For over a century, the pages of Vogue, one of the world’s best-known magazines, have been packed full of fashion, elegance and style. Everyone has heard of Vogue, even if they haven’t leafed through it.
Like the New Yorker, Vogue is the embodiment of a New York vision, but one which nevertheless succeeded in conquering the world.
The magazine was founded in the US city way back in 1892 as a ‘society gazette’ aimed at the upper classes, but it was only in around 1910, when it was purchased by what would become the Condé Nast group, that Vogue became the most authoritative fashion magazine in the world, with print runs reaching one million copies by the end of the 1970s.
It is now one of the world’s most popular magazines, with an incredible 11 million copies printed across 27 different international editions. When you also take into account the people who enjoy Vogue content online, you can see why the brand is so important and influential. The Chinese edition – which is one of the best-selling – is bought by 1.6 million people alone.
As well as symbolising wealth and style, Vogue is also interesting for some of the innovative work it did in the first half of the last century in the field of editorial design, such as using artistic photo shoots, which quickly replaced illustrations, and creating iconic covers that have barely changed their layout for at least a century.
The magazine’s success over the past 30 years is in part testament to its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, an astute and influential queen of haute couture, whose fame rocketed following Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada and the film of the same name, where Wintour is clearly the inspiration for the lead character, brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep.
The various editions published around the world are all independent, with strong editorial boards that choose to take different directions from the American edition. For example, Vogue Italy was edited for decades by the charismatic and innovative Franca Sozzani.
Vogue’s editors know that they shoulder a huge responsibility in the fashion world, and that they are quite literally trendsetters and influencers.
Now let’s analyse the design of this elegant and stylish magazine.
Each cover is iconic.
I know, whenever we talk about major magazines, we always tend to say that their covers are iconic, but Vogue’s covers really are icons, in the true sense the term: they are like sacred images. Just like Byzantine icons and Renaissance portraits, Vogue’s covers show the female form in myriad extraordinary poses, with charming expressions, hands, hairstyles and colours combining to create refined images of statuesque elegance.
But the cover photo (in the magazine’s early years the cover occasionally also features illustrations) is only a taster of what you can find inside: Vogue has some of the greatest fashion photographers in the world, indeed it plays its part in making them great, and often hires exceptionally famous women for its shoots.
Another interesting detail is that the cover star is always looking at the camera, and therefore the reader.
The cover image is inserted – almost embedded, in fact – below the magazine’s header, which is written in Didot, a font with an eighteenth-century design that evokes fragility and elegance; the colour changes with each edition to match the hues of the photograph.
The titles, written in a sans-serif font and different in each of the various international editions, are placed around the main image, so you can tell at a glance the most important and exclusive topics dealt with inside. Sometimes this can seem rather chaotic, but this apparently random composition actually helps the reader to get their bearings quickly before starting to read.
Simple graphics, because photography is king
Since the very first editions, the magazine has stood out for its use of very large, centred headlines and a variety of two-, three- and four-column pages. The page layouts tend to be asymmetrical, to keep readers’ energy levels up and stop them getting bored when leafing through countless photos of models.
The photo shoots are not dissimilar from the many full-page adverts, which in some editions, such as the American and French ones, can account for as many as two-thirds of all the pages.
The photos can expand to gobble up a column from the adjacent page, proof that Vogue is an image-centred Magazine, where the text always plays a supporting role to the photography.
Photography has the advantage of allowing the reader to identify with the articles and, as semiotics scholars have noted, photography sells, whereas a drawing (or illustration) doesn’t.
If you look at the examples we’ve provided in this article, you’ll see how the single-page columns are more dynamic than the articles and editorial content. Even the contents page and colophon, which some magazines use to test out new solutions, in Vogue are kept neat and tidy, almost rigid.
The haute couture bible
Over the years, Vogue’s prestige has grown steadily. Even from a purely graphic design viewpoint, in some ways the magazine has dictated the style of the world of haute couture: then again, what else would you expect from a magazine with a name like ‘Vogue’?
The pairing of a classic eighteenth-century font and fashion photography has become the go-to option for any publication wanting to discuss elegance and style. Just look how many magazines have copied Vogue’s graphic style, sometimes improving it or using it as the basis for innovative graphic design and layouts. In terms of its graphics, Vogue is rather conservative, and does not use creative or disruptive layouts like other magazines do.
In spite of this, however, it is still the clear leader in the sector, and it is hard to see any other magazines catching it for the foreseeable future.
Vogue is style.
Some of the information in this article is taken from the following articles and studies:
L’illustrazione di moda tra arte, comunicazione e progetto by Stefano Chiarenza
Localizing Graphic Design in a Global Media Environment: A Visual Social Semiotic Analysis of Vogue by Melissa McMullen, published in the International Journal of Communication 16 (2022).