Rob Vargas: How to Design a Magazine Cover without Subject Cooperation

These days the national magazine cover can feel a little tired in the creativity department. So many glossies look like they’re picking their cover subjects from the same celebrity merry-go-round, leading to predictable images of beautiful people smiling at the camera or displaying a knowing smirk that seems to say, “Yes, I’m hot and I know it.”

Cover shoots are well-orchestrated events, involving armies of editors, photographers, publicists, incredible lighting, probably some airbrushing, and lots of money to pull the whole thing off. The image itself is always the capstone of a celebratory feature story. Words like “style icon” or “most powerful” or “Nick Nolte, the sexiest man alive” could well appear.

But Bloomberg Businessweek has been playing a different game, one where the cover subject is as likely to be criticized as they are to be lauded. And a critical article means that the cover subject is unlikely to want to cooperate with the editors on a cover photo shoot, leaving creative director Rob Vargas and his team with a blank page and the need to do something completely radical – come up with an original design idea. Unorthodox ideas aren’t just accepted, says Vargas, they’re necessary.

That ethos lends itself to some pretty gnarly images like, say, a shirtless Warren Buffett wrestling a bare-chested Elon Musk for a story on their battle over the future of solar energy. Or a mock Abercrombie & Fitch ad where the male model in tight, unbuttoned jeans is an old dude with sagging pecs and a portly physique, upon which is stamped the words “The Aging of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Here Vargas discusses what goes into making the magazine’s provocative covers, how he determines when to treat a design with sensitivity or be sensational, and why he left the New York Times to join Bloomberg Businessweek.

How does a Bloomberg Businessweek cover come together?

The cover idea comes first. A lot of times it’s the photo editor and myself bouncing around ideas. Usually we don’t start with the headline. We start with something visual and build a headline on top of that. One of the things I really liked about this magazine – and this is not a shot at other magazines, but a lot of magazines take subject matter and depict people they want to celebrate, very laudatory stories. There isn’t a lot of room for humor in those cases.

With us, our stories can be critical of businesses and explore flaws within larger companies. We expose lesser-known bad behavior by financial firms. Many times we’re not getting cooperation from our cover subject. Like we did a story on a financial firm that was financing a dictator in Africa. There’s no cooperative photography for that. As a designer, I love when you have a 3,000-word story and literally nothing else. That forces us to think creatively because you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper.


Bloomberg Businesseek covers from June 2015 and January 2016.

Your magazine is published weekly, so you’ve got to be creative on a pretty tight schedule. What advice do you have for becoming a strong idea generator?

Like most things, you get better with practice. That not only has to do with gaining a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, it also has a lot to do with confidence. When I first started in magazines and was tasked with coming up with a concept, it was pretty excruciating. I would think about a concept for hours and hours, and, as I was doing so, I would think about how I would never come up with a solution good enough to please my bosses. It was a very negative way of thinking, and the only thing it did was get in the way of a flow of ideas.

After a couple of hundred times of doing that, I acknowledged the fact that I was always going to come up with terrible ideas, and that’s completely fine. Sometimes you need to get those out of the way before you find the right one. Other times, you embrace the terrible one, and try to execute it in a way that elevates it. Other times, you just have to let go of your pride and ask others for help. What I love about publications is that I’ve found them to be very collaborative. People support each other as opposed to competing. This is especially true with Businessweek. It’s a multi-talented group, and so many of the best cover ideas had absolutely nothing to do with me.  Sometimes I just say “help” and then someone shows me something fantastic. From that point on it becomes my job to work with the art director or photo editor to see it through.

Bloomberg Businessweek is in a unique place, in that it covers people in the business realm who might also use the Bloomberg terminals, the company’s primary revenue generator. How do you balance potentially offending a terminal user in a cover story, with the need to be true to the piece? 

Luckily, we don’t get interference from Bloomberg corporate management when we’re writing critical stories. My feeling is that the cover stories are supporting financial firms in a roundabout way because they’re giving them useful information. From my experience, the company has never tried to protect a subject.

Do you ever feel like a cover went too far?

One of the things that people weren’t so happy within the company was this one cover that we did where a dog was urinating on the actual Bloomberg logo, on our actual logo. The story was about how, at the time, a big talking point for the presidential candidates was about Wall Street fat cats, so it was pretty much how everyone is beating up on business. That was our idea. It didn’t necessarily go over well here for obvious reasons. To me, that was a good example of how we exist in a space that we can also really criticize, even if it’s ourselves.

Tell us about a time you had a sensitive cover subject and how you handled it?

The one that comes to mind is one about Takata airbags that were exploding and killing people. The cover had a red background with the quote “If we go forward with this, somebody will be killed,” in small black type. It was a quote from one of the people that was trying to bring this situation to light to the managers well before the first accident. That, to me, is an example of the cover not shouting at you or not showing an upsetting car crash. We’re not doing anything sensational because it’s something very serious, but it’s also clear what we’re trying to do.

There really is no way to properly caption an image like this. The 2015 magazine cover says it all.

Before you came to Bloomberg, you worked for the New York Times Magazine. What led you leave the New York Times?

I got cold-called by the former Bloomberg Businessweek creative director, asking me if I wanted to join this team to redesign the magazine, because that’s when Bloomberg had just bought Businessweek. The Times is obviously one of the best publications in existence, and it will be one of the best in existence whether or not I’m there. That is very clear. But Businessweek was this big lump of clay, no offense to the previous design team, but it was basically a full opportunity to make it whatever we wanted to make it. It’s not like where I was told, “We have this new thing that we can play with, but let’s make it look like Forbes.” It was, “Let’s make it look like nothing else.”

What advice would you have for somebody who is at a similar crossroads, choosing between a well-established brand that might have less creative freedom but more prominence and a less prominent brand that they can build or reimagine? 

You have to assess every risk for what it is. Moving to Bloomberg Businessweek felt like a pretty good risk because I already knew that I had shared a vision with the people that were hiring me. We were like-minded thinkers and that made the risk a lot easier to swallow. It’s not just jumping into a black hole and not knowing where you’re going to end up. You need to assess if what you’re making has the potential to grow, and whether you’ll be working with people that you share values with. If those things are in place, then it’s absolutely worth the risk [to choose the less-prominent brand you can build or rebrand.]

Do you ever fear that you’ll run out of cover ideas?

I used to be more afraid of that. After the redesign, we got tons of praise for the redesign and then it died out. Then we had this slight existential crisis. It was like, All right, now we’re known for this thing. Can we keep doing it? It was all psychological in terms of questioning ourselves and our own ability to take the tools we had and create these infinite reconfigurations.

How did you regain your confidence?

We just kept pushing forward. One of the positive aspects of being at a weekly magazine is that you don’t have the luxury of being inside your head for too long. The clock is always ticking, and there’s an endless stream of problems to solve. People are depending on you. At certain points you can’t help but take a step back and start obsessing about the meaning of it all. But eventually you have to snap back. You have to remind yourself that you’re here because you want to be here, because you love it for all it’s ups and downs, and then you just get back to work.