Notebook: 8 April 2018 | MAGAZINES
A profile of Andy Cowles – international, multi-award winning creative development director
On Tuesday, 11 September 2001 I was attending a business conference with colleagues in London’s Docklands. As we were eating our buffet lunch, there was news of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers in New York – and before the lunch was finished there was confirmation that it was some sort of terrorist attack. With the meeting over, we quickly made our way home – a rumour had spread that an attack was also planned for Canary Wharf, which was the tallest building in the UK at the time, and just down the road from where we were. We were glad to be back on the train and heading home for Norfolk…
In New York, Andy Cowles had been on his early morning run. He was living in Manhattan’s West Village and as he jogged down the West Side Highway he overheard a couple of workmen chatting about a low-flying plane – and as his eyes were drawn skywards, he saw the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was so high above him that he mistook it for a light aircraft and continued his run around Battery Park and then headed back up the West Highway for home. Glancing over his shoulder he was startled and dumbfounded to see a second plane hit the south tower…
For Andy Cowles 9/11 has understandably become one of the most significant moments in his life and in the days immediately after the attack his overwhelming emotion was one of outrage, how dare this happen! – and in that moment he became a New Yorker and felt a bond with the city, which will never leave him. It was only later that the overwhelming horror of the event set in.
Cowles was an Englishman in New York and at the time of 9/11 he’d been in the city for just a few weeks. He’d landed the job of Creative Director on Condé Nast’s legendary Mademoiselle magazine – which had been on the go since 1935. His brief was to re-imagine the title for a younger and smarter audience.
Cowles had established himself as one of the UK’s leading magazine creative directors back in the mid 1980s working on the launches and early issues of Q, Empire and Mojo (all published by EMAP and later bought out by Bauer). He had a knack for knowing and understanding his readership – and together with his fellow editors, they were able to create publications that had real emotional engagement with their audiences. Take Q for instance: it was created to give regular music lovers an alternative to the tribal rock press of the day – they were saying to their reader, it doesn’t matter what genre of music you like or don’t like, you are welcome here at Q. We are a broad church – and the audience was respected. Q identified a huge gap in the music press market which they rapidly filled and the magazine became an overnight publishing phenomenon.
Left: Writer Tom Hibberts’ hugely successful Who The Hell..? column
Right: New Q Gothic, drawn by Andy Cowles specifically for the magazine. This typeface replaced Grotesque No.9 sometime around Q80
The best magazines are born when there is great teamwork between editors and designers with all working together for the common good. Teamwork is a fundamental requisite but it doesn’t always happen – and it is not uncommon in publishing for editors to ride roughshod over designers or for designers to be intransigent and unwilling to accept an editor’s point of view. This was never the case at Q. The founding editors Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, who were brilliant journalists from the old rock press, were both highly visual and understood the crucial role that design had to play – and conversely, designer Andy Cowles thought like a journalist and used design, not just as decoration to be painted on, but to help tell the story and hit a touchpoint with the reader. It was a heady mix of talented and creative people sparking together at the right time and their unstoppable energy resulted in, in Cowles words, a magazine that was bitingly funny, beautifully written and with a presentation to match and the brand gave male readers in particular a sense of identity that few contemporary titles have yet to equal.
Andy Cowles’ journalistic approach to design stemmed from way back. With a fellow student at school, they had designed, edited and published an ‘alternative’ school magazine. The headmaster had decried it offensive and ordered all copies to be burnt but the editorial committee held a couple back and entered them into The Sunday Times school magazine competition and it duly became a joint winner, with one of the judges, who just happened to be the headmaster of Eton at the time, describing it as gloriously irreverent! Following this early foray into publishing, Cowles went on to study graphic design at Bristol Polytechnic and upon graduating, and still with a taste for words, pictures and paper, took a job at EMAP in Peterborough on Horse and Pony mag. He progressed from there to become art editor on Melody Maker and then on to EMAP’s Carnaby Street office (home of Smash Hits) to work on the launch of Looks, a hair, fashion and beauty magazine and then onto Q, Empire and Mojo.
The film magazine Empire was, and still is, a hugely popular magazine and at the time of its launch in 1989 there were no other glossy mainstream film magazines quite like it, so it was plugging another well-spotted gap in the marketplace. Music mag Mojo built on Q’s success but was aimed at a slightly older reader interested in a deeper level of authenticity. Looking back at those brilliant early issues of Mojo, it is clear that this is some of Andy Cowles’ finest design work. The layouts draw you in and leave you wanting to read more about the musicians and their music. Pages are bold but always very carefully crafted and Cowles is an expert at combining superb typography with impactful imagery, always edited and cropped in just the right way. When this is all combined with the snappy words of the editor, at the time, Paul Du Noyer, the result is irresistible – no wonder Mojo became the UK’s best selling music monthly.
Cowles continued to work for EMAP for much of the 90s working on a range of launches including Premiere, Total Sport, Fore, and Ride and carrying out redevelopment work for many of the existing titles such as Angling Times, Country Walking and Trail which were all given the same vitality and emotional engagement with the reader that he’d brought to Q and Mojo. He also spent some time with News Corp redesigning the News of the World’s Sunday Magazine and on the launch of an award-winning astrology magazine, Know Your Own Destiny.
In 2001 he made the move to New York to work on Mademoiselle at the Condé Nast office in Times Square. Think of the actor Stanley Tucci’s part as the creative director in The Devil Wears Prada and you begin to get an idea of the world that Cowles had moved into – this was Condé Nast at the height of its success with huge budgets and big teams working across its portfolio of titles… However, the attacks on the World Trade Center heralded a downturn in the publishing sector and in Mademoiselle’s fortunes in particular. The magazine had already been losing money on its ad’ sales in the fiercely competitive women’s magazine market and 9/11 became the nail in its coffin. Despite its 66 year history and a circulation of over one million, plus Andy Cowles’ best efforts to redesign it for a younger, smarter audience, it was closed six months after Cowles had started and he found himself jobless.
In a weird act of serendipity, Cowles heard on the grapevine that Rolling Stone were looking for a new head of design (legendary art director Fred Woodward had just left Rolling Stone magazine, after 14 years tenancy, to take a job as creative director on American GQ at Condé Nast). Cowles contacted Rolling Stone’s owner Jann Wenner, told him that he was the man for the job, and Wenner, who was a fan of Mojo magazine, took the Englishman onboard. It was a case of right place, right time. Cowles’ brief was to head off the challenge to Rolling Stone from new insurgent European titles such as Maxim and Blender and he did this with a more robust design but without compromising the heritage and identity of what was one of the world’s most iconic media brands. A selection of covers, from Cowles’ time at Rolling Stone are shown below, all of them bristling with rich typography and strong, powerful images.
Working for Jann Wenner had its pleasures and its perils – he was a notoriously difficult publisher to operate under, and after a couple of years or so, and feeling homesick for the UK, Cowles felt that it was time to beat a pathway back to London and so he took a job as creative director at IPC on London’s southbank, overseeing all their titles. The role later morphed into ‘editorial development director’ which reflected Cowles’ much broader understanding of the industry and played to the best of his abilities – not just as a designer, but as a copywriter, ideas man, moderniser and publishing and content guru. It was a busy and exciting time with IPC: they had a large programme of new launches including the huge circulation women’s weekly Pick Me Up! (Cowles’ title), compact TV listings mag TV Easy and the Good To Know website (also Cowles’ title)
Cooking Light for IPC’s US parent company Time Inc
Cowles found it easy to switch from one sector to another – one minute working on mass-market titles such as TV Times and the next, on more specialist or upmarket magazines such as the re-mix of huge brands like Country Life, Marie Claire or Horse and Hound to further increase their sales. And he was able to retain his bond with the US by spending some time back in NYC working on Time Inc’s huge Cooking Light, Health and People brands. (Time Inc owned IPC in the UK). One project, amongst many during his time with IPC, that captures his intelligent thinking and wide ranging skills (designer, copywriter, marketeer…), was the ingenious idea he had for promoting the IPC brand. His brief was to remind advertising agencies of the power and reach of the huge IPC/Time Inc portfolio. A roadshow was created and it included a radical pop-up photoshoot and design studio that allowed agency staff to appear on the cover of either NME or Marie Claire. Their finished cover was then sent to the social network of their choice within minutes. It was a clever and witty solution and it ensured that Time Inc. brands remained in the hearts and minds of the agencies. Each cover was written and designed by Cowles in the space of five or so minutes and were shot by the celebrity photographer Neil Cooper pictured at work below. You can read more here.
Andy Cowles’ mantra has always been to respect your audience, put them first and win them over with large dollops of emotional engagement (his so-called secret sauce) and high levels of editorial quality – in other words: understand who your reader is, develop their trust, build bridges by giving them high levels of access to content – and then they’ll come across.
Cowles continues to be one of the UK’s leading creative development directors. Since 2013 he has run his own company Cowles Media creating and reinventing powerful identities for media brands worldwide. Recent projects have included branding work for American Airlines, The Homebuilding and Renovating Show, Horse & Hound and management consultancy Vendigital.
American Way in-flight magazine and app for American Airlines
Graphic designer and author Craig Oldham recently said: “The designer who can speak powerfully and persuasively in front of listeners will outstrip others every time. The gift-of-the gab isn’t about bullshitting, it’s about understanding what you need to say and saying it with passion”¹. Andy Cowles has that gift – he is a powerful communicator and an engaging speaker and teacher, and for many years he has spoken regularly at high profile industry events. He also runs brand and content workshops, for instance for ITV’s Loose Women and he is a Guardian Masterclass trainer. You can catch Andy Cowles speaking on Good design is good business at the PPA Festival at Tobacco Dock in London next month (10 May 2018).
At the end of May, Cowles will return to the streets of Manhattan – this time to take part in The Art of Rolling Stone – a one-day conference devoted to the typography, photography, and design of Rolling Stone. Three generations of art directors from 1967 to 2018, including Andy Cowles, will present their work, tell their stories and share the contributions that they have made to this iconic publication. If you are in New York on Friday 25 May, don’t miss it – you are in for a treat!
In 2009 Cowles was awarded the BSME Mark Boxer award which is presented each year to an individual who, in the opinion of the BSME Committee, has made an outstanding editorial contribution to magazines in this country.
¹From Oh Sh*t, What Now by Craig Oldham and published by Laurence King, April, 2018.
My review of the book here.