Prototyping Secrets, Part 2: The Mechanics of Redesign


By Ron Reason

My recent post dissecting the process of redesign brought an interesting question from a blog reader: How realistic should the text and photos be that are used on prototypes? I think the mechanics of redesign – the use of images, text and ads – is worth addressing in its own separate post about the mechanics of prototyping. Here’s a bit of free wisdom, garnered during my redesign work for clients from Delhi to Dubai. 

I’m a designer and a consultant, but first and foremost, a journalist, so it’s important to me to work on, and read, prototypes as though they are living creatures. I aim for what I call the “80% mark.” Try to aim for at least 80% of what you produce reading or at least looking pretty realistic. You want to develop an accurate look and feel, so that as you are reviewing pages through the process, you can see the new publication come alive. The voice of the headlines and decks (some call them subheads) is important, as is the flair and pacing of the visuals. Dummy heads and gray boxes indicating “photos to come later” won’t cut it.

Let me preface the following by saying that in the early stages, I may play in the sandbox and throw a variety of headlines on one page, in various fonts, to try to pinpoint “which font gives us the best feel for this publication?” Some of these I share with the in-house team, but I present them as experimentation, not prototypes. You can get by with a few of “sketchy” pages, with gray boxes indicating photo spaces, but again, this is experimentation, not prototyping.


Let’s start with the small stuff. Never, never use Greek text as a place holder in prototypes. The word lengths, hyphenations, inter-word spacing and other elements will not give you an accurate look or feel and will be distracting. As a starting point, I format what I think will be a suitable body text style, then pick one typical story the publication has produced (at least 10 paragraphs), and copy and paste that into all the basic story shapes. This saves time and, for almost all editors, is sufficient. The same can be done with caption styles, at-a-glance or graphics text, or other small elements.

(On a few rare projects I’ve worked on, the editors wanted to produce all stories from scratch, and edit to perfection, for use in prototypes: the creation of the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal, where it was important since the section had not existed, and most recently, a project at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In this case, so much advancement was envisioned for the publication that it was thought best to aim for total realism when shopping around the new ideas.)


Once you get into full prototyping, it’s distracting to have page after page of “Headline tk …” or “Dummy head xyz” atop all your stories. I started my career as a headline writer, so have never found dummy heads helpful in prototypes. I use headlines that may have been published earlier, or quite often, if they suck (which is quite often) I rewrite them after quickly scanning the stories. (Prototyping is a great place for me to conduct this kind of “headline therapy.” Editors notice immediately and quite often step up their game with better headlines.) If it’s a startup publication, without pre-existing content to draw on, I know the projected mission well enough that I can fake it, and write sample headlines quickly.

Many page designers may not come from a journalism background and may not be comfortable writing headlines; in their case I advise going to the publication’s web site to copy and paste headlines previously published, or asking the editors to provide them. At least it’s a starting point and it shows you care about content (even if you don’t).


It’s easy enough to reuse photos that have been published and use them in your prototypes. However, why not use the opportunity to make the photo editing and presentation even better? I often look for opportunities to use available resources in smarter ways. I’ll ask the art director or photo editor if there are “outtakes” that we could play up on the prototypes, or a photo that was used ineffectively in print that we could give a second chance.

As with “headline therapy,” the improved use of photos they already have access to is a great teaching tool for the staff. It’s amazing how often an editor will say, “what a great photo!” and not recognize it as one that may have been played too small, or wasted on a black-and-white inside page, just a day earlier in her own publication, or perhaps even totally neglected in the editing process.

Is it OK to use, say, Google images or other “found art” in your prototypes? For internal prototyping, this is usually fine, but tread lightly and make sure they don’t end up published for public view. But exploring what can be done with staff photos is often the best way to start.


This one can be tricky. Partly because of the limited graphics staffing at most papers, prototyping often relies on graphics that have been published previously, or downplays their use. But in some cases, a little hard work can have big payoffs.

Working last year with the Cincinnati Enquirer on its upcoming (spring ’13) relaunch to a smaller format with a smarter spirit, I was pleased to see how Editor Carolyn Washburn championed infographics through the process. She asked that published graphics be radically remade for prototypes, and even made from scratch – not just to accommodate the new page size, but because it was important to convey the need to tell stories in alternative ways, and to show readers and advertisers samples of the more dynamic publication coming their way. A great example of the prototyping process as a teaching tool. See previous posts about the Enquirer redesign. 


In almost all the projects I’ve worked on, the editors have sought to make the publication better, not just make it look different. This usually requires some examination of the existing content, and brainstorming of new features, or new ways to present existing content. Prototypes are the perfect home for this.

New kinds of briefs, summaries, promos? New ways to segment long-form stories? New graphic storytelling devices? Columns? Photo packages? Now’s the time to invent these, and explore what formats will make them easy to read and navigate. It requires reallocation of resources, but can have big payoffs if a smarter publication results. Worried you don’t have the staff to create content from scratch, just for use in prototypes? Fear not. Most editors find a way to use such content in the live publication eventually.


Only in recent years have clients started to make it a priority to rethink and remake ads while prototyping. Why not consider new ad shapes, sizes and positions? Why not marry up ads with new kinds of content in new, noticeable ways? Especially if you want to produce a realistic press test, and shop it around town to generate interest in advertising, this needs to be a priority.

An interesting footnote: some newspaper clients in recent years have only reluctantly gone down this road – in fact, in some cases I had a hard time finding any in-house people to take ownership of this or even be interested. (Even the publisher at one very troubled newspaper seemed resigned that not much could be done beyond the status quo.)

One noted exception: Alison Draper, publisher of the Chicago Reader, who hired me to help with a redesign and rethinking of her paper, which in many ways started with advertising. How to make the paper seem less “stale” to advertisers to have left, or who may never have come on board? She invested staff and freelance time, energy and money in rethinking and redesigning ads for prototypes and press tests, which were tested and touted all over town, and it paid off. Within the first three months she reported noticeable success in increased ad sales and interest. Read my previous blog posts about the Reader redesign project here.

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Each project I work on is different, in various ways. What I call the “management” of the prototyping process, knowing what to remake, when and how, is a big part of the consultant’s role, to make sure you’re on target toward something specific, dynamic and appropriate. If you have a question about the process, or are considering working with a consultant, please email ronreason (at), and we’ll be in touch!

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1 Comment

  1. Soren Frederiksen

     /  November 16, 2013

    Ron, this is a great post. Keep it up. Love the blog.

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