The consultant weighs in: Inside the redesign process

When the publishing team at Catholic Health World decided they were ready for a new look, nothing was off limits to change. As a result, they ended up with just the fresh, contemporary design they were hoping for.

The following article is by Carla Kalogeridis, editorial director of Association Media & Publishing, and was published in Signature, the flagship publication of AMP. It is republished here by permission. 

Chicago-based consultant Ron Reason recently directed a redesign of Catholic Health World, a bimonthly national newspaper published out of St. Louis that is circulated to 11,600 members of the Catholic Health Association. The readership includes senior executives of Catholic hospitals, health systems, and religious orders sponsoring Catholic health ministries. The eight-page, 11×17-inch tabloid is published 26 times a year (two times a month, except for July and January, when there is one issue). Members of the Catholic Health Association receive the publication as a member benefit, and there is a small number of paid subscribers.

Reason has redesigned or conducted organizational training at more than 150 newspapers and magazines worldwide, and is Visiting Faculty at The Poynter Institute. His clients include Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business, The Dallas Morning News, The Wall Street Journal, and many other small and large publications. In this interview, Reason gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the redesign of Catholic Health World.

Q: With a redesign like this, where do you start?

Reason: First I assessed four or more issues of the current newspaper. I formed my own opinions about the integrity of the nameplate, the type selection, readability of body text, how inviting the headlines and decks are, the use of graphics (or lack thereof). From there, I asked the editor: What’s wrong with this model? What do you want to create? How has your audience changed, and what does your format need to do to keep up with them?

Q: Do you always start with the nameplate?

Reason: Very often I do, and in this case I did. I felt right away that it needed modernizing, something cleaner, bolder and more impactful. Maybe more colorful. So right away I dove into that process and created maybe 14 or 16 distinct variations in type, color, or arrangement (stacked or not stacked).

I knew they had to maintain a space for a mailing label, so you work around that. But this helped me clear my head from the old format and start to look at the front page as a blank canvas and prepare for the more dynamic design choices to come.

Q: What do you do when a publisher is nervous about changing a logo?

Reason: I am not nervous at all about proposing a logo change, if there’s something that really feels outdated or unsound about what is currently in use. And the old thinking that readers will rebel if logos are changed – that’s nonsense. If done well, readers welcome change; in fact, they see it all the time, in all kinds of media, from products at the grocery to websites to iPhone apps and beyond.

A previous client taught me not to worry any more about reader reaction. It was another Catholic publication, a national weekly called Our Sunday Visitor. At first, I was nervous that the readership would be super conservative and not want to change something as “sacred” as the logo of the newspaper. But it wasn’t a strong logo, and I was confident that I could present options that were more compelling, classier, and with the times. Sure enough, we presented several finalists for a new logo to a focus group in Indianapolis, and guess which one was a big hit, even with the nuns and priests? The most progressive, bold and modern choice, which revamped the brand as OSV in big, bold letters set in white type against a striking red background. So you never know – even nuns like change. (See samples of the before and after logo ideas from OSV.)

Q: How does a redesign proceed from the nameplate to the guts of the inner pages?

Reason: After the nameplate, I explored various options for new headline typography. You can do this without diving into the whole layout – just type in headlines from past issues in new fonts, mix them up, and see “what’s us.” That’s always a tough call because you may have different notions than the client, so you must always offer up alternatives. Often, I focus on a strong sans serif type option, a strong serif, and maybe a mix. I may have a favorite, but I want all the options to look nice, so the client can sit back and assess them.

One challenge I have personally is whether to use the headlines as they were written, or rewrite them if I think there is a more inviting approach. I’m trained as a journalist, not just as an art director, so I bring that sensibility to all my redesigns. I ask myself: What would make me read this paper, even if I’m not the target audience? What’s the real value in a particular story?

Also, I often try to use the types of photos that are currently in the publication, the ones that are acceptable for a newspaper like this. While photos of conferences or headshots aren’t super sexy (nor should they be for this paper’s mission), they are important and appropriate to the coverage.

Q: When does the client get to see your work?

Reason: When I’ve done a sampling of logos and at least a dozen distinct pages, I’m ready to present to the client. For some clients it may be as many as two or three dozen pages, but Catholic Health World is a smaller newspaper, so that volume wasn’t necessary.

We do a “gallery walk,” which is when I might give some brief words about my thinking process; but often, I just like to hang the pages, sit back, and see what people gravitate toward. In this case, right away I was pleased to see there were ingredients in the mix that the editor, art director, and publisher quickly started to gravitate toward.

Q: Can you share some insight about the decision-making process?

Reason: I listen closely to comments from the decision makers, but it’s important to me to hear “this is us,” or, “this should be us,” versus “I don’t know why, I just don’t like that.”

I try to talk people beyond their preconceptions about design, like “I don’t like blue, or italics, or rag right,” or “I was taught in 1978 that rag right was bad.” I hear this stuff all the time and wish I could bury all those myths. Any design element has its place depending on the brand and image you want to project, the tone of your publication, the audience, and other factors.

For example, CHW began with a non-modular layout. This can sometimes work but is tricky to carry off; I didn’t think it was done consistently and in some instances, I felt it made the paper harder to read. In any event, I felt it was one aspect of the design that was a suitable candidate for change.

I mocked up only modular designs, but had my defense ready in case I was grilled upon presenting the prototypes. And sure enough, I was. Ed Giganti, CHW’s vice president of communications and marketing, has a great eye for detail and had been a fan of non-modular, and wanted to know why I had veered away from it. I felt the new design looked cleaner, and any “personality” lost by a more orderly layout would be regained by a more dynamic CHW logo and other font and color choices. The prototypes were posted side-by-side with the old look, and I asked if overall, they looked easier to get through. The unanimous answer was “yes,” and we moved on.

Q: What’s new about the Catholic Health World design, that moves the newspaper forward with the times?

Reason: The two biggest changes are a more active, dynamic, and conversational tone to the headlines, which the editor worked hard to bring from a more conventional approach, and the use of infoboxes. This reaches out to busy readers, younger executives in health care perhaps, who might not have time to read a 14-paragraph story on a given topic, but will happily give you 30 seconds to scan a box of key points in the story, what’s at stake, what the next steps might be, the real impact on the church or health care, or patients, or whatever. From there, if they leave the story but take a sense of value from it, I’m happy. If they were teased to dive into the story at greater length, I’m even more happy. I just don’t want readers to look at a page of dense gray text and say, “Sorry, don’t have time for this.”

Q: What was the reaction of the staff members who now have to implement your design on a regular basis?

Reason: Editor Judy VandeWater reported that she and the team were quite pleased. (See the project as viewed through Judy’s eyes, in this sidebar from Signature magazine.) From the start, I was conscious of trying to create a template that was not only easy for Art Director Les Stock to use, but also would actually make the production process more efficient.

For example, previously the paper incorporated a non-modular design that to me looked extremely taxing to execute; I wanted to move toward more modular design in hopes that the paper would come together more easily, allowing more time for editing, writing headlines, producing the best art and captions, and so on.

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