Chicago Reader redesign: Questions, background about the paper and project

I’ve been fielding questions about the Chicago Reader since formally beginning consultation on its redesign in September 2010. Below are a few questions about the redesign since it launched, as well as some basic background and links relating to the paper as of April 2011. For more about the relaunch of the paper on April 28, 2011, see these related blog entries.

Chicago Reader newspaper logo, then and now (2011)


  • HOW/WHY DID THE LOGO CHANGE? The last version of the logo, used since 1994, was just the reverse “R” in a gold block, with “Chicago Reader” in very small, generic type underneath. (View its use on a collection of otherwise strong 2010 covers.) From the start, I felt that if the redesign intended to re-establish the brand in the city, to hold the paper up on a pedestal, that a logo with the entire word spelled out should be considered. It seems more proud and confident than the trendy “let’s just use an initial” sort of logo. I also thought we should explore updating the original iconic classic Reader lettering. (Seen above, but you can also view its use in this gallery of Chicago Reader pages from 1971 and 1972.) Current art director Paul John Higgins worked on several variations of the lettering (including one version that incorporated a non-reverse “R”) and ultimately the version above is what was adopted. Modern, streamlined, with a nod to the paper’s roots but looking forward. It is shown on white, but in the relaunched front cover design, it appears on a gold bar (strengthening the paper’s brand color presence in the market).
  • WHY DOES THE PAPER SMELL WEIRD? I have no idea – luckily I am not in charge of sniffing inks before the presses roll. More than a few readers complained about an odd odor in their copy of the paper during the first week. Perhaps something in the water in Milwaukee, where the paper is now printed?
  • WHY USE GLOSSY PAPER ONLY ON THE COVER AND A FEW RANDOM INSIDE PAGES? Publisher Alison Draper felt that a glossy cover, along with stapling, would increase the shelf life of the paper, and make it easier to read, especially while using public transportation. Many readers have affirmed this. The particular configurations of the press used to print the paper allow for additional pages of glossy, so these have been sold as premium advertising position. Some readers who were shown a press test also felt that they made a good “break” for the paper, when transitioning from one section to another.
  • THE ADS SURE ARE MORE NOTICEABLE. SOME SEEM INTRUSIVE. WHY IS THAT? I’ll be writing more separately about a number of decisions relating to advertising design, placement, and integration with editorial, but it was part of a concerted effort to bring more notice to the paper’s advertisers and give them a sense of inclusion in the excitement of the paper’s reinvention.


  • The newspaper celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2011. This series looking back on each year of the paper’s publication began in January 2011. Included are visuals of page designs, illustrations, photos, as well as excerpts of articles, curated by Senior Editor Michael Miner.
  • The Reader has long been viewed as a pioneer among alternative newsweeklies. Richard Karpel, an executive director of theĀ Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, once wrote: “The most significant historical event in the creation of the modern alt-weekly occurred in Chicago in 1971, when the Chicago Reader pioneered the practice of free circulation, a cornerstone of today’s alternative papers. The Reader also developed a new kind of journalism, ignoring the news and focusing on everyday life and ordinary people.” (Source: Wikipedia.)
  • The paper’s original iconic look was designed by owner-founder Bob McCamant. (View some early page designs and super-cool ads here.) It was last redesigned in a big way in 2004, by the Barcelona firm of Jardi + Utensil, when color and a complete new type system was introduced along with more magazine-ish feature content. At that time the paper remained three hefty weekly sections. The iconoclastic “reverse R” nameplate was modified into a reverse “R” logo in a gold box on the cover, which continues to be used as a branding device. In 2007, new owner Creative Loafing Inc. converted the paper to a single-section tabloid and adjusted some design elements, partly to reflect a gradual reduction in the paper’s news hole, but the same basic design and brand identity remained through the latest relaunch in April 2011.
  • Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and control of the paper (and five sister papers) was awarded to its chief creditor, Atalaya Capital Management.
  • The paper circulates a steady 90,000 free copies weekly, concentrated mostly in downtown Chicago locations, with an audited “return rate” of 4 to 6%. An additional 12,000 copies are being printed for the relaunch issue of April 28, 2011, for distribution at special promotional events. Typical page size within the last year has run 80-96 pages. At more than 200 pages, the paper’s annual “Best Of Chicago” edition in summer 2010 was considered a big success, packed with ads.


  • Work formally began in September 2010. From the time I was first contacted by CEO Marty Petty and then-publisher James Warren, to the time of relaunch, the paper was led by a succession of four different editors. (More on those leadership changes here.)
  • The project was completed under the direction of new Editor Mara Shalhoup (with whom I worked to launch a very different redesign for Creative Loafing-Atlanta in summer 2010), collaborating with Reader Art Director Paul John Higgins. (View a selection of some of his most impactful Reader covers for 2010.)
  • The redesign adds a glossy cover, back cover and key inside pages on glossy stock, as a bonus for premium advertisers, and will be stapled for convenience. The paper’s music section is rebranded as a more distinct section, B SIDE, which some will likely view as its own publication. (More on this aspect of the project.)
  • Website and app design were not a part of this project but are being undertaken for unveiling later in the year.

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