Magazine redesign: Anatomy of a news page makeover

Hispanic Business magazine, a sampling of news pages before redesign.
News pages of Hispanic Business, before redesign. Click twice to enlarge

[1st of 2 parts: See related entry on magazine features page redesign]

Preparing an upcoming lecture on magazine design, branding and editorial strategy, I’ve gone through my project archives and thought I’d share the lessons behind the makeover of a specific page. Here we look at my rethinking of the news pages in the front of the book of Hispanic Business magazine.

OLD FORMAT (shown above – click to enlarge):  With every client, I read at least four to six issues, and try to imagine what my reaction would be as a reader. Very quickly I concluded that – though the content may have been interesting – the design of the news pages of this magazine was quite formulaic, and did not “sell” the content well at all for the busy reader (which is basically everyone these days) who primarily scans headlines, decks, captions and photos for signals of whether this story is for them. Headline formats were too short to allow saying much of anything. (“Hispanics on Wall Street” – well, what about them? It’s a label – generic and not helpful. Get these key words into a meatier headline, or in the deck.)

Each page was anchored by a mug shot; good intentions, you might say, if you were taught as I was that it’s good to show photos of people with your news stories. However, often the mug shot was of a person quoted or mentioned once, in the 14th paragraph, and not that germaine to the topic at hand. I sensed without even visiting the staff that this was done on deadline, just to fill space, or a preconception that every page needed “art.” I argued that if the person is not a key player, or the story is not a profile about them, there’s not necessarily any virtue in using such a photo. It’s pure filler. Six or eight of these pages in a row seemed like a chore to read. Smiling handout photos of executives often sent mixed signals on serious stories about challenges or problems in the business world, like bankruptcy!)

I see this approach with a lot of my clients (and I often see pages that are even more gray than this). Without attending a story planning meeting, I know that a writer has been authorized to cover a certain topic and given a line length, maybe 1,200 words, and the finished result will appear to the editor (shocker) on deadline, when it’s too late for the designer to really produce a relevant graphic or text pullout. How to remedy this?

News pages of Hispanic Business magazine, redesigned for easier scanning and placement of more relevant information for readers.

NEW FORMAT (prototypes for redesigned news pages, shown above – click to enlarge):  What this magazine needed was a few more tools, sharper ones, that it could employ to make news pages easier to scan, and devices it could instruct writers to produce in order to give scanners the relevant information they need more quickly. Here is how that process goes:

  1. First a more sophisticated color, typographic and architectural palette is proposed. The emotional therapy that “yes, it is OK to use white space” is conducted.
  2. From there, it’s a discussion of what is the best packaging that this kind of information can be given, to benefit readers? We start with headlines. What is the main focus – how do we get that into the headline and deck (or overline, in this case)? Do we have enough words in those tools to do the job? In the previous head count, no. (Generally speaking, I think label heads or hammer heads are almost always generic and unhelpful; these are also the bane of all the alternative newsweeklies I work with lately.)
  3. Then we ask: what is the secondary or supplemental information, which previously might be buried in the story but missed by scanners, but now could be elevated into a graphic box? (Sometimes called text box or infobox.) Create inviting, easy-to-use formats for these devices, put them in your Design Style Guide, educate the staff on how to report, write, edit and design these elements, and move forward.

Someone is going to see these news pages and cry: “Dios mio! There’s no art on these pages!” I wanted to show some early prototypes that proved that a page could be inviting, informative, and easy to scan without any “art” at all. It’s all about information, not decoration. Yes, you can still use mug shots in a layout like this, or even more substantial photos, but when you don’t have it, don’t force it. Look for the second-level information to pull out and entice the reader into the page. However, make sure it’s smart and relevant, and not just trivial filler.

With some clients I’ve had a writer or editor tell me, this is too much work. We have to keep our eyes on what is best for the reader. If this is the best way for a reader to scan a page, then let’s talk about how to produce this kind of information from the start. Once the concept of a mainbar and sidebars or infoboxes is understood by the staff, early in the research process any decent reporter can identify some of these pullout elements and fine-tune their reporting and writing to produce them. If it is known that the main story needs to be 800 words rather than 1,200, then write to that length from the start. Don’t create a bottleneck for your editor or art director on deadline.

Could every page of a magazine look like this? Perhaps, for the right publication, a scholarly journal or something, but not for this one. A few of these pages go a long way. A dynamic business publication still needs inviting portraiture, more substantial graphics, even illustrations. (I learned this in spades while working with The Wall Street Journal to help prototype their Personal Journal section a few years back, as well as my work with Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business and many other Crain business titles as well, which are considered industry leaders in visualizing the news.) The key is to have the right formats for the right job, and to educate staff and freelancers about how to use them. That’s a key part of what the redesign process is about.

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