The Sometimes Awkward, Sometimes Cool Ways Print Mags Cross Digital Divide

I’m always fascinated by the sometimes innovative and sometimes awkward print-media experiments in crossing the print-digital divide.

There was a time when being on the cover of a national magazine was a huge deal. It’s hard to communicate in this era the power a prominent print cover possessed a few decades ago. Covers dictated the national conversation in lots of areas: politics, entertainment, culture. Songs have been written about that kind of clout.

In recent years, Time magazine has done a good job of animating its print covers in creative and influential ways. It’s not just covers that seek to bridge the gap between print and digital. For 20 years, the digital-magazine format -- the replica concept -- was a common offering. More recently, that effort has migrated to apps in appealing ways. And there have been plenty of concepts out there that are frivolous or gimmicky, things no one holding a print magazine in their hands will actually care to engage with.



Fast-forward to yesterday, when I wrote about a new magazine that exists only in the metaverse. Then, also yesterday, I came across an announcement from Cosmopolitan that it has produced a “Digital Issue” that includes “the world’s first-ever artificially intelligent cover.”

In journalism, we’re taught to be wary of claims to being the "first-ever” of anything. And indeed, in an accompanying cover story, Cosmo acknowledged that just last week, The Economist used an AI bot to generate an image for its report on the state of AI technology, and featured that image as an inset on its cover.

What Cosmo was doing sounded cool, though, so I took a look. The cover image was created by Cosmo in collaboration with the artist Karen X. Cheng, using DALL·E 2, an AI system developed by OpenAI that can create original, realistic images and art from a short text description.

So it’s essentially the result of an editorial brainstorming session where ideas are typed into the AI system through a text interface, the AI thinks for a while, and comes up with images that can be used by creators as options -- concepts to be considered and refined.

As the Cosmo cover story put it, “the artificial intelligence takes verbal requests from users and then, through its knowledge of hundreds of millions of images across all of human history, creates its own images—pixel by pixel—that are entirely new. Type 'bear playing a violin on a stage' and DALL-E will make it for you, in almost any style you want. You can depict your ursine virtuoso 'in watercolor,' 'in the style of van Gogh,' or 'in synthwave,' a style the Cosmo team favors for perhaps obvious reasons,” the story continued.

Cosmo described the process:

“On a Monday afternoon in June of the year 2022 AD, six women on Zoom type increasingly bizarre descriptions into a search field.

  • ‘A young woman’s hand with nail polish holding a cosmopolitan cocktail.’
  • ‘A fashionable woman close up directed by Wes Anderson.’
  • ‘A woman wearing an earring that’s a portal to another universe.’

But the portal-to-another-universe-earring thing isn’t working. 'It looks like Mary Poppins,' says Mallory Roynon, creative director of Cosmopolitan, who appears unruffled by the fact that she’s directing an algorithm to assist with one of the more important functions of her job.

Back to something more basic then. Cheng types a fresh request into the text box: '1960s fashionable woman close up, encyclopedia-style illustration.' The AI thinks for 20 seconds. And then: Six high-quality illustrations of women, each unique, appear on the screen.

Six images that didn’t exist until right now.”

All this sounds terrific -- something that can change the whole creative process in new and interesting ways. And on the continuum of awkward to cool, this is definitely cool. One question, though: Will it replace actual human designers and illustrators?

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