NCAA Champion magazine redesigns, rethinks, and scores!

Working on your own prototypes, but want an expert eye on your strategy and creative process? The NCAA sought just that, and found it’s a low-cost way to keep things focused and creative. 

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One of the best things about taking a break from consulting to teach this semester at the University of Montana is that a number of recent clients are launching redesigns I can share immediately with my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption.” This week, we’re taking a deep dive into Champion, the quarterly glossy magazine of the NCAA, who brought me to their HQ in Indianapolis last year to help guide them through the strategy and mission of redesign and change management. Their fine work goes public just this month.

I occasionally do this sort of “limited” consulting where I’m tasked with bringing an internal group together, analyzing strengths and shortcomings of current approaches, and targeting specific values worth rethinking to push the magazine, organization, and/or brand forward. We look at editing strategies and voice, design tools, planning, internal communications, staff structure, and lots more “behind the scenes” stuff that can make or break a redesign. (The tough work of the actual prototyping would later fall to the able hands of Creative Director Arnel Reynon, whose work I had admired for a few years.)

Champion had many strengths, including excellent design and photography on its covers and cover story  spreads inside, so it wasn’t something that needed to be blown up by any stretch. But when the project leader, Editor Amy Wimmer Schwarb, said they were pondering expanding the appeal of the magazine a bit beyond the NCAA membership, reaching out to more student athletes and fans of sports journalism in general, I agreed to help them think it through. I tasked them to consider how their story packaging, navigation and labeling, graphics, headlines, and even writing might be updated to appeal to both traditional and new readers alike.

What better way to teach “design and disruption” to my students than by showing and dissecting the physical evidence of change, happening right now in the industry?

Last Thursday, everyone in class got an older issue of Champion, pre-redesign, and I assigned them to analyze what worked and what might have fallen short in the old format. (And I ask the same of my class as I do of my clients: It’s not enough to respond with “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or “this doesn’t work for me” – articulate for me why the reader, the story, or the brand wins or suffers by what they see in the design or editing.) Then, this Tuesday, I gave them copies of the revamped Winter 2015 issue of Champion, hot off the press.

Instantly, the students said they were struck by the many improvements: Highly appealing new type, color and navigation systems. Smarter segmenting of stories, vastly improved conversational headlines, a tone of inspiring and mentoring readers, and stories that look forward rather than back.

Here’s a look at some of those ingredients:

1) Headlines with a stronger, more conversational voice.

It’s an almost universal criticism I offer up to publications I’m working with lately: your headlines are too often flat, they seem like a press release, they could be more compelling. Champion’s headlines weren’t terrible, or inaccurate, but sometimes they didn’t exactly inspire the reader to come on in. When I worked with the staff, we dove into the content and talked through specific ways to make the magazine seem less like it was talking at the reader and more like it was talking with them.

I love their solution: let’s not only write the headlines in a more compelling way, but display them as such. Shown here are two examples, at the bottom of each page reversed in blue:

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Editors or publishers who bring me in for a design critique, or strategic tune-up, are surprised at how much of an emphasis I put on the writing of headlines. I tell them, reading weak headlines is like walking into a party and having the most dull person there greet you and start talking. I can’t wait to move on to something else. It’s one of the most important things we can work on in redesigning and rethinking a magazine. 

2) More surprise.

Early in the book, Champion readers get this treat:

 

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… a full page story told in the form of this spare infographic (credit: Ethan Bremer and Arnel Reynon), depicting how far from home the ESPN Top 100 women’s basketball recruits go to attend school. It’s information, not just decoration (one of my mantras, as my students are coming to learn)and a perfect example of the type of story better told visually than in traditional narrative, inverted pyramid form. Since Champion wants to cast its net to a wider audience, perhaps younger readers or just those more interested in sports journalism in general, this is a great way to go.

Reports Arnel, the Creative Director who led the redesign: “Your session with us got our minds rolling in the right direction. We came out with a smarter, cleaner product. More importantly, we came together as a staff. We’re closer than ever to everyone being on the same page. Such a great byproduct of those long months.”

3) A great emphasis on lessons learned, inspiring and mentoring. 

Personality profiles in the old version of Champion often carried the typical “bio box” type of pullout that a lot of publications use. An athlete, coach or administrator would be profiled, and a text box would give their name, title or position on the team, where they went to college, whether they were married with kids, etc. Boilerplate, resume sort of stuff, that again, can read like a press release. I suggested: Why not pull out the biggest lessons being on the teach (or coaching, or recruiting, etc) has taught them? Who was or is their mentor who has made the most difference? How does life off court shape their life in the game? Where’s the passion, wisdom? It was great to see that taken to heart:

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Notice “lessons learned” in the introductory paragraph. Also notice the construction of the overall story form. Gone is the long gray narrative, what I call a “big chunk o’ gray” text, and in is a Q&A format (though not using Q’s and A’s, but rather, told in first person). The construction of type, color and white space allows scanners to quickly look through to see if there is a topic that’s just right for them, and potentially, linger a bit longer than they might have otherwise. There are many examples of improved “scanner friendly” story forms in Champion, including the following …

4) Segmented stories (where content warrants) 

During my visit with the Champion leadership team and staff, we had some great talks about which kinds of stories deserve traditional, long-form writing, and which are worth looking at with a fresh eye, and asking: are there segments to this story worth breaking out? Small chapters, specific topics or a sequence of events, perhaps? This page does just that:

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I asked Amy how our strategic planning conversations last year influenced ingredients seen in the finished product. “I hope you see nuggets of your advice throughout. You particularly inspired my idea for My Biggest Win, What My Sport Teaches Me and From There to Here, which try to talk about the life lessons of sport. We liked these rubrics so much we just didn’t want to sit on them until the winter issue, and actually introduced those a couple issues ago, while the redesign was still in progress.” (Another suggestion I offer to all my clients: When you arrive at great content ideas in the brainstorming process, why not try a few out before the official relaunch?)

Consider how this type of design relies heavily on planning and teamwork, from the earliest stage. Really, you have to dive in to the writing and editing (if not the reporting) with this type of layout in mind. Once you identify this as a recurring feature, an efficient and collaborative workflow becomes second nature.

Another example of a feature with smartly (and tightly) edited text, pulling the reader in and getting him through quickly:

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This smart evolution of Champion was totally dependent on having the conversation: “What type of magazine do we want to be? What sorts of story forms do we think our readers, current or future, would find most engaging? How do our planning, teamwork, internal conversations need to evolve to let that happen?” The Champion team dove deep into all these questions, and it paid off with smarter pages.

5) Clean layouts using color as a guide. 

One of the first improvements my students noticed, when I shared the current issue with them, was the more attractive use of color and improved navigation, including logos, labels and folios throughout the magazine. Here’s an example of a spread that is easy to process and pulls the reader in:

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These pages are from a department of the magazine that features NCAA constituents doing good things around the globe. In the past it was a bit monotonous, with each story, headline and photo getting equal play. Says Amy: “The rethinking of Play It Forward has been very helpful to us. We traditionally get a ton of member schools submitting story ideas about community service projects they have completed. As you might imagine, those stories can be so dated by the time a quarterly magazine publishes them, but by simply grouping them together and trying to make some entries smaller than others (I’d like to see us get more entries that are even smaller still – more like magazine candy), they seem to fit better into the magazine. Previously, just about every third page in the front of the book had a charity thing on it, which felt a little too do-gooder, I think.”

6) Strong photography shines even more. 

One area where Champion has always excelled has been photojournalism and photo layout. They do not shy away from giving a strong image one or even two pages where warranted. Following is a recurring feature, 1,000 Words, as seen in the  new issue:

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The reorganized type, color and white space of the pages that come before and after really make these special photo treatments pop. When you get to the start of the cover story, toward the middle of the book, the lead photo (and opening type display) pops even moreso:

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Pages with briefs and  listing-type information also rely heavily on strong photo use, even though these appear in the back of the book and often feature “news of record” for the NCAA that might otherwise become text heavy and dull. Note the contrast in shapes and sizes of photos that keep these spreads active and inviting:

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7) If a story can be told graphically, consider it. 

This ambitious multipage package, on debunking myths surround college athletics, is something I immediately wanted to explore, even though I’m not the usual fan for this topic:

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Notice the nontraditional headlines: They may be wordier than most, but the expert use of type and color, including bold key words, keeps these spreads breezy and inviting. (Credits: Chris Berry and Arnel Reynon) This feature was a top pick by my class as something immediately noticeable in the new design; they said it looked like it would be fun to help work on, in addition to being inviting and easy to read.

When asked what was the biggest improvement for readers, Arnel, the Creative Director, replied: “It has to be the content. Because we’re presenting things with a different eye, we’re reporting with a different tone. I think the more we can keep that idea of reporting and designing fresh, the more opportunities we have to surprise our readers and keep them excited and turning pages.”

One key focus of our strategy work last year was story planning and communications between writers, editors and designers, which you can see from these pages are paramount. “We’ve come a long way,” Arnel said. Kicking off the redesign project  thoughtfully, and as a group, was critical. “Understanding each others’ perspectives has helped tremendously.”

8) Finally, a larger strategy for audience engagement and expansion

A theme in our class here at the U of Montana, of course, is that we no longer live in a print-centric world. The very first thing I asked the students to consume in the new Champion was this introductory letter to readers from Executive Editor Brian Hendrickson, where he writes about the impetus for change:

Last summer, the Champion staff sent a survey to members who receive the magazine. The results were overwhelmingly supportive: Ninety-two percent of respondents said they appreciate receiving Champion. Ninety-seven percent indicated that it’s prestigious to be featured in the magazine. And 85 percent agreed the NCAA should continue publishing a printed magazine. You’ll struggle to find similar support levels from any other publication in America.

And yet we’ve heard another message from those results: Some have suggested Champion preaches to the choir, that its current audience already knows the difference college sports make in people’s lives. We’ve had members tell us in that survey, in committee meetings and in one-on-one conversations that they want Champion in the hands of more people, both inside the membership and out.

He continues, explaining the importance of improved digital publishing and the extent of social media outreach and sharing among fans of the magazine:

We’ve been setting up the pieces for a broader reach of Champion for the past several months with the aim of making it more visible to a wider range of readers who love and support college athletics.

We have a new digital home that makes sharing our stories on social platforms easier, and we are pushing harder to attract subscribers to the print magazine by making it more affordable. With this issue, we have a revamped design throughout the magazine to make Champion more informative and engaging. And we’re looking at new ways to cover important stories in real time, when the Champion voice can be a powerful influence.

In short, we’re aiming to become a more tightly written, forward-thinking, broadly distributed and proactive magazine.

As with all the clients I’ve worked with in recent years, Brian and his staff realized that while the print version may be the anchor for their brand, and may be the most tangible and lush format in which they publish, today’s audiences – especially new readers – often come in through the digital door. Great to have his “behind the scenes” explanation to share with my class, and my blog readers.

Kudos to Brian, Amy, Arnel and their crew for the hard work involved in bringing these ideas to fruition. I look forward to seeing the next issue!

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Sometimes it’s hard to really assess the quality of a magazine, or a redesign, without having a chance to read the launch issue from front to back. So here you go, a downloadable PDF of the entire Winter 2015 issue, from whence all of the above pages came. I hope the PDF, and this blog post, will provide some inspiration for breathing new life in to your own magazine, newspaper, website or app. Thanks to the Champion staff for sharing!

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