Hillary Clinton, Time magazine and the ethics of design

As I discuss in a previous post, design is more than just aesthetic. In the context of the mass media, the design of an item helps to enhance (or detract from) the communication value.

Principles of design help to guide the design process. One of the most critical design principles is that of “position.” Position helps us determine where to put items on the page. When considering position, you should have a definitive reason for the position of each item on the page. You must consider the relative location of items to the page itself and the relative location of items to each other. Items that are close together are going to be perceived to “belong” together. Conversely, items that are far apart of going to be perceived as “separate.”

Failure to consider the relative location of items to each other has precipitated a number of awkward designs to flat out “design fails.” The poor placement of the text in this PSA changes the message from “quit smoking” to “quit school.” The designers did not consider the relative location of items to each other; the poor position of items detracted from the communication value, which created an epic design fail.

There are also times when designers purposefully position items in a perceived “awkward placement” to draw attention to a message or to create a subliminal effect. This can be an incredibly powerful technique. And it can also be brazenly manipulative or purely sensational.

The design of the current cover of Time magazine has called into question the motives of the magazine. The cover story is about Hillary Clinton and her potential candidacy in the 2016 presidential election. The cover image features a striking silhouette image of Clinton with the headline “The Clinton Way.”

But rather than talking about the image, the article, or Clinton’s inevitable candidacy, people are talking about the design of the cover and the “devil horns” on Clinton’s head that are formed from the position of the image relative to the points of the “M” in the magazine’s name.


The question, of course, is: Was the placement accidental or purposeful? Did Time accidentally give Clinton horns? Or was the magazine sending a not-so-subtle foreboding visual message? The horns have become fodder for social media and have been written about by media outlets from the New York Times to Politico to E!.

In a post on Time magazine’s website, the magazine retorted, “Any resemblance to cats, bats or devil horns is entirely coincidental.” The incident prompted the magazine to create a gallery of 34 similar Time magazine covers that appeared to give people horns.

So if the placement was “entirely coincidental,” here’s what I want to know:

If Time magazine is clearly aware that this happens on a regular basis, shouldn’t they be meticulous in the positioning of people’s heads in such a way that does not lead to horns?

This was not sloppy design. This was purposeful design intended to provoke controversy, to gain attention, and, ultimately, and to sell magazines.

The attention has been directed away from the real news. And that’s a sad statement for journalism and for our democracy. Time magazine has, once again, created a cover image that is sensational at best and manipulative at worst.

Image credit to Time magazine and Zeke Miller: https://twitter.com/ZekeJMiller/status/576027019156279296/photo/1


One response to “Hillary Clinton, Time magazine and the ethics of design

  1. Pingback: Hillary Clinton, Time magazine and the ethics of design | michael moghtader's think aloud protocol·

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