry, this iconic National Geographic cover featured the haunting green eyes of Sharbat Gula, a young Afghan refugee. The image became one of the most recognised magazine covers, highlighting the plight of refugees worldwide.
Time Magazine, April 1966.
The issue was the first instance where Time used just text, without an accompanying image, to entice the reader to purchase the magazine. The bold headline is a a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's much-quoted "God is dead".
Rolling Stone, January 1981.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, this cover captured a tender moment between John Lennon and Yoko Ono. After Lennon's assassination a month earlier, it gained added poignancy and is now regarded as one of Rolling Stone's most famous covers. It was the last portrait of the couple together.
Life, April 1968.
The cover showed Martin Luther King Jr. lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel after being assassinated. This cover served as a powerful visual representation of the civil rights movement and the struggle for equality.
Esquire, April 1968.
Muhammad Ali, posing as Saint Sebastian, is depicted as a martyr for his beliefs. This cover showcased the changing attitudes towards religion and sports during the turbulent 1960s.
Vogue, January 1990.
This Vogue cover is considered to be a turning point in fashion and celebrates the rise of the supermodel era. Photographed by Peter Lindbergh, it featured a group of top models, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington.
Vanity Fair, August 1991.
Heavily pregnant and naked, Demi Moore was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for this cover of Vanity Fair. The controversy around it sparked debates about body image and pregnancy in the media.
Playboy, December 1953.
The inaugural issue of Playboy featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover, helping establish the magazine as an iconic cultural symbol and contributing to the rise of the sexual revolution.
The New Yorker, September 2001.
This simple yet powerful cover artwork by Art Spiegelman depicted the Twin Towers in black against a black background.
People, September 1997.
A month after the death of Princess Diana, People magazine produced a special issue, to celebrate her life. It was the first and only issue of People magazine to run without a cover line.
Glamour, August 1968.
With this image, Katiti Kironde became the first black woman to appear on the cover of a magazine. The 18-year-old Harvard student became one of the symbols of racial integration in the United States.
Sports Illustrated, February 2009.
This historic cover showed Michael Phelps with his eight Olympic gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Games, making him the most successful Olympian in a single Games.
Released two weeks after the events of the Apollo 11 moon landing, this iconic issue and cover documented a significant landmark in human history. The cover displayed Neil Armstrong, the photographer and first man on the moon, reflected in Buzz Aldrin's visor.
Time, December 2008.
The Time 'Person of the Year' rendered the then, but soon to be inaugurated, Mr. Obama in the same style of his campaign poster 'HOPE'. The same artist, Shepard Fairey was commissioned to create the cover artwork. Barack Obama would go on to be the first black president of the United Staes of America.
The New Yorker, December
After the murder of George Floyd, illustrator Kadir Nelson, displayed George embellished with images of activists, black victims of police violence and historical scenes of the March from Selma and the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Rolling Stone, August 2013.
This issue sold twice as many copies at the previous week’s issue of Rolling Stone, despite - and maybe because of - the criticism Rolling Stone received for publishing the image.
Life, November 1965.
Paul Schutzer's photograph of a Vietcong prisoner with his eyes and mouth taped shut is both a reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War but also a remembrance for the photographer who died in the field while covering the Six-Day War in 1967.
Paper, Winter 2014.
The cover for this issue was a re-working or artist Jean-Paul Goude’s artwork; Champagne Incident and as the headline suggests, the cover did in fact break the internet. The cover highlight the strength of print magazines, even in a digital and social media age.
The covers listed here represent a mix of influential moments. Each has cultural impact and historical significance for magazines as a medium, and each of them played a role in shaping public perceptions, sparking discussions, and leaving a lasting mark on the magazine industry and society as a whole.