The Secret to People Magazine’s Success Story

Photo by Nicholas Prakas

Yes, knowing your audience is the key to creating a magazine that stays relevant, even loved. But what about when your magazine audience is around 90 million, from all walks of life? At People Magazine, the answer may surprise you.

Perrin Drumm was able to score a rare “behind-the-scenes” look at the design team behind the magazine and came away with some interesting insights.

“With one of the largest magazine readership in America, People has gamely laid the table for our insatiable appetite for the lives of others ever since it was founded in 1974,” Drumm writes in Eye on Design. (The original article was first published in 2018.) 

“It’s a seductive, if not always stylish spread, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and to be devoured as quickly as our fingers can flick the pages,” she continues. “The layouts invite us to tuck in and take a bite without feeling too guilty about what we’re consuming. Advertisers are eating it up, too—annual ad revenues regularly top a billion dollars. At a time when print advertising is supposed to be dying a slow, silent death, how do they pull this off?”

The answer, she believes, is standards. 

“Ethical standards. Moral standards. And yes, design standards,” she explains. 

In practical terms this means no photoshopping images. No salacious gossip from unknown sources. No smear jobs, or hearsay. And this gives them an edge when it comes to getting access … and stories … directly from the celebrities they cover. 

“This is People, people—a celebrity entertainment magazine where nice news is good news and actual reporting is the rule.”

“When other magazines go low—printing sensational rumors, half-truths, and outright lies—People sticks to the facts,” Drumm continues. “Which makes designing it all the more challenging: How do you make facts go down like candy that tastes just as sweet to your retired grandpa, your single-and-lovin’-it gal pal, your working mom, your stay-at-home dad, and your celeb-obsessed 6th grader?”

Again, it takes standards. And it takes a certain amount of “good enough” in the design, not pushing too far from the recognizable format and style to disorient the reader. It’s really the only way they can maintain their editorial standards and a grueling weekly publishing calendar. 

Drumm spins a great story in her article about her time onsite with the design team; it’s definitely worth the time to read it. And if you’re just looking for the Cliff notes, here’s the takeaway:

“… it’s somehow comforting to know that there’s at least one mass market magazine that doesn’t have to skirt journalistic standards to chase sales.”