Alternative story forms: Just say no to lifeless, gray pages

Magazine publishers who contact me about redesign are interested in making pages inviting to readers in new ways. In each case, I identify areas in their existing design that could easily be reformatted to make the pages more inviting, the publication flow more easily, and production – including the writing and editing process –  simpler and more streamlined.

Champion, the magazine of the NCAA, does terrific work with alternative story forms such as these. (I advised Champion on strategy and process for its reinvention; you can read more about that process, and see other great layouts, here. The following are live pages produced by Creative Director Arnel Reynon.)

The first item below (story at bottom of page) could be the most simple example of an alt story form: a brief that always includes a quote as a headline. Note the distinct type treatment, color, and placement of photo and text that distinguish it from the rest of the magazine:

alternative story forms, magazine redesign

Q&A features are a terrific example of content that can be heavily formatted in a way that invites the reader and speeds their navigation. Note the use of larger, wider intro text (further segmented into categories with bold/caps/color type), bold/color intros for the questions, and orchestrated spacing between items. Prototyping and designing in this way also serves as a great teaching tool, allowing even beginning reporters to more quickly get in and out of “boilerplate” interview situations like this.

Do you periodically feature “roundtable” type stories, or just stories on one topic where you seek comments from 3-4 individuals involved? Consider a format like the following. Headline, deck, intro text are treated the same each time. Quote text and attribution underneath each photo are in distinct type styles; one subject has a “pull quote” type balloon in blue above her image. Extra white space is left at the bottom (aka the clothesline effect), which makes magazine pages – especially alongside advertising – less dense and overwhelming.

alt story forms, magazine redesign

As an alternative, compare the above page to the sort of layout that “might have been” (and which I’ve encountered too many times when critiquing or redesigning other publications):

With this type of basic layout, the reader has to search harder for the essence of the story, to find “what’s in it for me?,” and has move back and forth from text to image to association the quotes with who said them.

Whether I am directly overseeing the redesign and prototyping, or, as in the case of Champion, advising the leadership and creative teams on redesign process and strategy, I always engage the client in a conversation about new types of content, and the best formats for that content to present to the reader. We had a rich discussion about recurring features like “From Here to There,” below, a sort of career profile page that shows how NCAA administration or coaching staff made their way to success.

Note the graphic energy given to this layout; it also guides the reporter in terms of the kinds of content, and amount of words in each segment, to pursue during their interview, focusing the reporting and editing process. The story form also makes a page with routine handout photos, such as the one shown, suddenly become a bit more lively. The deft use of some color text creates dimension on the page.

alt story forms, magazine redesign

Typically, I ask every client to consider a half dozen or more “alternative story forms” during the redesign process. It’s often fairly easy to identify stories that are presented in a routine, inverted pyramid way, and remake them with more excitement. These give richness and variety, but when used regularly, consistency to your publication.

If you have questions about storytelling strategies or redesign, feel free to email me at

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