Prototyping Secrets, Part 1: The Process of Redesign

TIPS FOR LEADING AND MANAGING YOUR PROJECT TOWARD EXCELLENCE 

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By Ron Reason

Editorial redesigns often follow a similar process, which I have refined in my work from Delhi to Dubai. In this post I’ll share thoughts about how to make the most of  the process of prototyping, but I will outline the other steps I often follow when collaborating with in-house teams. In Part 2, linked at the bottom, I offer plenty of additional tips regarding the mechanics of redesign – how to use images, text and ads. In the spirit of Giving Tuesday, I offer this advice even to those newsrooms who may not wish to hire an outside consultant – change is hard, and I think we can use all the help we can get! I hope you find it helpful. 

What are the components of the redesign process? How do you get off on a good foot? Here are the five that I start with, for every client:

Mission: Write a brief statement to articulate why you are changing – to generate more revenue? To appeal to a different audience? Or just “freshen up” the look?
Strategy: Identify project goals – aside from the design, do you want to change the size or shape? Move to a different paper stock? Update content? Realign who does what?
Team-building: Identify a project leader; assemble a team (make sure to include editorial as well as advertising, marketing, technical, and – optional – consultant), and assign them specific tasks and deadlines to meet your launch date.
Prototyping: This is the heart and soul of redesign, which I’ll address below.
Technical implementation, training and launch: Once you’ve agreed on your new look/format/spirit, you have to nail down templates, style sheets, style guide, and take care of things like staff prep and marketing.

I’ve worked on projects where prototyping takes three weeks (tight! but doable for a small publication if you’ve really got your act together), and others where it took eight months (this almost always reflects an inefficient process, unclear goals or similar). Here are six suggestions to make the best of the prototyping stage:

1) Start with clear prototyping directives. This is your project mission and strategy, mentioned above, but put it in writing and be as clear as possible. When you start reviewing prototypes, this allows you to be more clear on whether they hit the target or not. Start with things like: do you want to be more clean? bold? conservative? energetic? easier to navigate?

2) Be clear on who does what. If it all falls on the shoulders of a qualified art director, fine, you may be golden and move through this quickly. But if you are assembling a small internal team, or hiring a consultant: Be clear on what kinds of pages each person will work on, how they will collaborate with each other, number of pages, types of pages, when they are due. Projects can go off the rails if the division of labor is unclear. (As for how to use a consultant efficiently: I’ve worked on projects where I’ve done 100% of the prototyping, and others where the staff has carried the ball. I might do a limited number of key pages, and then proceed in an “over-the-shoulder” fashion, advising on the creative and administrative oversight of the project. Just depends on your in-house staffing, talent level, availability and interest, as well as your budget.)

3) Aim for variety. Often a redesign will benefit from seeing three “models” of a new look. Most simply, this can fall along the lines of a serif look (for logo and/or headlines), sans serif, or mix. But there are other variables as well: lots of color, or minimal? Lots of white space, or jam packed with info? Eight-column grid, or three? Do lots of rules and dingbats, tinted or shadowed boxes uphold the look you want? Or something more spartan? Don’t waffle around – articulate two or three models and try to stick with those. Stick with a clear roadmap before you get too deep into it. (For a detailed look at three models of “looks” for one client, and background information, visit this link.)

4) Schedule a “gallery walk” of those prototype pages. If aiming for three models, you might pick a conference room and put the pages of each model on three different walls. A project steering committee can convene to give feedback; you can invite various departments from your company to come in and give the pages a once-over, either for a formal discussion, or when time permits, tape blank pages under each prototype for feedback. Some clients have brought in readers or advertisers to do a “gallery walk.” From here, preferences should emerge quickly. Rarely does one model “nail it” right away; it may be 80% of the way toward the look you were aiming for, with the remainder of revisions to come from the other models, or suggestions from out of the blue. (Click here for a sampling of prototype pages from Grid, a business magazine I worked on for Sun-Times Media Group in early 2013.)

5) Consider a press test. From here, revise your prototype pages into as solid a press test as you can muster. Include realistic advertising. If you don’t have the time or budget for a press test, at least assemble the pages with tape or staples so you can see the front-to-back juxtaposition of pages and spreads, and flow of the book, in a way that the gallery walk might not have allowed.

6) Have a clear feedback strategy. Some clients just show the press test to the publisher and maybe their spouse, get sign-off, and that’s good enough. Others use it to put in front of formal or informal focus groups of readers or advertisers.

It can be great PR to say, “Look at the cool new update we’ve got in the works. We’re almost there.” There’s also no better way to get buy-in from the staff. Even if they aren’t 100% supportive of everything they see, it should minimize questions about what is coming their way post-launch. It can also serve as a great training tool, and for some clients is a critical element of the Design Style Guide. As a final tip for the feedback stage: try to discourage language like “I like it/ I don’t like it” or “it just doesn’t work for me” – not helpful. Does the new design reflect the publication’s new mission and strategy, who you were aiming to become? Does it suitably reflect the history of the brand (if this matters) and move it forward? That’s the language you want to focus on.

Obviously, every project is at least a little different. I tend to use these suggestions for prototyping as a starting point, and then listen to the client to see which areas might need more attention, which might need less. But in general, you should know near the end of the prototyping process, or the beginning of the press test phase, that you are nearing your mark.

See Part 2 of this story: Tips for making the most of text, visuals, and ads in prototypes.

Have you had success or failure with the prototyping process that you’d like to share? Use the comments field below, or email ronreason (at) gmail.com to join in the discussion.

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