UMag inbox, cosmetic surgery edition

Cascading into the inbox this time, a trio of magazines that ended 2012 or began 2013 with new looks. In alphabetical order:

American University Magazine did not have so much a bad design as a dated, cautious one. That is, it was not unattractive. But it had not been redesigned in more than a decade and it just did not do much to convey anything with vigor or energy. The front of the book was stodgy. The feature well was better, but still uninspired, and the magazine seemed to have capped its font library at three. Of added concern to editor Linda McHugh was a steady drop-off over the last few years in reader response. It was time to make a move, though it was also not a great time to make a move. McHugh explains: “We did the redesign in-house, amidst a department reorganization that resulted in the loss of my managing editor and one staff writer. I also had two staffers, including my new managing editor–in training, on maternity leave. After an eight-week consultation with an outside designer, hired to look primarily at process and staffing, we began the redesign, while still working on the winter and spring 2011 issues of American.” Heavy lifting on the new look was done by American art director Maria Jackson.

The new edition has gained width—all the cool kids in the alumni magazine lunchroom are 9 x 10 7/8 now, don’t you know—and better paper, but more importantly it has gained what I can only call zest. Bolder, more creative typography, bigger and better art, more inspired layouts, some new recurring features. “We devoured every CASE award winning magazine as well as newsstand magazines we loved for design inspiration,” McHugh says. “We developed 25 ideas for ‘go-to pages’ and tested each one to ensure that we could feed them for at least two years. The new magazine features more than a dozen of these go-to pages, scattered throughout the book. One of our biggest editorial and design challenges was making certain that these pages infused the book with a taste of Washington (‘Metrocentered,’ ‘POV’), while emphasizing AU’s national (‘AU’s Stake In…’) and international feel. The go-to pages not only help us to streamline our process, but allowed us to integrate alumni content throughout the book (one of the development/alumni VP’s mandates).

I am a sucker for things like “Unpacked,” the magazine’s back page that shows what one member of the university community has in his bag:

Plus I love what American has done with its back cover—turned it into a quiz, which McHugh says has generated 50 responses already as of today:

McHugh says, “We’re especially proud that the back of the book is no longer a ghetto. We were required to keep several donor pages, so I personally tackled two problems that no one else wanted to touch: how to breath life and dignity into the VP letter and donor ads. The result is something akin to a ‘thank you’ card with a cover illustration (the original art is given to the donor) and two pages of letter and facts about an AU need.”

While I have you here, the new issue of American has a fine story on synesthesia by David Reich. I could not link to the story because American uses Issuu and that format will not permit me to link to a specific story. Click on the magazine link at the top of this post and go to page 18.

The University of South Carolina’s Carolinian (edited by Chris Horn) went all in on a new design package. “Our guiding aesthetic was to make the magazine less dense, more reader friendly and more engaging as well as more visually appealing with vibrant photography,” Horn reports. “We also wanted to make the short items much briefer and to the point. I practiced by taking old copy and experimenting with how short I could rewrite it while still retaining the kernel of what made the item interesting/important.” (Not a bad exercise for any of us, I suspect. I plan to take my next 4,000-word feature and see if I can rewrite it in 3,950.)

Talk about an upgrade. The old cover was bad in so many respects. Inside, the old magazine’s design was the dog’s breakfast, with color bars and distracting devices overlaid on pedestrian photographs and uninspired typography. The new design parallels American‘s in many respects, with bolder type, bigger and much better photos, and far less clutter. (Below is a screen grab from the magazine’s website; ignore that red text box in the upper right.)

Horn says, “We took a hybrid approach with the redesign by paying for 50 hours of consulting with Shane Shanks and his crew at Zehno. Our chief magazine designer, Michelle Riley, led the effort on our end with contributions and brainstorming from our other designers. We conducted a creative brief, shared that with Zehno, and together we looked at dozens of magazines—academic and popular—in search of ideas. All of our joint sessions were conducted with conference calls and lengthy followup emails to save time and expense. A mood board followed, and our designer started creating prototype spreads, first with greeking, then with real copy. Zehno provided some critiquing and suggestions and, by then, our 50 hours were shot.

“It was a difficult process, but it almost had to be. Shorter, tighter copy was part of it, but that’s pretty basic. The really hard part was just getting out of the rut of magazine production since taking over as editor in 1998. The key thing I learned is that you can go much faster when you’re working by yourself or with a small group—but you go much farther when you include more people in the whole process. It’s messier, but more out-of-the-box ideas get generated that way. That’s probably the biggest takeaway for next time. We’ll soon begin redesigning our research magazine and hope to apply what we’ve learned from the Carolinian redesign.”

No less dramatic a change came to Momentum, out of Mississippi State’s Bagley College of Engineering.

The design work was done by Heather Row, Bagley’s publications manager. “The redesign came about kind of quickly,” says Susan Lassetter, publications editor. “Basically, I went to the Editors Forum last year and geeked out. I came back with all kinds of ideas, lots of notes, our peer review, and as many different university magazines as I could get my hands on. Our team evaluated everything and decided we liked the approach of making an alumni mag more like a commercial publication. With that in mind we established departments (something we’d never had) and some recurring columns like ‘Places and Spaces,’ ‘On the Clock,’ and ‘Semi-Important Questions.’ We also wanted to put a larger focus on photography. We are really lucky to have fantastic university photographers who work closely with us even though we are college specific. In each issue only one or two images, if any, are from outside sources. Heather says those two ideas—departments and photo emphasis—really shaped how she approached the new design. The goal wasn’t so much to ‘make it pretty’ but to make it accessible and easier to navigate. She said she let the content/departments set the tone and worked from there to establish the new grid layout and font package that will be used for the foreseeable future. Plus, there’s only so much you can do to make engineering ‘pretty.’ We decided to increase the dimensions”—9 1/2 x 11, hah! bigger than you, Carolinian!—”and paper stock to help our magazine stand out from other mail and to give it a quality feel.”

Says Lassetter, “Looking back, the changes that needed to be made were kind of obvious. Once we got going, coming up with ideas and a plan was relatively easy—just a lot of brainstorming. Since it is an in-house publication, and it’s just part of what our office does, I think the most difficult thing was trying to find time to execute everything—and that’s why we’ve allowed ourselves through the spring issue to really finesse and finalize everything. One thing we are looking forward to, now that we’ve launched the redesign, is being able to plan better. Having departments is really going to help us fill in stories and keep a balance to the type of content we include.”

She notes something I think we all learn in the aftermath of a redesign: How the first new issue teaches you what to do with the second one. “There are some production things we will want to be aware of moving forward, like page-cut issues that came from moving to a larger and thicker format and the fact that the new paper stock really soaks up ink. We wanted the issue to have a rich feel and matte look, but we still want our photos to stand out. Heather said this first issue is a real guide for how to handle photo editing—color/hue/saturation—for the next issue.”

Look at these and other redesigns from the last year or two and you will notice that periodical designers are working from a current aesthetic of big art, bold type, spacious and airy layouts, fewer imposing dense columns of grey body type. It is a great look, though it will have a lifespan, like everything else in graphic design. I could not say if any of the designers at our publications have had this in mind, but it seems to me much of this design looks like a response to the ecosystem of distraction that you encounter at most websites. The pages produced by many of these new designs present fewer elements that compete for your attention. Your eye knows where to go, your attention is not diverted. I am not so enthused by the accompanying pressure to cut the lengths of stories, but that’s an idea for another post. This one’s already approaching epic dimensions, for a blog. Time to print it, bind it, ship it.


  1. Laurel Weijer

    Great post! One quick tip: you can in fact link to a specific story in Issuu. (We use it for our monthly magazine, and do this in the email that goes out to our constituents.) For example, with regards to the American U story on synesthesia, you just need to copy the Issuu link (, locate the page number according to Issuu (in this case, 21—different than American‘s numbering system, which lists it as 18), and append it to the Issuu link ( It’s a little bit of work, but voilà! Hope this helps.

  2. Heather Rowe

    Our team is pleased as punch to have our college’s magazine mentioned in this post, many thanks. Seeing Momentum on UMagazinology has completely made our day!

  3. Hannah

    A colleague gave me a copy of the American U mag, and it does look great. One cool thing they did was create a band around it that highlights the redesign for readers: “Your New Magazine Is Here.” I thought this was a nice touch.

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