Design, like edit, works best when it’s created with the audience needs in mind. Even so, audience needs and tastes change over time and where they go, design goes. These days, as magazine publishers build new product offerings on multiple platforms, the brand, and how it’s perceived across those platforms, becomes more vital. The Web has had a particularly profound impact on design. Indeed, as consumers are bombarded with more information and imagery, magazines are scaling back on both the variety of design elements, and, in some cases, content, by moving it to the Web. In the midst of all this, designers strive to squeeze the most out of their budgets while keeping design perpetually fresh as the magazine ages.
Sticking to the Mission
"The role of our design is to fully comprehend the mission of the publication," says Anna Schlessinger, group design director, McGraw-Hill Construction Media, which includes Architectural Record and the freshly launched Greensource. " You need to know the audience. The design is the form by which we engage the reader. The core of the publication has to be expressed on every page."
Of course, a magazine’s mission is inherently unique to a particular magazine;and we interview three very different ones for this story. But to accomplish this, designers need to translate the mission of the magazine into the brand;a tall order in today’s fractured media landscape. "The design intent is to be transparent, so if you saw only a couple internal pages you would know that it is Architectural Record," says Schlessinger. "It’s being clear about the brand, being clear about the mission."
For Ben Barbante, creative director at IDG’s InfoWorld Media Group, the technology market-focused mission of his magazine has necessitated a heavy online presence, which required some changes to the print title. "We’re still a print medium obviously, but we have a much bigger presence online and a lot more of our readership is getting their information from Infoworld.com, so we’re presenting our stories in a different way," says Barbante. "So we want to offer more thoughtful and analytical pieces. We’re relying a little less on photography and more on conceptual illustrations. I would say we’re using 80 percent illustrations for our covers."
Other publishers have altered their magazines to answer the growing influence of the Internet. Hachette’s Car and Driver completed its largest redesign in 20 years in November;porting popular magazine features to the Web site where 80 percent of its users are reportedly not magazine subscribers. And Bonnie Fuller, editorial director at American Media, directed a redesign of celebrity weekly Star that she actually described as something more like a "blogazine."
Keeping It Clean
"We choose to go a little lighter on the art since we cover such technical information," adds Barbante. Schlessinger takes a similar design cue, but uses photography as the keystone of her design pallete. "Our most important building block is photography, then black-and-white drawings that might have some color added and then the gray matter of the text," she says, referring to Architectural Record. "It’s very classical, very clean," she adds. "It’s not full of decoration or whimsy. We offer a lot of white space. The savvy designer scales back what is put on the page. All of us are at a saturation point of too much imagery being thrown at us."
Raymond Roker, co-founder, president and designer of urban culture and music magazine Urb, uses photography as a primary design element, too. But these days, highly stylized and effect-laden photography is not as desirable for Roker’s creative team. "Now you want raw, grimy documentary-style photography," he says. "If you put highly stylized photography in front of an audience used to blogs, for example, it looks like they’re trying too hard."
Part of that effect-happy style was a direct result of technological progress. "Drop shadows, that was something that came on heavily when InDesign came out," says Roker. "For a while, magazine publishers had a lot of fun with that. Drop shadows are a sign of the technology and now there’s a resistance to that. A lot of the magazines that were once using super-large fonts and crazy layered graphics are now getting more restrained."
But there are more technical benefits that designers can get out of their software without falling victim to the lure of fancy effects. Barbante’s team made the switch to Adobe’s InDesign late in 2005, with the first InDesign-produced issue coming out in January 2006. "We went to OpenType typography. We found it beneficial because in our environment, our editors work on PCs and our copy desk and art department work on Macs. Prior to OpenType, we tried to do our best with Adobe fonts that were only similar in the way they looked. But the word counts [between the two platforms] could go about four percent either way." In other words, Barbante’s editors could write a 2,000-word story on their PC, and that same story on a designer’s Mac would have up to a 10-line difference. OpenType fonts shared by the departments put everyone on the same page.
Stylistically speaking, Schlessinger recommends resisting the urge to experiment too much with typography. "Unless it is a ground-up redesign, typography should not be fiddled with too much. The fine tuning I do is very subtle," she says, adding that changes;increasing or decreasing a font’s weight but not changing the font itself, for example;are typically made in January and kept for at least a year. Then the review process begins again.
Budgets None of the art directors interviewed here felt they were getting short-changed in their budgets. "We have a reasonable budget to accomplish what we want to accomplish," says Schlessinger. Each however, has elements that tend to hog budget dollars. "The cover receives all the attention," says Roker. "The best photography [is on the cover], and if we need to fly to it we pay to send the photo editor."
"The bulk of our money goes toward the two features; our cover feature and the second feature," says Barbante. "Our main feature might have photography assigned out and our second feature we might decide to treat with typography or use royalty-free images to create an illustration in-house."