One-year redesign checkup: healthy covers for a healthcare magazine

Occasionally I like to check in on my redesign clients to see how design elements and strategies for change have been adopted. Modern Healthcare magazine, which I redesigned in November 2013, just passed its one-year anniversary. One of the chief directives from Publisher Fawn Lopez: “Ron, we have got to do something about these covers.” She demanded more clarity, distinction and impact, and I like to think she got it!

Covering healthcare topics visually can be a challenge, if you want to avoid cliches of stethoscopes and dollar bills, or mug shots of doctors; covering the administration, policies and politics of healthcare is even more difficult. While design and editing were made sharper throughout the book, I’ve been struck by how Art Director Pat Fanelli has brought her covers up to the next level. Here’s a look at some of her work I admired, and why it succeeds:

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Ebola: covers that stand out 

How do you cover the big story of the moment (year?) when everyone else is on it, too? These covers on Ebola succeed in presenting visual ideas that are likely not to have been seen elsewhere. On the left, what I call a “type attack” (a type-only design solution) tackles an incredibly hard cover concept (“mistakes were made”) and presents it with simplicity and drama. On the right,

what could have been a dull and maybe even hard to read cover, emphasizing an AP news photo, is turned into something more, with the headline presented as police “caution” tape. Bravo!

As I might have guessed, solutions like these don’t come out of a vacuum. Says Editor Merrill Goozner: “Covers evolve over the course of a week and several editors usually weigh in. But everything we do begins with a concept developed by Pat after she speaks with editors and/or reporters. In fact, she usually comes up with several to illustrate the week’s biggest story. It’s a collaborative process that revolves around her – with the obvious good results you’ve noted.”

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Photography with impact 

How to present, with impact while maintaining some sensitivity, the story of a hospital patient bursting into flame? The solution on the left takes some chances, but in my view, succeeds. Says Goozner: “Audience-wise, we received the most feedback for the “fire” story. I distinctly recall one reader telling me, ‘after seeing that, I had to read the rest of the story.’ ” This cover lives up to the high standard I hold for myself when I design prototypes for specialty or trade publications: I’m not even the audience for this magazine (healthcare executives and policy makers) but I couldn’t wait to dive in to this issue.

The cover on the right: It’s rare that an alluring product shot is available to carry the cover, but this one fits the bill. The robot picking up the “R” in the headline is a great touch, but what’s even better? This isn’t just eye candy. The secondary headline suggests a cover story with bite: Should hospital systems be buying this robotic equipment to attract surgeons?

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The art of the simple idea

Many years ago I seized on the notion that we often “over” art direct covers and throw in everything but the kitchen sink, when stories are complex or because we’re just in the mood to show off. Now more than ever, simplicity has value for readers who are flooded with visuals and text everyday. These three covers are going into my next classroom lecture on “The Art of the Simple Idea.” On the left, a complex concept is carried with simple headline and explainer text and a splash of blue in the background. A tough story that doesn’t waste time tackling something that’s impossible to tell visually. Second is what I call an illo-graphic: a fever chart is deftly combined with type, and simple outline of an administrator caught in the crunch – this cover fires on all cylinders. The third takes a simple bit of stock art (or for all I know, these could be the hands of the copy editors, sporting medical gloves?) and again takes a difficult concept to portray visually – teamwork – and gives it visual twist appropriate to the readership.

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Sometimes, stock art, or type, is all you need   

Sometimes you just need a simple piece of stock art and a solid cover concept and then get out of the way. These covers do that, with aplomb. The third topic shown here is a recurring challenge for Modern Healthcare (and many of the Crain Communications titles I’ve redesigned): How to illustrate the 100 Best (or 40 Under 40, or whatever) who are recognized as leaders in the field covered by the magazine. Big type, well crafted, and in this case, mug shots presented in a casual, cascading way, invite the reader in.

Kudos to Pat for her art direction skills, as well as Publisher Fawn Lopez, Editor Merrill Goozner and others on the Modern Healthcare staff who contributed to these covers and a year of smart editing and design in the magazine.

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