There is a new aristocracy in America, Matthew Stewart writes in our June cover story—and if you’re reading The Atlantic, he continues, there’s a good chance you’re part of it. This group, which he dubs the “9.9 percent,” isn’t conspicuous about their wealth—they’re “a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with assorted job titles, and assorted other professionals”—but they are deeply privileged, with access to opportunities that set them apart from the rest of America. For today’s issue, I talked to David Somerville and Paul Spella, creative directors at The Atlantic, about the challenges of designing art for a story that implicates much of our readership, and their decision to put a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby on the cover—an infant that, in her age cohort, according to recent census estimates, is now part of a racial and ethnic minority.
Why Is There a Baby on the Cover of The Atlantic?
Caroline Kitchener: How did you start brainstorming a design for a story on the 9.9 percent?
David Somerville: The first thing we did was scrawl a whole bunch of words and images on a whiteboard. One set of images depicted conspicuous consumption: an overflowing bottle of champagne that’s just been popped, burning money on a grill, a martini with a yacht instead of an olive. Over-the-top-ness. Another bunch of ideas revolved around the aristocracy distancing themselves from the rest of America. So we had the ground lifting up from underneath a bunch of nice houses.
Paul Spella: In the early stages, I had the idea to use classic imagery that revolves around an aristocracy, and then just embed it in your normal, white, middle-class family. We would have had a floating polo shirt with a monocle and a top hat and a bow-tie … the outline of a little boy in a Yale t-shirt, holding a rich, fancy poodle.
David: Poodles can be rich?
Paul: Yes, poodles can be rich.
Caroline: Let’s talk about the different potential approaches here. The idea of excess and over-the-topness feels very different from where you eventually ended up. What was the thinking there—why not go in the excess direction?
David: The excess itself is less interesting. The article is about how you wouldn’t even know that your next-door neighbor or the person at the grocery store is in the 9.9 percent. They have a lot of the trappings of other suburban people.
Caroline: In the article, Stewart notes that a lot of people who read The Atlantic are in this group: the 9.9 percent. With this cover, you’re shining a mirror back at many of your readers. How does that complicate choosing an image for the cover?
David: The article is written in first-person plural—we do this, we do that. It’s a fairly co-accusatory piece. So, yes, there are a lot of people who read The Atlantic who are a part of the 9.9 percent. But there are also people who read The Atlantic because they want to be in that group, or they want to be able to keep up with that group, or their bosses are in that group, or for some other reason entirely. We want to be hitting a much broader audience. So that’s why it was a balancing act.
Caroline: There is a baby—a real baby—on the final cover of the magazine. How did you land on that image?
David: We showed our sketches to the editors. And people just homed in on the picture of a child in a Yale t-shirt. And then someone said, “Wouldn’t it be even more striking if it was a baby?” The piece also centers on the idea of intergenerational elasticity—how your parents’ wealth dictates your wealth, before you ever lift a finger. We were struck by the idea that at birth, irrespective of a child’s choices, they were advantaged or disadvantaged in this inescapable and inarguable way. The baby became a symbol of that.
Paul: We thought this would be a great way to strike the balance David was talking about. Wanting the best thing for your kid: That has got to be the most natural thing, the most human thing, ever.
David: That’s right. You can’t fault parents who want to set their kids up for success. It shows the issue, while making it empathetic at the same time.
Caroline: How did you go about choosing the baby you wanted for the cover?
Paul: I had no idea how we were going to cast this; I’d never done this before. The story is predominantly about white America, so we knew there were some features the baby had to have—blonde hair, blue eyes. Our photographer, Craig Cutler, looked through pictures of a lot of babies, and sent us three headshots.
Caroline: Why’d you go with this one?
Paul: To be honest, this was just the cutest baby. I mean, let’s be real. This looks like a frickin’ Gerber baby.
Caroline: The baby featured on the cover doesn’t look like most babies born in the U.S. today. Did that tension come up in the design process?
David: When we got the casting options, I was like, “Why are they all white with blue eyes?” And then I was like, “Oh. Right. Because of the article." We’re always careful to seek out a diverse range of models, but intentionally chose to feature a blonde, blue-eyed baby here because the article deals primarily with white wealth.
Caroline: Let’s go through the different shots of the baby. What were your options?
David: There is a real moment that’s captured here, with the flash and everything. But I kept feeling like it looked like a horror movie. It looked like the baby was against the wall. And once I saw that, I couldn’t unsee it.
Caroline: What about the close-up?
David: We just wanted to feature the baby’s face. We liked it, but it was too cute, too happy. We also thought having the full word—“Yale”—would help.
Caroline: What drew you to the final picture you chose?
David: The gesture here completely captivated me. It’s such a “posing-for-your-Napoleonic-era portrait,” kind of pose. It just looks like, “The world is mine.”
Caroline: Did you talk through the ethics of putting a baby on the cover?
David: Ultimately, it is the parents’ decision. But with the cover we chose, I also don’t feel like we’re accusing the baby.
Paul: There is a certain amount of anonymity that comes with a baby this young. She is going to change so much over the next six months, even over the next three—she’s not going to look like this ever again.
Caroline: Did you pursue any other ideas for the cover, besides the baby?
David: We wanted to shoot the baby in the Yale onesie. And we thought, “What are other ways to convey the same thing?” This is a baby born into privilege, born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Paul: Pushing the cover image beyond simple privilege was important. So many of us are privileged, even those of us who aren’t part of the 9.9 percent. So in gilding the spoon, we took it past “privileged.” You already had a silver spoon in your mouth, but you go even further.
Caroline: What do you want people to feel, looking at the final cover?
Paul: Uh, I don’t know. Shame? Self-loathing?
Caroline: You can’t feel shame and self-loathing when you’re looking at a baby.
Paul: Well I think that’s part of it, right? You have positive feelings, seeing a baby. Then you see what the story is about; you see the connotation behind this baby. It immediately makes you feel just a little bit guilty.
Today’s Wrap Up
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