The Economist, a legendary politics and business magazine

The Economist, a legendary politics and business magazine

Alessandro Bonaccorsi Published on 3/8/2024

The best-known magazines are often the oldest too, and this is certainly the case for The Economist, a British periodical that celebrates its 180th birthday this year, having been founded in 1843. In 2019 it had a circulation of around 1 million copies, focused predominantly in the USA and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.

However, the magazine’s success does not so much stem from its sales, which are relatively modest in comparison to some of its global competitors, but rather from the importance of its content: The Economist has a reputation that goes well beyond its readership, and its shrewd and critical articles are quoted by leading publications all over the world. It is held in almost unparalleled regard in the sphere of political economy.

The Economist, a flag bearer for liberal ideas with an interest in the economic policy of the world’s richest countries, occupies a unique niche in the global publishing market: it is snobbish, highbrow (its subscriptions have always been expensive, certainly not within everyone’s reach), well written and highly critical, even sarcastic (it is renowned for its puns, both in its articles and on its covers). It has established itself as an authoritative publication, which is read and discussed by people at the very top of the political and financial establishment.

It is very interesting from an editorial and graphic design perspective too, despite its apparent simplicity, and has various unique features, including maintaining the anonymity of its contributors, which allows it to publish strong opinions and ideas.

So, without further ado, let’s take a detailed look at The Economist’s strengths.


The cover is an essential part of any successful magazine: we’ve seen this over and over again in the previous articles in this series on major global publications, and have often described them as ‘iconic’. The Economist is different and, in certain ways, unique. It uses strong images that illustrate the main title on the cover: poking fun at a particular political leader, emphasising a global event, summarising an analysis of the political and economic situation in a certain country, and so on, using caricatures, collages and highly impactful photographs and, in recent years, many high-quality illustrations. It therefore always manages to grab the reader’s attention.
While previously readers were drawn in at newsagents, they now come from computers and smartphones, and The Economist’s covers go around the world as soon as they are published.

Ending up on the front cover of The Economist can be a PR issue. Take Italy, for example: part of the reason for the country’s not entirely positive global reputation is the fact that former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi received six unfavourable front covers between 2001 and 2011, with titles in Italian like ‘Mamma mia‘ and ‘Basta‘.

In a Business Insider article from 2011, the deputy editor at the time, Emma Duncan, explained the power of the magazine’s covers: ‘We love our covers. We spend a lot of time and energy on them, and have fun doing them. Some are subtle, some strident, some funny, some moving, some shocking’.

From a graphic design point of view, the cover features a header in a beautiful fire engine red(with the CMYK values 0, 100, 100, 0 for typography nerds), which takes up half the width of the page, while the other side displays titles summarising the topics contained within the issue.


The size, 203 x 267 mm, a little smaller than A4, is comfortable to handle, and the paper is fairly thin, making it as easy to flick through as a newspaper.
The simple layout features three columns with neatly organised titles and images. The main focus is on providing a good reading experience, without distractions, given the often complex and specific nature of the articles.

Following a redesign in the early 2000s, which saw colour introduced throughout the magazine, in 2018 the artwork was improved again by art director Stephen Petch and head of graphics Phil Kenny. They made it even easier to read and added a touch of style that The Economist had never had before, with seamless coordination between the paper edition, digital editions and the website.

At the time of the first redesign in 2001, the editor, Bill Emmott, declared that ‘good design, like good writing, should blend into the background; it should be the servant of editors and readers alike, not their master.’ With this in mind, the two designers’ first move was to shift to a much clearer typeface, making the page look less dense and improving the reading experience.

Until that point, typographically speaking, the magazine had paired the robust-looking German font Officina with a classic London font, Johnston, originally designed for use on the Underground. For the redesign they created a new font, Econ, for the header and titles, and chose Milo Sans for the inside pages. Naturally, these fonts appear in the digital versions of the magazine too.

In publications of this type, a great deal of attention is paid to how the various parts – editorials, columns, articles and boxes – are joined together. The designers chose to highlight these sections with spot illustrations by one of the world’s greatest and most celebrated illustrators, Noma Bar, an Israeli artist and the undisputed champion of negative spaces and double images. He is also often asked to provide the cover illustrations.

The attention to detail in The Economist’s graphic design can also be seen in its design guidelines, which demonstrate the way publications are no longer solely printed objects, but now inhabit a vast, digital environment.
Here is the link if you would like a browse: You can also download the various guidelines in PDF format.

Talking of style, The Economist believes that ‘clear thinking is the key to clear writing’, and it has built its editorial style around this motto. For years its style has been available in a handbook, which provides an essential guide to clear writing in the magazine’s voice.

Another motto advocated for over a century and a half by this magazine that plays such an important role in the global balance of power is a true statement of intent and a description of The Economist’s editorial model: ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress’.

The publication’s graphic design reaffirms this balance between intelligence, irreverence and, deep down, a very British modesty, where trailblazing articles and images are neatly constrained within its columns.

The Economist seems to have a natural ability to keep with the spirit of the times, and this includes its graphic design. So much so, we think one of our great-grandchildren will probably be able to write a nice update to this post in a hundred years’ time…

Image sources: