Binghamton’s new do

The Fall 2010 issue of Binghamton University Magazine debuted a new look. Editor Diana Bean explains, “When I became editor of the magazine in July 2009, it had been about four years since the previous redesign, so it was starting to look dated. After I did three issues of the old design and got to better know my job and constituents, I felt I understood what I wanted from a redesign.”

The old look, based on the Summer ’10 issue, was far from an affront to the eyes. But it was, as Bean says, dated. She saw several things she didn’t like. “The most vexing problems with the old design were the department labels: Discoveries, Outlooks, Innovations and Connections—which I found confusing and restrictive. (Discoveries had to be stories about students, Outlooks about philanthropy, Innovations about faculty.) Headlines and photos were too small. And each department had a color-coded deck head and drop cap. Because the website had been built to the specs of the magazine, each story had to be coded for a different color depending on which ‘department’ it was part of. It was more work than it needed to be.”

The problems extended well beyond departments, in my view. Overall, the design was static. Most spreads had this peculiar stacked feel; turning the pages felt like going from room to room in a house and finding stacked cartons everywhere, as if someone was moving out. Most images were rectangular. There was a lot of boxed text. Feature-story heads and decks were literally stacked, with center-justified text seven or eight lines deep in a boring and, yes, static typeface that resembled Helvetica with serifs, if you can picture that. The layout for Gary E. Frank’s profile of choreographer Bill T. Jones had a striking image of the choreographer with an arm extended, but even that worked against any sense of momentum, because Jones’ upraised arm pointed left—back the way readers had just come. Flip that photo so that Jones is gesturing toward a headline on the right page and you propel readers toward the next spread. The old design just sat there.

Bean interviewed four design companies for a redo. “We chose a very small design company called Studio 630 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Owner Simone Tieber is decisive, creative and detail-oriented. While she had no university magazines in her portfolio, the style of her other products matched what we were looking for. Our instructions to her were to put an emphasis on photography—both the quality of what gets shot and how it is displayed. We asked for a revamped color palate, more creative opening spreads, and a reworking of our very difficult-to-read class notes. I provided many pages of design ideas, which helped her understand our niche.”

The new design makes significant improvements. Gone is the stodgy primary typeface. The redesign imparts energy to the magazine starting with the table of contents. The front of the book still employs a lot of rectangles and grid lines—whose doesn’t?—but there’s much better use of varied type design and images. Feature spreads look great, with lots of white space, big photos and illustrations, creative use of type, and much-improved photography. Says Bean, accurately, “What I like best about the new design is that each page looks different; the layouts have gone from utilitarian to lively. What I like least is the ad on the inside front cover; the design doesn’t match the look of the magazine (someone else designed the ad.) This will be remedied in the next issue.”

“What did I learn?” Bean says. “Know what you and other decision-makers like and don’t like about a product and be able to articulate it before interviews with designers start. Listen carefully to the designer: Is she talking about YOUR publication or is she talking in generalities? Trust your gut: Can you work with this person? I think editors and designers need to be able to comfortably tell each other ‘this doesn’t work’—whether it’s story length, headline, layout or photography—and then find a solution. Finally, think about the Web! One of the first decisions we made was how we would signal to print readers that there is unique online content. We kept in mind that the print design needed to be a useful template for the next phase of redesign: Replacing the ‘magazine on the web’ (a regurgitation of the print version with some related content) with a web magazine that has the best of the print edition but features unique content, interactive features and timely updates.”

Me? I’d say Binghamton got real return on its investment.

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