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.
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 »