Tagged: american university

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.

Guest blogger Claude Skelton on editorial illustration

My long-time friend and Baltimore colleague Claude Skelton has written some of the most-read blog posts in UMagazinology‘s brief lifespan. Today he offers some thoughts on illustration.

A good illustration can do what a photograph can’t. For communicating difficult and abstract concepts, drawn art says more with a single image than a collection of photographs can. Illustration can be technical, serious, quirky, or silly, depending on the tone of the piece. A really good conceptual illustrator can interpret a story in ways that surprise and delight, and in the best cases, introduce a whole new spin. Take a look at these Bloomberg Businessweek covers, for example. Could a photograph demand as much immediate attention or communicate so effectively? Not likely. [Throughout the post, you can click on the images to view them larger.]

Bloomberg Businessweek cover credits: Bernanke: David Parkins (after Milton Glaser); King of Vegas Real Estate Scams: Barry Falls; Coke in Africa: Nick White; Crisis in Japan: Noma Barr; creative director: Richard Turley.

So how do you find and work with illustrators to get innovative, thoughtful results? First, familiarize yourself with the talent that’s out there. Look for great work. Don’t limit yourself to local or regional illustrators (another advantage of illustration is that artists don’t need to be on location; almost all work electronically). Use the best, most professional illustrators you can afford. Amateur or mediocre illustration reflects badly on your magazine and ultimately on your institution. Look at sites such as drawger.com, illoz.com, picturemechanics.com, or theispot.com, all of which can connect you to individual artists or artist’s reps. Another approach is to notice illustrations that grab your attention in publications you read; start a reference file with names and samples as you find art that impresses you.

As you plan a story lineup, consider illustration as part of the mix. If you’re profiling a professor or an alum, the natural default solution is to commission a photograph. An illustrated portrait, like this drawing of a disabled war veteran from Dartmouth Magazine, can add style and substance to an otherwise run-of-the-mill profile. If the work or activity of the profiled person is more to the point, illustrating that idea or topic is an effective approach. The full page image below, from Cambridge Alumni Magazine, illustrates a complex essay by a neuroscientist on movement and the brain—a far more intriguing and informative solution than a portrait of the author.

Illustration and text combine in a pop-inspired spread (above) by Design Army, Washington DC, from Kogod Now, the American University Kogod School of Business’ magazine. The article, on targeted food marketing to minority populations, is original, eye-catching, and unexpected in the context of a business school publication.

When you’re ready to choose an illustrator, think about the tone and emotion you want the story to communicate and find illustrators whose styles best fit what’s in your mind. You’ll need to be confident of the illustrator’s track record and ability to translate an idea into art. And you’ll need to sell a working concept, knowing that the illustrator will be bringing additional thinking and visual interpretation to the table.

This is a very subjective process and should never be attempted by committee. It’s a matter of trust—between publisher and editor, between editor and creative director, between creative director and artist. If approval from “above” is necessary before hiring an illustrator, you’ll be forced to justify your choice with nothing more than your idea and samples from the artist’s portfolio. It could be hard for an administrator to visualize the outcome, therefore the need for trust.

Art directors: it’s usually best to communicate a general concept and supply a draft of the story to illustrators, then wait and see what they come up with before making suggestions or over-directing. It’s your job to inspire creativity, not solve the problem. Trust your illustrator to find a solution that fits the assignment and suits his or her style. It rarely works to force a pre-conceived vision on an artist; be open to surprise and innovation and you’ll almost always get the best results.

A word on stock illustration: it is a less expensive alternative, but generally too generic to properly illustrate a feature story. Spots can liven up a news or class notes section, and stock can be a good substitute for those bland head shots that show up in faculty or alumni profiles—better to illustrate what they do (with symbol or icon) rather than what they look like (do readers care?). If stock isn’t available, original illustration can be cost effective for simple spots, drawing attention to complex, text-heavy pages (see news spread from Auburn Magazine, above).

Illustrated covers can be both challenging and satisfying. You have two big challenges: Finding the right artist for the job, and getting approval of concept, style, and budget. Then it’s working with the illustrator through sketches, revised sketches, more approvals, adjusted deadlines, and the holding of breath before the final artwork arrives. It’s the rare (and lucky) editorial staff or art director that has enough autonomy to move ahead through this process with no roadblocks. It’s the not knowing until it’s finished that can make you uneasy. What if it’s a disaster? What if readers are offended and cancel subscriptions? What if it’s just not quite what you had in mind? What if you hate it? These are the questions and fears that might keep you from taking a risk in the first place. But when that finished, original art finally appears, and your cover sings, it’s so worth it.

To illustrate my point, a few covers that sing (all very different tunes):