NYT Magazine redesign: for students, textbook “Design and Disruption”


Early word last week on the redesign/reinvention of The New York Times Magazine gave a good indication this wouldn’t be just a cosmetic exercise, a shuffling around of fonts with a few new editorial features. Instantly I suspected this would offer great lessons for the coming week for my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” at the University of Montana School of Journalism. (With NYT Editor Dean Baquet coming to speak to us April 16, and channels like The Upshot garnering great buzz for innovation and audience development, the Times is big on our radar this semester in Big Sky country.)

Read the full post »

NCAA Champion magazine redesigns, rethinks, and scores!

Highly appealing new type, color and navigation systems. But wait, there’s more! Smarter segmenting of stories, vastly improved conversational headlines, a tone of inspiring and mentoring readers, and stories that look forward rather than back. 

cover shot

One of the best things about taking a break from consulting to teach this semester at the University of Montana is that a number of recent clients are launching redesigns I can share immediately with my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption.” This week, we’re taking a deep dive into Champion, the quarterly glossy magazine of the NCAA, who brought me to their HQ in Indianapolis last year to help guide them through the strategy and mission of redesign and change management. Their fine work goes public just this month.

I occasionally do this sort of “limited” consulting where I’m tasked with bringing an internal group together, analyzing strengths and shortcomings of current approaches, and targeting specific values worth rethinking to push the magazine, organization, and/or brand forward. We look at editing strategies and voice, design tools, planning, internal communications, staff structure, and lots more “behind the scenes” stuff that can make or break a redesign. (The tough work of the actual redesign would later fall to the able hands of Creative Director Arnel Reynon, whose work I had admired for a few years.)

Champion had many strengths, including excellent design and photography on its covers and cover story  spreads inside, so it wasn’t something that needed to be blown up by any stretch. But when the project leader, Editor Amy Wimmer Schwarb, said they were pondering expanding the appeal of the magazine a bit beyond the NCAA membership, reaching out to more student athletes and fans of sports journalism in general, I agreed to help them think it through. I tasked them to consider how their story packaging, navigation and labeling, graphics, headlines, and even writing might be updated to appeal to both traditional and new readers alike.

What better way to teach “design and disruption” to my students than by showing and dissecting the physical evidence of change, happening right now in the industry?

Last Thursday, everyone in class got an older issue of Champion, pre-redesign, and I assigned them to analyze what worked and what might have fallen short in the old format. (And I ask the same of my class as I do of my clients: It’s not enough to respond with “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or “this doesn’t work for me” – articulate for me why the reader, the story, or the brand wins or suffers by what they see in the design or editing.) Then, this Tuesday, I gave them copies of the revamped Winter 2015 issue of Champion, hot off the press. Instantly, they said they were struck by the many improvements, as am I. Let’s walk through some of them.

1) Headlines with a stronger, more conversational voice.

It’s an almost universal criticism I offer up to publications I’m working with lately: your headlines are too often flat, they seem like a press release, they could be more compelling. Champion’s headlines weren’t terrible, or inaccurate, but sometimes they didn’t exactly inspire the reader to come on in. When I worked with the staff, we dove into the content and talked through specific ways to make the magazine seem less like it was talking at the reader and more like it was talking with them.

I love their solution: let’s not only write the headlines in a more compelling way, but display them as such. Shown here are two examples, at the bottom of each page reversed in blue:




Editors or publishers who bring me in for a design critique, or strategic tune-up, are surprised at how much of an emphasis I put on the writing of headlines. I tell them, reading weak headlines is like walking into a party and having the most dull person there greet you and start talking. I can’t wait to move on to something else. It’s one of the most important things we can work on in redesigning and rethinking a magazine.  Read the full post »

Advice for young (and seasoned) journalists? Ask some very recent grads


Grizzly grads tell us loud and clear: Get ready for digital-first publishing, heavy on social media, rocked by (and enjoying) constant change.

[February 10, 2015, Missoula, Mont.] What an eye-opener it was for the journalism class I’m teaching this semester, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” to see #AdviceForYoungJournalists top the Twitter trends over the last 24 hours. Research they’d produced just the week before, which we’ve edited into an eBook (downloadable PDF, via the link above and here) for release today, contains plenty of just that.

The initial assignment: contact a recent alum from the University of Montana School of Journalism, and report back on how each has navigated, or caused, the disruption rocking the news media today. Each report contains tips for, yes, survival, but also adaptation, perseverance, learning, growing, and thriving.

Their findings, and our class discussions continuing this week, have turned out to be the perfect kickoff for my course, which is the cornerstone of an endowed professorship here at the UM J-school (learn more).

In applying for the post, and considering topics I’d wanted to teach, I settled on the biggest issue reshaping the news media daily: disruption. Disruption covers, of course, the contractions that have rattled the mainstream media, but also the massive (and exciting) experimentation, platform expansion, product launching and risk taking we are seeing in all areas of news creation and delivery, from traditional publishers to entrepreneurs. I also wanted to cover design in a broad sense, going beyond graphic identity into the design of companies, cultures, workflow, editorial and revenue strategies, marketing plans, audience development.

Read the full post »

Deadline is Jan. 30 for U of Montana Pollner Professorships

The winter view from the Pollner professor's office. Need a break from brow-furrowing? Strap on your Yaktrax and take a brisk climb up the mountain!

The winter view from the Pollner professor’s office. Need a break from brow-furrowing? Strap on your Yaktrax and take a brisk climb up the mountain!

If you are a working professional doing great stuff in any craft area of journalism – writing or editing, visual journalism, digital, or the biz side – and have an interest in teaching and want to consider a terrific 4-month break out West, consider applying for the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professorship at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Deadline is Jan. 30, 2015, for both installments: word folk are eligible for the teaching position in Fall 2015, and a visual journalism, digital or biz-side expert will teach in Spring 2016. Read the full post »

Prototyping a startup newspaper?
Here are 5 free tips to do it right


[Sample pages from a 28-page prototype of the Rocky shared publicly today. To peruse the entire thing and offer your own opinions, click here.]

[Dec. 9, 2014] Just across the Twitter has come news that “Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz is exploring the possibility of reviving the Rocky Mountain News.” Hurrah, one might think! Someone believes in the power of print to draw readers and advertisers, and in making a dynamic local news market competitive once again. (A late update to the Business Journal story suggests the notion of a Rocky revival may actually be a ploy to negotiate a purchase of the competing Denver Post.)

In an unusual move, those behind the idea have shared a 28-page prototype online, to solicit comments from … well, who is not exactly clear. Online readers of the Denver Business Journal, where the story broke? Certainly in-person focus groups would also be conducted, with live people holding and using the actual product? Let us hope. If the design exists in PDF only, the idea will never advance.

I’ve produced newspaper and magazine prototypes for a couple of decades, including for the San Francisco Examinerwhich Anschutz bought a year after its reinvention as a tabloid, and later sold. (We’ve never met.) And I’ve critiqued others’ prototypes for years, privately, in seminar settings or often, after a client contacts me, not quite satisfied by what an in-house team has produced. But I’ve declined to comment much on my blog about others’ projects in the planning stage, and I do realize this prototype is what I call “wet clay,” and not a product of perfection. But since they’ve put the prototype online, and are seeking feedback, I figured, why not? ‘Tis the season for giving. I really do want all smart newspaper endeavors to succeed.

Here are five free tips for anyone considering creating a newspaper prototype – startup, relaunch or redesign – for private or public consumption:


First and foremost, one would imagine that a newspaper startup would live or die on its appeal to advertisers. Read the full post »

One-year redesign checkup: healthy covers for a healthcare magazine

Occasionally I like to check in on my redesign clients to see how design elements and strategies for change have been adopted. Modern Healthcare magazine, which I redesigned in November 2013, just passed its one-year anniversary. One of the chief directives from Publisher Fawn Lopez: “Ron, we have got to do something about these covers.” She demanded more clarity, distinction and impact, and I like to think she got it!

Covering healthcare topics visually can be a challenge, if you want to avoid cliches of stethoscopes and dollar bills, or mug shots of doctors; covering the administration, policies and politics of healthcare is even more difficult. While design and editing were made sharper throughout the book, I’ve been struck by how Art Director Pat Fanelli has brought her covers up to the next level. Here’s a look at some of her work I admired, and why it succeeds:


Ebola: covers that stand out 

How do you cover the big story of the moment (year?) when everyone else is on it, too? These covers on Ebola succeed in presenting visual ideas that are likely not to have been seen elsewhere. On the left, what I call a “type attack” (a type-only design solution) tackles an incredibly hard cover concept (“mistakes were made”) and presents it with simplicity and drama. On the right, Read the full post »

Montana J-students fully immersed
in “Design and Disruption”

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 2.15.11 PM

By Ron Reason
University of Montana School of Journalism
Spring 2015 T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor 

WELCOME TO THE LANDING PAGE for “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption: The Spring 2015 Pollner Seminar” at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Here I post summaries of the focus of each week of class, with links to relevant blog entries, required reading and more. (This page is primarily for students not in my course and those in the outside world who’d like to follow along. Students in my course, please keep up with required readings and your specific assignments in our private Facebook page, and via the closed Moodle campuswide network.) For background on the generous Pollner family endowment, go here. For how I developed this course, and its intentions, jump here. For a week-by-week rundown of the class, just dive in now …


Week One, Jan. 27, 2015: Let’s discuss in detail what we mean by design (it’s not just visual) and disruption (it’s not all bad). Ramp up your Twitter presence by following four new change instigators (individuals) and four brands or organizations that are stirring things up, and discuss what you’ve learned by following or engaging with them. Assignment: Connect with a recent alum and report back on how he or she has experienced, or caused, disruption in the news media.

RESULTS: Over just two class periods, my students produced 18 interviews with recent alums, which we compiled into the eBook “We ARE the Disruptors.” Check it out more on the project, and download the PDF, here. Turns out UM students are getting jobs that they love, handling disruption with aplomb, and actually creating a lot of change as well. They had lots of tips for our class on how to hit the ground running – and how cool that on the day of our publication’s release, #AdviceForYoungJournalists was the top trending topic on Twitter?

Week Two, Feb. 3: Let’s go deep inside the state of alternative news media, particularly the Chicago Reader, which hired me to help rethink design, editorial and advertising strategy with one eye on revenue generation, the other on audience development. Three years later, the results: an increase and stabilization in print ad revenue, which still provides 85% of the brand’s income, and a robust and growing slate of web, social media, event and partnership endeavors. Review my blog entries about the Reader’s reinvention as preparation for a more scholarly dissection of the brand in class. (Well, scholarly to a point – we’ll look at Reader editorial innovations such as Beer and Metal, a mash-up of craft beer reviews and heavy, or other, metal music videos or audio clips. Don’t laugh – in 2013, Beer and Metal landed two of the Reader’s top five most viewed blog posts for the year, and readers and advertisers are taking notice.)

Week Three, Feb. 10: How cool is this: My client Champion: The Magazine of the NCAA drops its first revamped issue this month, and my class is among the first to see it! All students get a copy of an older issue of Champion, to take a hard look at how they used to do things, and report back on its strengths and shortcomings. Then on Tuesday of this week, I share a copy of the new mag, with freshly stinkin’ ink, hot off the presses, so you can dissect what’s new and improved. We also discuss the role social media plays in the print magazine’s strategic expansion of audience.

RESULTS: Class completed terrific written reports identifying potential areas of improvement for the mag, then found many of them to be reflected in the revamped publication. See an extensive review of what we covered in class, with many visuals from the new Champion, here. Lots of terrific infographic work, vastly improved and engaging headlines, lush photography and segmented storytelling.

Week Four, Feb. 17: What good is reinventing if no one knows about it? Time to switch gears to marketing, and look at campaigns I created within the last year for print and multiplatform digital relaunches of Modern Healthcare magazine, one of the most robust brands in the Crain Communications platform of niche business weeklies. (Next month, more from Crain’s, as we investigate the real-time relaunch scheduled for March 30 of Crain’s Detroit Business, which I’ve been working on since July.)

Remaining weeks and course syllabus: To be posted here soon. 

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When I was told UM was adding a second new Pollner professorship, one that would focus on the visual, digital and or business challenges of journalism, I thought: What is the course that the industry needs now? What’s the kind of instruction students need in order to enter the job market and be better prepared to tackle, and enjoy, change?  After being selected for the post, I came up with this pitch to prospective students:

Your first or next job or internship in the news industry will be with an employer engaged in serious conversations about change. (If they aren’t, you don’t want to be there.) Reinvention, redesign, innovation. Product expansion or contraction. Newsroom reorganization. Revenue generation or fundraising. Audience retention and expansion. Marketing, partnerships, alliances and events. This conversation may be organic and ongoing … or it may be urgent.

A solid journalism education empowers you to CREATE journalism, but not necessarily to RECREATE it, or reinvent, reimagine, redesign. It’s a different skill set, more management and leadership than anything, and it’s a tricky conversation for newcomers. You have to know how to take something apart before you can put it back together and improve it. You have to understand more about where the money, and audience, comes from.

That’s where this course comes in. “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption” will empower you to step up on Day 1 of your next gig, volunteer for (or even lead) that task force or committee exploring change, help brainstorm meaningful ideas about growth or survival, and do so with clarity and confidence.

Whether you intend to be a reporter, editor, photographer, designer, or digital producer, it will be to your advantage to be prepared for this kind of thought, conversation, and work.

My goal is to give students a real-world, global view of change, innovation, and tumult, critically dissecting case studies of news publication reinvention and expansion in which I’ve actively participated, recently or currently. (For example: these.) We will also discuss examples of change elsewhere in the media landscape Read the full post »

Redesigning your magazine
or newspaper? Start here.

Magazine and newspaper redesign resources. Start here.

By Ron Reason

Welcome to Design With Reason, the blog of Ron Reason Consulting. I’m passionate about excellence in editorial design, branding and strategy, and have collaborated with clients worldwide for more than 25 years. (Bio. LinkedIn. Client list.) I’m based in Chicago and often work virtually but travel to clients as needed.

What’s kept me in business, even through turbulent times for editorial publishing? A creative yet grounded approach that puts great storytelling and functionality ahead of good looks and technology. My clients usually express this best:

“Ron showed a real understanding of the day-to-day editorial process and limitations – something I’ve found to be the biggest weakness of most other editorial designers. His designs are not only aesthetically pleasing, but actually help build a better publication that gives more (and more useful) information to the audience – in other words, he can actually help you improve your journalism, not just the look and navigability of your product.” [Jonah Bloom, editor during my work over several years with client Advertising Age in New York City. For additional references, link here.]

Here you will find more than 300 blog entries with tips, cases studies, and tons of advice for approaching an editorial redesign – with the help of a consultant or even by yourself – or just improving your daily design, graphics, writing or editing. Magazine redesign? Got that covered. Newspaper redesign? All over it. Business and trade publications? Kinda specializing in that. Tabloids? Here you go.

LET’S TALK! After poking around here a bit, if you are interested in learning more about how we can work together, here’s what happens next: Read the full post »

Format busters! 3 clients tell stories
in graphic, novel ways

Going bold with ‘comics journalism': The Reader, Creative Loafing, and U of Chicago research magazine Capital Ideas

[July 13, 2014] The work of three current and former clients reinforces the potential for visual journalism to tell complex stories in eye-grabbing ways – the Chicago Reader and Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, both of which I redesigned several years ago, and Capital Ideas magazine, which I work with currently and which covers economics research at the U of Chicago.

Two of them this weekend snagged top national honors for this work. More than just eye candy or award bait, these approaches work for these publications for very specific reasons, which I put forth below. They reinforce my career-long mantra that dynamic publications need to present news in ways that transcend “just text.”

* * *

Excerpted panels from "How to Survive a Shooting." Click to enlarge.

Excerpted panels from “How to Survive a Shooting.” Link here to view online.

Chicago Reader cover by Illustrated PressFirst, congrats to the Chicago Reader, which won a number of awards this weekend from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Among the awards for design or related work: The paper took first in the unusual category “Outside-the-Box: Innovation / Format Buster,” for “How to Survive a Shooting,” by Chicago reporter Darryl Holliday and illustrator Erik Rodriguez (aka The Illustrated Press).

Told in brief vignettes via graphic novel form, the report sheds light on the death of Marissa Stingley, 19, through the struggle of her mother Nortasha to accept the tragedy and keep living. Published in November 2013, the story is more timely than ever eight months later, as Chicago’s gang warfare epidemic grows, sadly, in the media spotlight.

Why the graphic approach works here: The Reader, and the Chicago media in general, write a lot about gang killings in the city (and have for years). By taking the graphic approach, and telling the story from the angle of the mother’s struggle to accept and survive, the paper offers an opportunity to “wake up” and engage readers who otherwise might gloss over yet another account of a South Side killing. Read the full post »

Through photography, conquering fear and inspiring your passions

One of my earlier images from what has become a five year (and counting) exploration of abstract imagery in the U.S. National Parks. [Photo (c) Ron Reason]

An early image from what has become a five year (and counting) exploration of abstract imagery in the U.S. National Parks. [Photo by Ron Reason]

Things I learned today: That Moby (one of my fave musicians/DJs/artists) had an uncle who was a photographer at The New York Times. And that he (Moby) first picked up a camera at age 10, set it aside in college set to pursue his music passions, and just picked up the habit again in earnest four years ago.

a mobyIn an essay this month at GOOD magazine online, Moby shares thoughts on his photography, exposing your work to others, and fears about the same – all of which mirror my own. I thought I’d take a detour today from topics of newspapers and magazines and redesigns, and pass along some of my own experiences developing my photographic interests in recent years. In the essay, Moby shares his uncle’s ethos, “document the things you see that others don’t.” However, with his renewed passion came anxiety: 

Even after four years of collecting a significant body of work, I had doubts about showing my images to anyone. With digital photography being so prolific, everyone I knew was a photographer. I felt like a dilettante.”

He goes on to share his belief, inspired by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, that

to truly live a creative life means that you will need to experiment in as many different fields as possible.”

This I strongly believe is something journalists or communicators of any stripe must adhere to. Most one-trick ponies, especially in this day and age, don’t have much to offer anyone in the long run.  However, with this experimentation, Moby continues:

there’s always that risk that … you will leave yourself open to being seen as a dilettante. But I decided that I’d rather try even though it runs the risk of failure.”

My own photographic adventures have followed a similar path. Six (-ish) years ago, thanks to the recession and a dip in consulting work, I was relieved of the burden, so to speak, of working 60 hours and sometimes 6 or 7 days a week. What to do? Read the full post »