Need an ongoing or short-term creative director or visuals editor? Here’s how that works

[Looking for traditional redesign help? Start here. Newsroom training? Go here.]

Expanding on recent client interest, in addition to traditional redesign consulting and newsroom training, I’m now offering two new services: guest creative direction, and remote design editing and production. These may be of particular benefit to smaller publications, who may need these services but have limited need or budget for full-time staff to take them on.


[Work produced on quarterly retainer Capital Ideas magazine included: all page design from front to back; collaboration with freelance photographers and illustrators; working with editors and reporters to create original infographics and sidebars.]

A challenge faced by some smaller magazines, particularly monthlies or quarterlies: You need a page designer, or visuals editor, but this doesn’t quite add up to a full time position, nor maybe even part-time. Hiring design help on a contract basis is one way to go, but traditional graphic designers or studios may not have the editorial eye you need for the task.

At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, as my redesign was nearly ready to launch for Capital Ideas magazine, Editor Emily Lambert was also in the process of searching for a new designer to take the reins for the first issue and beyond. She knew the difficulty of finding the skill, reliability and flexibility she needed only 2-3 weeks per quarter, or for a few hours each week to help brainstorm upcoming stories. She asked: Would I be able to take this on? We had already established a great working relationship, I was more than familiar with their Style Guide, since I wrote it, and I knew Emily and crew would provide text and visuals in a steady stream. I jumped at the chance.

[Related: Working on your own redesign, but want an expert eye on the process? The NCAA hired me to do just that.]

Once we established remote compatibility with their page design software and CMS (Adobe InDesign and InCopy), the arrangement ended up being a good fit with my redesign consulting and teaching load at the time, and I designed the quarterly magazine on a freelance basis for the first two years after its launch. I visited their offices regularly, since I was based in Chicago at the time, and was available to Skype in for planning meetings if I was traveling. Particularly given the niche focus of the magazine (economics and finance research), and the audience (academics, economists, policy wonks, etc.), Emily felt it was important to have a journalist at her side,  creating the design and visuals for each issue. This is the good match that news design clients and consultants should always aim for.



[Questions I asked in reviewing each edition of Athletic Business, before publication: Was the cover as impactful as possible? Did infographics hit the mark? Were photos displayed for impact as well as clarity? Did headlines sing? We also discussed ad flow and the impact of marketing messages.]

Following my 2015 redesign of Athletic Business, CEO Gretchen Brown was interested in some ongoing creative oversight for the magazine’s new look and spirit. She was interested in using me as a mentor for her new art director, as well as staff I had collaborated with during the redesign phase. In effect, she was staffed up for production, but wanted a sort of “guest creative director” to support the staff for a year, reviewing their work in advance of  publication and making it the best it could be.

We came up with the idea of providing monthly “pre-mortems,” whereby I would take a look at page designs, photo layouts, headlines and infographics submitted to me by the staff just before deadline, so that I may coach them to produce their most creative work as well as help ensure adherence to the new styles.  

(A note about “pre-mortems.” For years I have preferred that term, and philosophy, over that of “post-mortems.” During a post-mortem critique, after publication, it is too late to fix areas of concern that would benefit readers or advertisers. If something was so “off,” why did it get published in the first place? Instead, I prefer to be as critical as possible during the production process, and offer up advice that might  actually improve the product at hand. As a bonus, we can examine and discuss the system that allows disconnect to happen, as well. For a longer discussion of pre-mortems vs. post-mortems, visit this link.)

We’ve just concluded a year and a half of this engagement for Athletic Business. One requirement: The staff really had to adhere to a more disciplined deadline schedule, in order to build in 24-48 hours for me to review key pages before release to their printers. We also refined planning strategies and other expectations to avoid the deadline mashup that often prevents adequate time for “review and repair.”

Gretchen, Art Director Nicole Bell and I all agreed we were happier engaging in a robust review process before publication, rather than after, and that readers and advertisers benefitted with a smarter, better looking publication each month.

For smaller publications that require the services of a creative director, even for a short period, but where it doesn’t make sense to keep one on staff full time, this can be a very cost-effective solution to making your design look its best. Previous clients have also used me in this capacity to review creative work in marketing, digital, event planning and other areas.


If you think either of these services may be a good fit for your publication, a good place to start would be to have me critique your current look and feel. We’ll discuss your production processes, deadlines, current working relationships, and how those might need to be tightened up to work with an outsider.

Whether you are redesigning or not, I can help you decide whether this is the type of work it makes sense to bring in an outsider for. To begin, or for more information, email ronreason (at)

* * * Publication and portfolio critiques: Thanks to those who responded to the limited-time offer of publication and portfolio critiques. If you have questions about the new services above, or are interested in a redesign and would like an evaluation of your current design or a review of your publishing strategy, email with your name, publication, and a brief description of your goals. Thanks for reading!  

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