I could probably devote UMagazinology to documenting design changes and have enough material for a couple of posts a week. I could turn the blog into a journal of alumni magazine plastic surgery. University magazines sometimes appear in my office mailbox 10 at a time, and when that sort of bulk-mail event occurs, chances are good at least one of those publications will have at least tweaked its look, if not gone through a complete tear-down and rebuild.
Sometimes the changes are big. In the last few weeks, I’ve received magazines in which the change is really big. As in moving from a doublewide in one of those tornado-bait trailer parks to a 4,000-square-foot manse on five acres.
First, I have to concede something unflattering. Last year . . . I think it was last year, or the year before . . . Johns Hopkins Magazine entered its redesign in the CASE medal judging for most improved. We were thrilled with our new look, courtesy of Abbott Miller and Kim Walker at Pentagram, and thought we had a real shot at a medal. When I learned that the gold medal had gone to Pegasus, the magazine at the University of Central Florida, I was, discretely within the confines of my own mind, less than gracious, shall we say? You could say snarky, along the lines of well, yeah, if you start from a low enough base, you can show big improvement all right.
That was adolescent of me. Downright pissy, in fact. But in my defense, my only contact with Pegasus before that had been an issue or two in 2010. I wrote about the magazine here—more on that in a moment—but did not say then what I feel I can say now, which is that I thought the magazine was dreadful. Poorly designed and shallow in content, with some of that content suggested and paid for by advertisers, a practice touted by the then-editor as “a better way to blend revenue generation with good content.” At UMagazinology, we try not to ruin editors’ days by holding them up for criticism or ridicule, so when I wrote about these “partnerships” I held back from saying what I thought, which was jeesh, how could that be more wrong as an editorial practice?
OK, let’s move ahead to late December 2013, when a seriously fat envelope lands on my desk. Inside are five issues of the new, CASE medal–winning Pegasus, and after paging through a few issues, I concede that the Circle of Excellence judges had reason to confer a medal on UCF’s magazine. Pegasus is now a much smarter and graphically striking periodical with trim size of 10 x 13 that feels even bigger in your hands.
The masthead lists Terry Helms as editor in chief. Helms is associate vice president for marketing at the university, so as you might expect he sees Pegasus less like Harper’s and more of a marketing tool. Helms told UMagazinology, “I have an unabashed marketing bias and believe that everything UCF says and does and how UCF says and does it is a marketing opportunity. There is no more powerful marketing tool than a happy customer (alumni, faculty, staff, student). Pegasus helps.”
The magazine’s first incarnation began 19 years ago as venture by a pair of UCF alumni who had founded Knight Images to produce the magazine under contract with the school. A few years ago, the university decided it need something more. “UCF President John Hitt tasked UCF Marketing with the responsibility to design, develop, and deliver a restyled Pegasus,” Helms said. “With his support the alumni magazine became a university magazine. The publication was entering its 19th year but we started from scratch. We simplified the magazine mission to remind readers what they love about UCF. We established an editorial and design process, corrected tens of thousands of mailing addresses, changed magazine size, updated the paper, and developed a website, iPad app, social media plan etc. UCF opened its doors 45 years ago and must reach out to accelerate connections. We don’t have the luxury of 100-plus years. Recognizing this, the university made a financial investment in Pegasus to connect with 200,000 readers. The colleges and other departments contribute story ideas, and UCF Marketing devotes about 1,000 hours per issue.”
As a devotee of long, meaty journalism in alumni magazines, I’d like to see more emphasis on story and less on images and infographics, but it’s not my magazine. And there’s no question that it’s a vast improvement for UCF. Pegasus strikes me as designed for the internet age, with lots of graphic content, text boxes, quick-hit stories, and factoids. I asked Helms what he thinks works in the new magazine and what could be better. “We made it through our first year but we also know that everything must improve, from design to writing and from the quality of story suggestions to the helpfulness of feedback,” he replied. “Our photography is OK and we can write a pretty good caption. We’re getting better at aligning the right illustrator with the right story. But readers read what interests them. We have to do a better job finding story ideas that are interesting for the reader. Pursue story ideas that reflect mutual aspirations versus writing one that simply confirms reality—a shared vision versus an informed reflection.”
While we’re on big-ass redesigns—sorry, I should have resisted but just couldn’t—Colorado College Bulletin has been supersized, from 8 ½ x 11 to its new 10 ¼ x 12 ¼. Once a quarterly, it now appears three times a year.
OK, the challenge is out there—who’s going to go even bigger?