There’s an axiom in the publishing world that magazines ought to rethink their design and issue map at least every five years. Given the effort it takes to get a typical issue of a magazine out the door, the extra burden of simultaneously rethinking the publication is almost, well, unthinkable.

Yet, complacency damages the effectiveness of a publication. Readers and advertisers notice, and in the worst way: not by being angry or demanding, but by becoming disinterested. That’s really a double whammy. Not only are you delivering a product whose value is compromised, you’re sending the message that you’ve lost interest, too.

Of course, publishers, editors and designers realize this. It’s just that most often no one has budgeted the time or money to deal with the problem. This is the real obstacle: Treating a magazine design as a finished product that never needs review is the wrong model for effective growth.


Anticipate Redesign

A Better Approach

Most organizations recognize the value of ongoing research and development, and everyone knows that regular maintenance is critical for valuable assets of all kinds, from homes to cars to clients. Even so, few organizations have strategies in place for maintaining the vitality and development of one of their main assets — their publication.

For many publishers, redesign is a daunting task — it rears its ugly head at ill-timed moments and demands attention — whether it results from an upper management edict or a disturbing renewals report. It’s possible to eliminate most of the anxiety and a lot of the stress that comes with a magazine makeover if you proactively plan the redesign into your work life.

When redesign is an element of ongoing work, it’s integrated into everyone’s duties instead of treated like an extracurricular activity that requires overtime and squeezed time frames. Ideas developed through a process of group evaluation are usually more satisfying and effective. Finally, factoring in redesign as part of a long-term budget reduces the sticker shock of finding an excellent vendor to tackle the actual redesign. The side benefit of this approach is that, since the project is built into future plans, every issue leading up to the redesign is an opportunity to evaluate what aspects of the book might be changed.

An Ongoing Redesign Strategy

Integrating redesign into your workflow demands making time for evaluation, budgeting funds that eventually will be spent on a new template, and deciding who will do the work. Whether it’s done in-house or contracted to a designer or studio, the period of redesign will demand extra attention from everybody.

Keep your eye on the mission. Every publication has goals for its readership, its bottom line and its scope. By categorizing your mission goals and demonstrating how they are represented in your issue map, you create an outline that can also be a work plan for growth (see “Mission: Possible,” page 40 in the Winter 08 issue). Your mission goals could have changed, or they could be underrepresented in your magazine. This simple way of showing the application of your mission makes it easy to spot what’s missing, or what’s off-point and can be improved.

Make time to critique. Every issue is an opportunity for change, but that happens only when there’s time for reflection. Although it seems the end of one issue collides with the start of the next, finding even an hour to group review the printed issue is an important part of moving forward. The review should be comparative—look at the ISSUE #7 against the last and against the proposed content of the next issue. Magazines are all about theme and variation. The most effective content is derived from clear, rich themes that have ample depth for interesting variation.

Get everyone involved. Empower your staff and leverage your readership by creating multiple channels for feedback on your magazine. The most critical aspect of a redesign — on the house side — is buy-in from upper management and staff. These people need to feel they are involved in the process and an important resource for advice. Reader participation is useful, too. Encourage suggestions or follow-up comments through your e-mail or website, or conduct informal sampling by phone or at industry events that your readers attend.

When discussing the title, try to avoid nitpicking or overly detailed deconstruction of particular articles; focus instead on broad content areas, overall satisfaction and outside-the-box suggestions. You can even use your publication or its companion website to launch a design initiative, engage your readership with possible directions of change, and encourage feedback with a reward of some kind.

Set SCOPE for THE redesign. Everyone has an opinion about the extent of work that needs to go into a particular redesign. While some people won’t feel a need for any change at all, others will lobby for a relaunch. Somewhere in between lies the true scope of the redesign. Determining the extent of a redesign effort is the most critical decision that should be made internally. A redesign can be cosmetic, structural or fundamental; usually, it has some elements of each type. Dividing the redesign proportionally among these three levels goes a long way to defining the scope of the project.

Set a concrete time line. Setting an issue date to launch the redesign helps the process become “real.” Plan backward from that issue and set interim deadlines. Keeping the active part of the redesign under six months is a reasonable goal. If it’s too long, the sense of urgency may dissipate, and there will be a corresponding loss of enthusiasm for the project. The better prepared you’ve become through constant consideration of redesign issues, the shorter the actual redesign effort can be.

Integrating redesign into your publishing culture is the best way to keep all your titles relevant. Magazines by nature have a dynamic relationship with readers. Each issue is yet another opportunity for the title to excite them. When the time comes for a major renovation of your magazine, it should be an extension of the ongoing dialog, not a brand-new conversation.


Get Help

Are You In or Out?

Critical in the redesign decision is whether it will be performed by the regular art director or farmed out to a consulting designer or studio. Opinions go both ways, but there is no definitive choice; it depends largely on the abilities of the in-house staff and the extent of the redesign scope.

Even when a redesign is performed in-house, it’s hardly “free.” The principal redesign team needs time to accomplish the task without the exigencies of the regular production schedule. It really is unfair to expand the duties of the regular art director by adding the redesign on top of the regular workflow — no matter how eager he or she may be to do the job. Finding people to step in and handle ongoing design and production for a few issues might be necessary in order to achieve a redesign with merit.

No one is more familiar with the content and workflow than the AD of the magazine. And successful implementation of the redesign is more likely when the person doing the redesign is going to handle the issue-by-issue chores, too.

But going outside has advantages. Redesign and ongoing layout are two different skill sets, and while some art directors are good at redesigns, many lack experience. In-house ADs can find it difficult to be creative at reimagining a title they are so close to. Even if they’re given carte blanche to rethink the magazine extensively, they might not have the political clout to execute something dramatically different.

A consultant brings experience from multiple projects and a fresh eye to the publication. Thus, magazine staff can focus on critical evaluation and direction.

In fact, there’s no reason to be monolithic about this process. Regular staff can handle a great deal of the process, and outside consultants can provide whatever level of involvement the publication desires. It’s all a matter of defining their role before you start looking for them.

Choosing a Firm

Finding a design consultant often seems like a crapshoot — there’s not necessarily a correlation between fees and quality — and every redesign has its own unique difficulties. But there are some things you should do to make the selection process successful in finding the right fit for your publication:

Request Current Before-and-After Samples. Nothing will be more indicative of your results than reviewing recent work from a firm. Examples that demonstrate treatments of editorial similar to that of your issue structure and art budget are extremely useful and simple to spot. It’s easy to be dazzled by really nice design—and that’s important, since you should be impressed with the work — but there needs to be a practical connection to your project.

HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOUR PEERS. Naturally, a studio will only present its success stories, but there’s much to learn from references, and more often than not they’ll be happy to talk with you. Ask about the working relationship; how the firm reacted to critiques and addressed problems; how well the firm guided them through the process; and what parts of the process were most enlightening. After all, a specialized publication firm should bring experience to the job that exceeds the expectations of the client.

Don’t Ask for Spec Work. Besides it being contrary to AIGA Ethical Guidelines, you simply won’t get relevant product when you request sample design work. Without the studio really understanding your needs, their spec work will be no more relevant than samples from other projects.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a critique of your publication, or an opinion on the direction of the redesign. Just view it more as a demonstration of how thoughtful and articulate your interaction with the firm principals will be than as a defining element of your choice of studio based on their uninformed recommendations.

PUT YOUR CARDS ON THE TABLE. Nothing works better when negotiating a fee than being upfront about your budget and your timetable. Redesign fees are always flexible; it doesn’t matter what size the firm or who their other clients have been. There are lots of extenuating reasons for design firms to take your job — at your budget. You’ll never know if they will unless you ask, so don’t take a high fee at face value. Finalize your search by choosing your preferred firms on the basis of their work, and see if you can find a way to make a deal.

GET A CONTRACT. When you finally agree on terms, make sure your contract explicitly details the scope of the job responsibilities, the deliverables, and the time line and fee disbursement.

Your legal department may be inclined to add the usual disclaimers about liability, confidentiality, ownership and compliance with federal and state law. None of this will bother a professional firm, but they will take exception to the project being referred as a “work for hire” and will reserve the right to retain ownership of materials rejected by you during the redesign process. These demands will have no effect on your redesign, so unless your organization has a fixation on rights-control, there’s no reason to make this detail a deal-breaker. 

This article originally ran in the Spring, 2008 issue of FPO.

As part of this feature, FPO collected information from design firms that specialize in redesigns.
From this, we've made an online directory as a resourse for publishers that want help with design.

Click here to go to the FPO Magazine Redesign Directory.