Article: Redesigning your magazine?

Earlier this year I contributed a chapter to the just published book, Designing Magazines, edited by Jandos Rothstein. Here follows the chapter, and if you are really into magazine design, you’ll want to take a closer look at the book at Amazon, or visit the website, www.Designing Magazines.com.

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Redesigning your magazine in-house?
Here are a few reasons to think twice

By Ron Reason

Imagine a conversation like the following:

Publisher to Art Director: “I think it’s time to consider a redesign for the magazine, and I want you to work on it.”

AD: “OK, when will it debut?”

Publisher: “End of January.”

AD: “But it’s already November.”

Publisher: “I know, I thought it would be good to give you several months to work on it, since I know you are busy with your regular job.”

AD: “Well, I am, but we also have my assistant starting maternity leave soon, several major holidays, huge issues preceding those holidays, and a 60-page supplement you’ve asked me to design! And our freelancer budget has been cut.”

Publisher: “I know you do your best work under pressure.”

AD: “Will we have new features? New content? Are we reorganizing?”

Publisher: “Well I haven’t thought too much about that, I thought we’d take a look at your prototypes and go from there for those answers.”

AD: “Well, what kind of look are you asking for? Do you want something dramatically different?”

Publisher: “Something that will wake up the market. But not too much. Still, make me stop at the newsstand and take notice! But remember, I’ve never liked italics, and the editor doesn’t like that dark red we tried out three years ago …”

* * *

Redesigning a magazine can be a simple task, or a daunting one. It’s simple if all you do is take your current templates and switch to a new typeface, or tweak a color here or there. But much more than that – done hurriedly or by unskilled hands – may end up looking like an ill-fitting and out-of-season dress. A full-fledged redesign – complete with new typography, navigational systems, a color palette, story structures, perhaps a dramatic new logo – is a pretty tall order.For many reasons – institutional pride, a tight timetable, or a limited budget – it’s tempting to redesign in-house. But the go-it-alone approach has a number of potential downsides, including the following:

LOSS OF STAFF TIME AND ENERGY

Prototyping, project maintenance, analysis, presentation, press tests, technical testing and committee work: All are significant commitments that can take months in a typical redesign. Where’s the time gonna come from? Some publications are shocked to learn how the hours add up. The cost of taking an art director off-line for the required period can be enormous: It means additional work for junior designers, lack of support for writers and editors and perhaps temporary labor costs.

If the erosion of the current format is the motivation for redesign, consider the irony: If your art director hasn’t been able to maintain and enforce a consistent design up to this point, he or she may be so strapped that a redesign would be an insurmountable burden.

On too many occasions, consultants have been brought in to shore things up only after the loss of many hours of staff talent that otherwise could have been devoted to the current product. Add up the salary costs of days, weeks or even months of lost staff time that may result from ineffective prototyping, and you can see that in the long run, bringing in a qualified outsider with experience in redesign project management may be the more cost-effective solution.

Many editors and publishers find it helpful to look at the cost of a consultant this way: equate their professional fee to the cost of hiring a qualified art director or designer with this expertise for a limited period of time (say, two to five months). Tally up the goals of the project, assess the skills required for the job, and ask, how much is this change worth to the magazine? You’re creating a new corporate identity for your publication in the form of a look that should last several years. It’s not a small thing.

OVERLY DEVOUT ADHERENCE TO THE PAST.

Do you want a dramatically fresh new look? Innovative structures for stories, charts or listings? It may be hard to get something truly innovative out of the staff. They are entrenched in the current fonts, grid, color palette, and editing styles for 40 hours or more each week.

A production editor or art director is also much more likely to be bullied by a publisher who “hates italics.” Of course italic type is not always going to be suited for a logo, or for a main headline font, but for the occasional headline, deck, or infographic chatter, it (or any other device on the “I don’t like …” list) it may be just the right touch. An outsider has the benefit of not having heard these lectures delivered by supervisors. Because the consultant never received the memo prohibiting the use of purple, he or she can look at editorial needs without the institution’s collected baggage.

OVERLY DEVOUT ADHERENCE TO INSTITUTIONAL PUBLISHING MISSIONS.

As with the ghost of design edicts past, a strict adherence to the “spirit” of the place may also limit what can be done during an in-house redesign. Even if a “project goals” statement is put in writing, the staff may be unintentionally committed to the traditional look of the publication. The familiar is comfortable. In house designs can be timid, both in terms of design and content.

Consumers of all media are bombarded with a wide array of visual motifs and editing styles. Even if you put out a local publication in a conservative market, your readers can handle change – in fact, they often seek it out and embrace it. The web has liberated print design. Readers are used to seeing so-called “conservative” content packaged in bold ways. Conversely, innovative content is sometimes presented meekly. An outsider can help find an effective new voice among the myriad options. A breath of fresh air has side benefits – it can
reawaken, excite and motivate staff.

TUNNEL VISION RELATED TO THE LOOK AND FLOW OF PRINT.

A print art director or editor may not have skills that translate to the web and other new-media ventures. Skill and success in print does not guarantee the knowledge to integrate print and web in a redesign. Do you need new devices (drop-in promotional boxes or links) to
encourage traffic to the web site? Once these devices are designed, who will train writers and editors to use them? How will work flow and technologies be revised to make it all happen? An outsider with a birds-eye view and experience with other progressive clients can more easily facilitate training and implementation because he or she has done it before. The results of an internal redesign – even one performed by a cross-departmental team – can be limited by walls, turf battles, cubicle-rot, and other issues.

THE TRAP OF INTERNAL POLITICS.

Does your art director get along famously with everyone, from reporters to editors to sales people? Is he pals with the marketing/ promotions department and the publisher? If so, terrific. If not – and often there’s another key player who doesn’t see eye to eye with the art director – there could be problems. While not all outsiders are a great fit with everyone on your team, a consultant is at least starting with a clean slate. A history of animosity can poison an internal redesign before it starts.

A key question to ask when interviewing consultants and checking up on their references is how they interacted with previous internal teams, What special skills do they bring to the table that allows them to communicate quickly and creatively with strangers, and what allows them to negotiate across departments? The consultant will be a collaborator, mediator and diplomat – working to develop a look that is just right for your publication. It’s important that he or she will really click with the staff; and not just the graphics staff but the copy desk, pressroom, marketing department and board room.

INADEQUATE SKILL LEVELS.

Your art director may be quite skilled at putting out your weekly or monthly publication, working with the word people, assigning, editing and coaching freelancers, communicating with production. But those skills may not be enough to pilot you through a redesign. Here are some concerns:

  • Can the art director create a complex project timetable with tasks and assignments?
  • Do they have the authority and confidence to delegate?
  • How are their communications skills?
  • Will they keep everyone in the loop?
  • Are they diplomatic when dealing with touchy situations, but forceful when you need to move forward quickly? Do they make solid decisions?
  • Do they understand multimedia and branding issues (particularly if they inherited the design you are currently working with)?
  • Are they aware of advanced techniques with color, architecture, white space or special photo effects like soft drop shadows (if this is something that interests you), or do they have an eye for cutting-edge typography and know how to select new fonts, combine them into something cohesive and functional yet unique?
  • Do they have the time and skill to produce a clear, easy-to-understand design style guide, or at least usable templates and style sheets?
  • Do they have the journalistic sensibility you may need, to produce prototypes that are fundamentally better from a content standpoint, rather than are just aesthetically interesting?

That last one is a particularly important consideration when looking outside: Ask yourself whether your magazine or newsroom needs a consultant who is trained and experienced as a journalist, as a designer/art director, or both. Even some top consultants may not bring strength in both these areas to the table.

DOES THIS MEAN NO ONE CAN REDESIGN IN-HOUSE?

Of course not. Many magazines have gone it alone and done just fine. But it pays to be sure of the decision to keep the design in-house before you get started. In general, in-house redesigns work better when there is a consensus on what the needs of the publication are. If you know you have a cold, go ahead and take an aspirin. If all you know is you’re sick, get a doctor.
Ron Reason is a publication design consultant and educator based in Chicago and a Visiting Faculty member (and former Director of Visual Journalism) of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. He has redesigned large and small magazines and newspapers around the globe. Email ron@ronreason.com Website with tips, case studies, and other resources: www.ronreason.com

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